EDITOR’S NOTE: Alice Alexander has retired from writing the Back When Clallam County history column. Taking over her role is John McNutt, president of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors.
I WANT TO express my appreciation for all the work Alice Alexander did to give us monthly insights into local history for the past 10 years.
It was a wonderful combination of historical insights and sweet recollections. For me, I either learned something new about our community or delightful memories were brought back. That’s important to our community.
I enjoy history. It is much more to me than a series facts and dates. I become intrigued by the stories behind the facts. I believe most people are also intrigued. The success of Paul Harvey, talk radio pioneer, was rooted in his closing segment when he gave us “The rest of the story.” I would listen in anticipation for this segment.
Old things seem to have power over us. We are lured to them. Something old can be awe-inspiring. (Of course, I’m old but hardly awe-inspiring.) My office is surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of old stuff.
Somehow these old things point me to the past in some mysterious way. I have been involved with vintage sales for several years now. I am jealous of the skills people have to repurpose old things into something completely delightful. Something old is new again.
But we don’t always know what that old thing was. We end up with our own personal reliquaries (do look it up). What did it do? Who used it?
When I was in school, history was one of those classes that could bore me to tears. It surely seemed like mindless memorization — stuff like “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” the battle of Hastings was in 1066 or Caesar’s Gallic Wars were from 58 B.C. to 50 B.C.
But a question never answered was, “how is this relevant to me?” We seldom got “The rest of the story.”
I believe local history is important. It is more important than you realize. To understand the community we live in we should look at the history behind our community. We didn’t just suddenly appear here.
We can’t understand our local history if we use the same mindless memorization we used in school. Asking “who?” and “when?” will supply some pieces to our puzzle. Don’t stop there. The why and how will give you the insight.
Why did some of our earliest pioneers travel all the way from Nova Scotia, Canada? Why did so many Midwesterners travel here to start a utopian colony? How were the lives of the Native peoples impacted by our arrival? What happened to Old Bagley Lake? Why did the U.S. Army want our spruce wood so much? What is the rest of our story?
Some of us tend to think that we are inherently superior today compared to yesterday. I’ve known people who don’t seem to believe that our ancestors have much to tell us. They think our ancestors were old-fashioned coots who were bigoted and stuck in their ways. Some tend to think they were not nearly as enlightened as we are. After all, they seldom washed their clothes or took a bath. (Wait, that sounds like our children.)
Life in the past will feel strange to us and all the differences both subtle and large might make some of us feel uncomfortable.
The old ways were the glue that held families together and gave them meaning and purpose.
I’m not saying that we should live in the past. That is quite likely a path to nowhere.
Let’s allow our ancestors to be different than us. We are not a carbon copy of our ancestors, nor should we be. When we see “The rest of the story” we will learn far more about ourselves than we ever imagined.
We all know historians don’t fight fires, perform surgery or design highways. “Historian” and “nerd” almost seem synonymous. Yet, any engineer worth his salt cannot improve a highway without first being mindful of the good, the bad and the ugly of the past.
There have been aspects of my family’s history that were never spoken of. On the other hand, these aspects of my family history were both intriguing and clarifying. I better understand why certain people were the way they were and how that influenced me.
My grandfather was a local blacksmith. He’s standing on the right in the picture appearing with this column. Blacksmiths needed help, but finding good help wasn’t always easy. Blacksmithing was and is a difficult profession. If his helper was slow or simply didn’t get it, he would shout out, “Little child?” “Little child?” It was one of his ways of letting his employee know that there had to be a child nearby who could do the job better. This has always reminded me that everything I do should be done well.
Walk around a cemetery sometime. Read the names. Read the epitaphs. Some inscriptions are sad; some are joyful anticipations of heaven. You are standing among the bodies of people who lived full and eventful lives. But some ended up as only a faded name on a stone monument. You might even see a name you recognize as someone important to our history. The rest are seen as rows of ordinary people. Some entire families are there as well. These people exist to us as only a few words on a stone marker. And that marker is being erased by time and the weather.
We need to see that something very important is missing. Who were they? What was their story? Did they change our community? I know it is hard to believe, but some of the significant historical figures in our community may have been hard to live with, cranky and irritable. Yet, they were visionaries.
For all of us history should be more personal. Let’s understand our real family history. What wasn’t shared in the obituary? Let’s understand our neighborhood’s real character. Let’s understand our community’s real heritage. To do that, we must be mindful of our collective past and find “The rest of the story.”
I believe that the North Olympic Peninsula is a wonderful place to live. It has become a place where so many want to live, visit and recreate. We should not forget that many of the faded names on those monuments made our lives as we know it possible.
My goal moving forward is to look beyond the mindless facts and search into the stories that make someone or something important to our collective heritage.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and president of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].
John’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month.