Friday, March 27, 2009

Looking to History in Your Backyard

Growing up on my small family farm in western Nebraska, I used to dream of going some place more exciting. Virginia, where the Civil War is embroidered into the fabric of their history. Massachusetts, to see the incredible struggle of the American Revolution. South Carolina, to see those awesome Southern mansions. And oh, Europe. I was obsessed with European history. The French Revolution, Napoleon, Georgian England, Regency England. To me, that was where the exciting history was, not boring ol' Nebraska with the Indians and pioneers and covered wagons.

Truth be told, that part of my state's history still doesn't send a thrill through me. But I've now looked at other parts of our history and found myself entranced - specifically the World War II era. The deeper I dig, the more I realize the important role Nebraska played.

The Enola Gay, which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, was made in Omaha at the Offutt Air Force Base. It is now on exhibit at Washington D.C.

I worked at Fort Robinson, a fort nestled in the buttes of northwest Nebraska, and became intrigued with the fact that German POWs were housed there during World War II - and this became the focus of my graduate thesis years later. An army training center for K-9 dogs was here, as well, and if you ever get the chance to visit this place, it's well worth it. The original buildings are still standing and it is a beautiful location.

The North Platte Canteen in North Platte, Nebraska, was a stopping point for many soldiers on their way to war. Citizens of this small town and Nebraskans for miles around volunteered their time to bake cakes and make sandwiches and coffee and whatever else was needed to give to the soldiers on their short stop. Although the canteen doesn't exist anymore, it's been the subject of a book and a film documentary.

My own family was involved with World War II, of course. My grandfather used to tell me stories of how they would go to the Italian POW camp in my hometown and pick up prisoners to help work on the farm. Since my grandfather's family came from Italy, it was a natural fit. My brother focused on this small POW camp for one of his papers in college (he's also a fellow history major!).

What does all of this prove? That for years, I neglected to look in my own backyard for the history that I loved.

Lesson learned. And this weekend, when my dad comes for a visit, I'm taking him to the Nebraska History Museum to look at their amazing World War II exhibit. He's a big World War II buff, too, so I'm sure we'll have a great time.

Take the time to look at the history in your own backyard. You never know what you might find!

13 comments:

  1. That's one great thing about living in Halifax - between the Titantic going down off our coast, the Acadian expulsion, the Hfx explosion, the settlers that hit ground here first coming from across the pond...we have a really rich history to draw from.

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  2. We used to dig in my uncle's farmland. We thought we found some great treasures in this big hill. Maybe a Native American area. Then we realized it was an old place they dumped their garbage.

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  3. You're so right. I've only recently come to see how fascinating my own family's history is coming from an island that was occupied during the second world war.

    I work with a colleague who spends his spare time looking after the massive web of bunkers on our shoreline, and he knows so much about it all.

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  4. It's funny how we so often overlook our own backyards like that. We think history is always the big stories, far away, when often the most interesting episodes are close by. I live one town over from an historic New England community, on the shipping lane, history of witch trials and slavery. We have the Mark Twain house, Fort Griswold, and closeby in Massachusetts there's Boston, rich in history, Bunker Hill, gosh the list goes on. Thanks for getting me thinking about this. Time for some day trips!

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  5. I found out recently that the house I bought is yards from where one of my direct ancestors owned a grist mill--talk about back yard. Great topic, Melissa.

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  6. Some of the history around here is great to learn. Other parts of it? Not so much!

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  7. ooh! I love history! And I love the stories of each of the places I've been to. But I do have to say my backyard is happily brimming with wonderful history at the moment. I'm taking it all in before I have to head back to the US. Jenni

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  8. Family fun + historical archeology = lotsa fun!

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  9. I enjoyed this post. It good to hear about history in Nebraska. And good point about checking some in my own backyard!

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  10. Three hours away from me on the South Carolina shoreline is Charleston, a shining jewel in the bracelet of historical cities that stretches along the East coast. And while I love to look at the beautiful old homes and hear snatches of the historical tours that take place in horse drawn carriages, I've never taken one myself. Shame on me! I plan to be a better girl.

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  11. Good for you for digging into the history close to home--funny how often we neglect it for the far-off and seemingly more interesting, isn't it? Sounds like you and your dad will have a great time!

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  12. This was good for me to hear, Melissa. I grew up in New York and thought the history there was so much more exciting. Then I moved to Kansas and thought it was the most boring thing ever, until I moved to Nebraska and wished I was living back East where all the "exciting" history took place I guess I just need to dig deeper!

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  13. Elizabeth Parker1:41 PM

    I know, Melissa. It's always been a sore point with me--that Nebraska history isn't immediately apparent. We have few wonderful historical buildings--the Indians' tents disappeared long ago! But I do find the history of the pioneers with their covered wagons fascinating in a way. I feel that the nature of Nebraska is and has always been to be a ROAD. First the migration of the pioneers over the Great Platte River Road, and now the cars using I-80 to get someplace else. The Arch at Kearney over the interstate celebrates this phenomenon. Have you been there? Very interesting!

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