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On the Road Blog

Chief Historian Libby O'Connell shares stories from her favorite historical sites, as she travels around the country for HISTORY.

 

June 15, 2011 - National History Day


National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.

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On the evening of June  15, the National  Museum of American History opened its doors to  4,000 young people and their  families, all participating in National  History Day. Every year, almost  600,000 students take part in  National History Day competitions on the  district level, and the  winners go on to the state competitions. Finally about  4,000 go on  to the nationals in June. Essentially, this is the Olympics of   History for these kids. Everyone who enters learns a lot about their  chosen  topic, of course, but they also learn about research,  writing, analysis and  good academic habits that are applicable in  every subject. (I'm a total fan as  you can see, but the research  data also supports this.) You can tell how  excited everyone is by  all the noise in the background--the museum was jumping  that night.

HISTORY is a long-time supporter of NHD because of our commitment to history education, and I get to hand out some of the awards every year at the University of Maryland, College Park, where they hold the awards ceremony and celebration. It's fun--inspiring, actually--to see people so excited about studying history.

2011 is the first year that the Smithsonian National Museum of American History had such a huge display of the students' projects. It was fascinating to see them all.

My friends John Rogers and Ken Behring helped make this special night at the museum happen--cheers to them for their involvement.

You can see the webcast of the awards ceremony that was held on June 16, 2001, at www.history.com/classroom

 

June 1, 2011 - Chicago's Water Tower and Fort Dearborn

Chicago's Water Tower
Chicago Water Tower, Chicago, IL

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I was in Chicago last week on a business trip and thought I'd share a little history right on Michigan Avenue. Chicago's famous water tower was designed by William Boynton and built in 1869 in "Castellated Gothic" style--a Victorian folly, complete with a minaret. Across the street stands the pump house, which today houses an information center and cafe. Underneath the pump house was a tunnel which brought fresh, clean water from two miles out in Lake Michigan to the city's residents. The Chicago water tower and pump house survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, although the surrounding buildings were reduced to ashes. Now the structures are right in the heart of Chicago's renowned shopping district. If you keep walking south down Michigan Avenue, you come to the intersection with Wacker Drive, just across the Chicago River bridge. Originally, this was the delta near where the river met Lake Michigan, a very strategic point for trade and control. In this marshy land, Native Americans (and later European settlers) harvested wild leeks. In fact, our word "Chicago" comes from "Shikako," or "place of the wild leeks," in the Algonquin dialect of the local Fox and Sauk tribes who once lived in the area. Seventeenth-century French explorers traveled through here, but it wasn't until the 1780s that Jean Baptiste du Sable,credited as the founder of Chicago, built his farm and trading post nearby. By then, this part of North America had been claimed by the French, then the British (after the French and Indian War) and finally became part of the newly formed United States of America.

If you look down on the pavement on the southeast corner of Michigan and Wacker, you will see the brass outlines of old Fort Dearborn, named after President Thomas Jefferson's secretary of war, Henry Dearborn. He sent orders for American soldiers to build a log fort enclosed with a double stockade and two blockhouses, with a commanding view of the surrounding area. The fort was completed in 1804, but Potawatomi Indians, who sided with the British during the War of 1812, burned it down at the beginning of that conflict. The fort was rebuilt and remained a landmark in Chicago until the Great Chicago Fire om 1871. Unlike the water tower, it was totally destroyed by that massive conflagration. Still, the brass outlines in the sidewalk remind pedestrians that history is everywhere--including right in the heart of Chicago's financial district.

 

May 24, 2011 - Sewall Belmont House, Washington D.C.

Sewall Belmont House
Sewall Belmont House, Washington D.C.

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While in D.C. last month, I dropped by the Sewall Belmont House to see the newly restored historic house and museum dedicated to women's progress toward equality. It's on Capitol Hill, right next to the Senate Hart Office Building on Constitution and 2nd Avenue NE. Robert Sewall, a planter and slave owner, built the brick house in 1800, with impressively high ceilings and long windows. It's the oldest house in D.C. outside of Georgetown, and includes a lovely garden and green space where the museum holds events. Alva Belmont, a strong supporter of women's rights, helped purchase the house in 1929 to serve as the headquarters of the National Women's Party (NWP). Once the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, guaranteeing women the right to vote, the NWP focused its energies on lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment. Alice Paul was its tireless leader, and she lived in the Sewall Belmont House on and off for many years. (The ERA never has been ratified, by the way!) This is a great place to learn about women's fight for equality. There's a small, nicely designed exhibit with a variety of artifacts downstairs. Bring your kids. So many young people forget (or never knew) how hard women had to work to be treated equally in this country.

 

 

April 16, 2011 - Teddy Roosevelt Island

Fountain on Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial

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I spend a lot of time in Washington, DC, and Northern Virginia, often crossing the Potomac on the Key Bridge that links the DC neighborhood Georgetown with Arlington, VA, home of the National Cemetery, the Pentagon, some great restaurants and a lot of big office buildings. A small wooded island--originally called Mason Island--after owner George Mason, one of my favorite founding fathers, sits in the river between Georgetown and Arlington. A small footbridge connects the island to the VA shore of the Potomac. It's one of my favorite places in any urban area, partially because it's so woodsy, with lovely paths, trees and wild flowers. We saw deer there on this visit. Once a Native American haven, then a lovely small farm in the early 19th century, it was the site of a Union troop encampment during the Civil War. After that it returned to the wild.

In the 1930s, the Theodore Roosevelt Association purchased this island for TR's memorial, a very fitting choice, as he loved wilderness and was an early supporter of a national park system. In the heart of the island is an oddly huge statue of TR, fountains and big stone slabs with manly inspirational quotes from this conservationist, author and the 26th U.S. president (1901-1909). He's considered one of our all time great progressive leaders, and he has an impressive record on the environment, trust-busting, government reform,labor and health regulations, and even pretty good on civil rights (for his day).

I am not a fan of his more bellicose foreign policies , especially his expansion of American dominance in Latin America, which led to later problems, but his high-handed actions in Colombia gave us the Panama Canal, so there certainly were benefits for the U.S.! In the video I describe his foreign policy as "bad," which is pretty simplistic.

Because the Potomac River was so high when this little video was shot last month, we couldn't get to the north shore line of the island, from where you can usually get a nice view of two other presidential memorials--the Washington Memorial and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. George Washington , Theodore Roosevelt and JFK--men uniquely suited for the demands of the presidency for their era--are each memorialized by remarkably different but equally impressive structures. But I think TR's brambley wooded island is a delightfully surprising spot, right in the heart of a busy urban hub.

 

April 13, 2011 - Mulberry Row at Monticello

The estate of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia.
The estate of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia.

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I'm on the board of advisors for Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, VA. I was there for a meeting last month, on a beautiful spring day. Monticello attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and students who arrive eager to tour the fascinating house and drop-dead gardens. But Monticello is also a living research center for new work on daily life and labor on a plantation in the American South. Because Jefferson kept such fastidious records (he was totally type A with a touch of OCD, in my opinion), scholars have developed a pretty clear sense of how free, enslaved and indentured people lived and worked here. Additional archeological information also provides a lot of insight into diet, persistence of African customs and autonomy among the slaves at Monticello, especially when combined with the info culled from other historical digs. Mulberry Row, where this video is shot, was literally a row of mulberry trees that stretched along one side of Jefferson's "Little Mountain" (English for the Italian "Monticello"). Alongside of the trees were a series of work shops and cabins for the craftsman and women--cheese makers, weavers, joiners, blacksmiths--who supplied food, fabric, nails and furniture for the big house. Most of the other slaves lived below the mountain, on the plantation fields where they worked. But the skilled artisans lived and worked here on Mulberry Row, right next to Jefferson's house. This group of craftspeople and workers was remarkable varied, in legal status--enslaved, indentured and free--and age--older adults, young apprenticed slaves and even little boys working in the foundry. One thing that really strikes me is how close this narrow lane of production lies to Mr. Jefferson's elegant brick house. You would see it from many parts of the house, and you'd certainly hear it and smell it. Research on Mulberry Row adds an important layer to our understanding of one of the most brilliant and complicated founding fathers. And if this diverse history of Monticello, and the classic American paradox of slave-ownership by the author of the Declaration of Independence is more than you want to hear about, you should still visit this World Heritage site just for its beauty and stunning views.

 

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