As we look towards a busy and exciting fall semester, more field trips are going up on the calendar — and most of them are to our affiliate research partners. Our students visit and work in five historical societies most consistently: Clay County Museum and Historical Society in Clay Center; Geary County Historical Society in Junction City; Wabaunsee County Museum and Historical Society in Alma; Rock Creek Valley Museum and Historical Society in Westmoreland; and our own Riley County Historical Society here in Manhattan.
At these welcoming venues, curators and museum volunteers answer questions ranging from, “How can I find out who owns the land at the corner of Sycamore Creek Road and Cedar Bluff Road?” to “How does this thing work?” or, “When was that schoolhouse built?” Volunteers put students in touch with local people and land owners; they provide telephone numbers, help them read old maps, and suggest sources to try. The work our students undertake, recovering obscure histories for (often) overgrown and abandoned acreage, really does depend so much on just talking to knowledgeable residents.
This month we are thanking two historical societies in particular for their assistance last year. Rock Creek Valley Historical Society in Westmoreland is one of our oldest research partners, going back to 2008 when Chapman Center was founded. Curator Nola Wilkerson, shown in this spring 2015 photograph, has been a wonderful help, as have board members over the years. This historical society was organized in 1976; its first site as a museum was in an old stone Evangelical Lutheran church. By 2001, the museum had grown, moving to land donated by Farmer’s State Bank in Westmoreland. Today it includes a modern and spacious museum building, an annex filled with old printing equipment from the Westmoreland newspapers, and an original 1850s log cabin moved in from Nemaha County. Students can go into the cabin; they marvel at the tiny space where a large family endured harsh nineteenth-century winters.
Chapman Center students have worked in this historical society on many projects: rural crime, lost towns, African-American settlement, artifact histories (such as those on cider presses and box telephones); and they have analyzed the early history of German settlers whose cabins dotted the prairies around Rock Creek. The field trip to Rock Creek Valley Historical Society is one students love, as they are permitted to look through old volumes of the Westmoreland newspapers (wearing white gloves, of course)! They also have access to wonderful illustrated atlases, scrapbooks, and photographs. This museum graciously opens especially for student researchers, a benefit we truly appreciate. Thank you to Nola Wilkerson, board members, and volunteers in Westmoreland!
This summer we will be posting to our digital archives a collection of outstanding work on African-American history in north-central Kansas. Our research interns worked long hours between September and May on five very challenging projects. One of those in particular, Blake Hall-Latchman’s project on the Manhattan Bottoms, depended greatly on the assistance provided by Riley County Historical Society. Archivist Linda Glasgow often worked with Blake as he searched out the elusive history of this transient African-American neighborhood along Wildcat Creek and the Kansas River just south of Manhattan. Linda provided maps, collections of newspaper clippings, and most important, the Manhattan City Ordinances, which Blake used extensively in his project.
Thank you to Linda, and also, to Cheryl Collins, director, for the hours of help and ideas they have provided. A local study like Blake’s depends on a “then and now” comparative approach, because the geography of Manhattan Township has changed so much between the 1880s and today. Blake studied at least six different maps of Manhattan and the township to determine the exact location of The Bottoms relative to the city.
Whether it is on class field trips or for year-long individual projects, our students benefit so much from the research venues opened to them at county historical societies. They profit most of all from working with highly-trained and astute local people who are interested in their work and in them. In the end, it is always about people. A hundred year old map reveals some interesting things… but it is the people we talk to who give us the stories we preserve and remember.
Check out the student-researchers’ work on the recently-updated Lost Kansas Communities online archive!