Local historians help recover their towns' forgotten past

At first glance, the suburban town where historian Nelson R. Burr lives appears to be a typical collection of pleasant, shaded streets. But since retiring from the Library of Congress nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Burr has devoted himself to looking a little deeper than that suburban exterior -- to probe back and uncover this town's varied past.

What he's found and recorded runs the gamut from now-forgotten amusement parks to industrial eras of brickmaking and pottery to patriotic preachers. One of his many suprises, he says with a smile, was the ``rather prominent part the town took in the Revolutionary War'' -- supplying woolen goods, food stuffs, and soldiers, as well as some rousing sermonizing by the Reverend Nathan Perkins, who from 1772 to 1838 was the pastor of West Hartford's First Congregational Church.

What Burr is doing for West Hartford, as the town's official historian, thousands of other Americans are doing for their own localities. Few may have a history PhD like Burr, but all are avidly unearthing often forgotten pasts that can give communities a stronger sense of what they were, and are. Historian Burr's work has ``meant we've been able to give an identity to our community,'' says Sally Williams, president of the local historical society.

``More and more, people seem to be finding local history -- and the history of places they visit -- exciting and interesting and fun,'' observes Gerald George, director of the American Association for State and Local History.

The roster compiled by Mr. George's organization lists 9,375 local historic societies, sites, and museums sprinkled throughout the country. That, he says, represents a ``huge increase,'' of 3,510 just since 1982. Some of that increase can be attributed to the listing of more diverse kinds of historical organizations than in the past, but ``a lot of it is sheer growth,'' he affirms.

There may be some countertrends, too. On the West Coast, historian Steve Helmich, with the Sacramento, (Calif.) History Center, notes some decline of interest in local history from a ``high point'' in the early '70s. He also sees some loss of governmental support for historic preservation at a time of tight budgets and considerable push for development.

The type of historical work done by people like Nelson Burr often relies on the modest endowments of local historical societies and grants from small foundations. Some money for special projects may come through a state agency, like the Connecticut Humanities Council, in the case of West Hartford.

The establishment and maintenance of historical monuments or museums, like the Noah Webster House in West Hartford or the Sacramento History Center in that city, usually depends on local fundraising and staffing, and projects can stretch over decades. The Sacramento center, just opened last year, was conceived way back in the '50s, according to Mr. Helmich.

Why the increased interest in local history? West Hartford's Burr points out that many people today are exploring family genealogy, old customs, and the preservation of old houses -- all interests that tie into local history.

Among the ``standard sociological explanations,'' adds George, is a resurgence of patriotism, finding expression in a desire to feel good about one's country, as well as Americans' search for values, traditions, and a sense of community at a time of change and mobility.

When people move to a new community, they want to know about schools, about taxes, about shopping. And, increasingly, they want to know about its history, observes the scholarly, soft-spoken Burr.

It's not just the town's oldtimers who are interested in these vistas of the past, but newcomers as well, according to Burr. Many new arrivals buy copies of his book ``From Colonial Parish to Modern Suburb: A Brief Appreciation of West Hartford.'' After all, says the historian, ``people want to know about the town they're going to live in.''

Myron Marty, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Drake University in Iowa, sees continued momentum behind the pursuit of local history. The American bicentennial 10 years ago gave many people an ``incentive to dig into the history of their own communities,'' he observes.

And a decade or so before the bicentennial, Dr. Marty explains, professional historians had begun to pay closer attention to local records and artifacts, following the dictates of ``the new social history,'' a conception of history that emphasized the importance of personal and community life in shaping society.

This tendency toward ``history working from the bottom up'' was encouraged by increased interest in women's history as well, he adds. The lives of most 19th-century women, for example, could be understood only by focusing inquiry on the home, the school, and the church.

So the groundwork for a surge of interest in local history was laid in a number of ways. Often what has resulted from plowing into the past of cities, towns, and counties is a mass of loosely integrated material. But that may still provide professional historians with a ``convenient storehouse and a place to go,'' notes Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor at Columbia University and executive secretary of the Society of American Historians.

In his view, local history can sometimes stoop to community ``boosterism,'' simply touting prominent people in a town. But there's also some good writing being done, Dr. Jackson adds. And at its best, a thoughtful search through local history can throw light on social trends that affect the whole society -- the development of crucial transportation systems, for example, or the evolution of race relations.

On returning to his hometown following retirement from the Library of Congress in 1968, Burr pursued his intention of ``doing things here.'' He completed his volume on local history in time for the '76 bicentennial, has revised it for later editions, and is currently working on a project to gather facts about all the people who have represented Connecticut in the US Congress.

All of this has entailed ``long hours of research and writing.'' He has burrowed through state historical society records and pored over the card index to the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States, stretching back over two centuries.

``It takes an awful lot of time and patience to do this kind of thing,'' he says with a sigh.

That personal investment hasn't gone unrecognized. The town council made Burr the community's official historian, and he is revered by the dozens of other West Hartford residents who share his commitment to preserving the past.

Turning an historian's eye to the future, this venerable gentleman sees continued good times for local history.

``I think it'll grow,'' he says, expressing a sentiment worthy of the upcoming holiday, because there's a new surge of patriotism, and ``patriotism begins where you live.''

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