Prospectus: Un-earthing Beech Fork

In response to persistent flooding issues and the Flood Control Act of October 23, 1962, the US Army Corps of Engineers, during the 1970’s, reshaped the communities of “Beech Fork”, in Cabell and Wayne County West Virginia, moving residents, earth, and structures to create Beech Fork State Park in 1979.

My Digital History class project will be the debut podcast episode chronicling the first phase of an ambitious goal: to produce a comprehensive website that will house a panoramic annotated map of the region within and affected by the park, oral histories of displaced residents and Corps staff involved in the project, photographs of the region comparing areas before and after the park’s creation, and a detailed mapping and cataloging of the community cemetery located within the park. This first portion of the project will involve the creation of a podcast documenting my progress and broadcasting some of the stories and background that will be included. The podcast, whose working title is “Displaced” will explore the theme of displacement and may continue past the Beech Fork podcasts (Season 1) highlighting other events and experiences.

The first episode will be a culmination of preliminary research and a demonstration of recording and broadcasting tools for digital history research, archiving, and presentation. While this topic is important to me personally since part of my family hails from the affected area, the historical significance of this project comes from its ability to add humanity and highlight cultural consequences to historical events. The creation of the park and construction of Beech Fork Lake  grew out of federal legislation aimed at preserving the wildlife and waterways of the region along with improving the ecosystem therein. This project will illustrate the narratives of those whose lives, identities, and livelihoods were affected by this mandate in this instance. Of the limited resources available on the subject in digital form, all refer to plant and animal species who reside in the area or summarize the creation of the park without including personal narratives of the residents or those working on behalf of the Corps. As noted in the 1996 introduction to an Oral History edition for the The Journal of American History, Linda Shopes and Michael Frisch (1) write that: “the recent efflorescence of oral history is rooted in the social historian’s need for sources that document experiences for which more traditional materials are either unavailable or profoundly distorted by the perspective of the recorder.” It is necessary to examine every opportunity available for a critical analysis of past events, finding truth in the patterns and variety of perspective. Since then, podcasts have emerged as a way to broadcast histories and interviews, releasing them from academic or closed archives, or boosting their reach from web-based digital homes.

Beyond the historiographic purpose of the project, I also want to explore themes such as the social and personal effects of displacement by eminent domain and such effects relating to environmental legislation. I will allow some “organic” reach of topics based on what is sparked in conversation within the interviews. These will be conducted over the phone and recorded via a portable recording device. The podcast will be recorded and edited using Audacity and a careful edit of the interviews. Transcripts of the show and the interviews will be available on the project website and as an experiment, I will try to transcribe using text recognition software. The show’s “home” will be on Soundcloud or a similar audio digital storage site and available.

To prepare to tackle this project effectively and produce a quality product, I am consulting the   Principles and Best Practices from the Oral History Association as well as an expanding list of primary and secondary sources:

Primary:
“Beech Fork” Special Report from Nov. 15, 1970. The Herald-Advertiser
Interviews with:

  • US Army Corps of Engineers representative (to be named, possible Robert Thompson)
  • Angie Maynard Strait (displaced resident)
  • Mary E Adkins (displaced resident)
  • Others tba

Secondary:
Collections of interviews of displaced individuals from various backgrounds as found in Oral History journals and digital collections.

A challenge so far has been to narrow my focus from a large concept to a “bite-size” project which exhibits my topic while also demonstrating my newly acquired knowledge of digital history. I believe the creation of this podcast and accompanying website will be appropriate and fruitful for both criteria.

 

  1. Shopes, L. (n.d.). Oral History. The journal of American history.83(2).

Class Blog 2: Comparing Search Choices

crit

Preface
While the discipline of history is nested in the Humanities rather than Social Science, good research must universally be valid and reliable. The historian’s aim needs to be a core with branches reaching toward available or chartable mines of data. My possible digital history project is one that requires several trajectories and roads, some paved others not; throughout I expect it to illustrate the benefits and limitations of existing digital history and create its own path.

My mother’s family “home place” was an area of Wayne and Cabell county, West Virginia commonly named Beech Fork. In the 1970’s, the Corps of Engineers reshaped the waterways and moved residences to create Beech Fork State Park in 1979. This occurred as a response to flooding but in the process, the residing families were displaced, the Corps having the power and resources to carve the land into a space preserving wildlife and the ecology of the area, as well as relocate the citizens whose homes leveled. One part of this was the creation of Bowen Cemetery, which is located within the park, but which is a public cemetery hosting the remains of the families that resided there. The graves were relocated to this shared spot and arranged by family. At this time, my thesis will include interviews with the displaced and an 360-degree experience of the cemetery. For this course, I will aim and sharpen focus to a narrow piece that won’t make me drive 5 hours up Interstate 77.

Blog 2:

For this blog entry, I’m finding the limitations of online resources for questions like my own, and how far we are from the intellectual utopian visions of the future. The key is keeping a (rational) faith that there is something there to find, and not being thwarted by the dead ends.

  • Searching “Beech Fork State Park” in Wikipedia returned these choices:
    Beech Fork State Park
    Reports the current park with very little mention of its history and more centered on park features and local wildlifeBeech Fork Lake
    Reports on the recreational activities but then a curious segment discussing the experience of the Adkins family in relocation and the area’s historical reputation. The frustrating part being that there is no citation for the quotes. (1)
    Beech Fork
    A page discussing an entirely different area, the Beech Fork River, in Kentucky.
  • Searching “Beech Fork State Park” in the Encyclopedia Britannica yielded no relative results. Nor did “Beech Fork”. When I searched “West Virginia State Parks” I did find a link to an article on the state in general, but I would have to sign up for a trial to research the state parks.(2) Thanks to the assistance of an Atkins Library associate, I was able to search the Enclyopedia via NC Live and a student version, but neither mentioned the creation of this state park which is obscure in context.
  • Using the omnipotent search engine Google with “Beech Fork State Park”, I was able to find these top 3 hits:
    Beech Fork State Park – West Virginia State Parks
    This is managed by the WV State Parks group, a wing of the division of tourism. Under park “history”, it did have a historical summary. (3)
    Beech Fork State Park (Barboursville) – 2018 All You Need to Know
    It was alas, not all I needed to know. This is a page on “Trip Advisor” which is a consumer networking site that rates and reviews traveler experiences.Beech Fork State Park – Wikipedia
    See aboveFrom there, the search results led to recreation sites. When I modified the search criteria to include US Army Corps of Engineers, their site appeared in the results:
    Beech Fork Lake – Huntington District – Army
    The difference here is that it is not the park but the lake that is the central concern. The lake was an extension of domestic caretaking and ecological management while the park was a way to keep the area accessible to the public and supported humbly by their fees. This site also had a brief historical summary. (4)

Digital treatments of my topic are not easy to find, but broadening my search to the digitized elements and presentation methods produced search results that hinted at challenges and opportunities ahead. Bowen Cemetery itself has a spot on Find-A-Grave.com with limited images (too many of just the welcome sign). These are static images taken by community contributors and genealogists that would have limited and select biographical information. Cemeteries found in larger cities with heavy tourism, such as New Orleans,  have video components but more to support the tourism industry. An example of what I would like to do with the cemetery presentation component of my research is in line with sites such as Civil War 360.

There is a remarkable advancement in the work Civil War 360 has done compared to such sites as Arlington Cemetery. The latter uses Google earth and the pace and aim of one’s experience are limited to the segments available in that platform. Civil War 360 is a product of the Civil War Trust and utilizes panoramic photography and mapping from Regal 360.  It is more fluid with multiple perspective choices. I am not familiar with the nuanced differences, this platform “created using HTML elements” and no other description, which might be proprietary. CivilWar.com also features differently animated and photographic mapping and presentation of historical data that is advanced and user-friendly, even a Civil War Battle Maps app which was impressive but not relevant to my project given the limited audience of interest at this point.

To bring these searches together, Google operates on the behavior of other searches and popularity so it can be difficult to find many leads on a more obscure topic or one that has multiple conditions built into the search criteria. Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica are ideally authoritative resources with either user input and update capabilities or juried expert authorship respectively. However, the openness of Wikipedia does not guarantee credible sources (or citation) and may be more reliable with generous endnote links. Encyclopedia Britannica may likewise be more helpful for a quick explanation of an unclear reference or topic, but not beyond the superficial.

There is little comparison between digital representations of similar research ideas and a more scholarly traditional source. Most of what I have found in print regarding Beech Fork State Park and its creation has to do with the ecology in the area and the species that have thrived or are threatened. When I add the second focus of Oral History research, there are comparable projects for displaced communities. The US ACoE has a Public Affairs office but no digital record of this project, only news stories related to their Huntington branch going back to 2014.

This exercise reinforces the idea that Digital History is not a self-contained discipline but rather a specialization of ability to translate material from a variety of sources onto a digital platform. The historian still must be trained to understand the search and creation mechanisms at hand, how criteria is sorted, and how to efficiently and effectively mine the data or discoveries within and then apply it to the historical arguments posed. Our digital age may have simplified simple searches, but it can complicate or add conditions to the endeavors of academic research.

  1. From the Wiki Page: It has also been said that in the last days, “the Jews will go back to Palestine and the Adkinses will go back to Beech Fork.”
  2. Given the number of ads on the site, I felt that I did not want the commercial traffic in my inbox.
  3. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed Beech Fork Lake in the 1970s to control flooding of Twelvepole Creek. The lake also was developed to create recreational and wildlife management including a marina, swimming beach and picnic area. Beech Fork State Park officially opened in 1979. Beech Fork State Park – West Virginia State Parks
  4. Beech Fork Lake (authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1962) is part of the integrated flood reduction system operated by the Corps of Engineers for the entire Ohio River Basin. When these lakes are operated as a vast storage system, flood crests along the Ohio can be significantly reduced. Beech Fork Lake opened for recreational activities in May 1978.
    Beech Fork Lake – Huntington District – Army

 

 

Digital Divisions and Elevations

In reading the article “Interchange: The Promise of            Digital History “, Dr. Kirsten Sword mentioned avoiding another “digital divide” in a discussion about the use of advanced technology for public history when focused on specialized practitioners rather than generalists throughout the field. As someone trained in Sociology as well, this made my ears perk up like a fennec fox.

One reason history found itself in a paradigm shift in the mid 20th century was because there was a perception, not unfounded, that history was suited for an academic or intellectual, social elite. It was in museums and books away from accessible common spaces, save libraries. So the aim was to release history into a wider, farther reaching audience with more of a democratic sensibility. But yet I wonder if we now contend with the digital divide?

The Pew Research Center follows the use and dissemination of technology, breaking it into demographic ranges. Lee Rainie from the center presented on the current snapshot of the digital divide as it relates to age, income, and race in 2016 and there has been a great improvement in household access to the internet since the seeming “stone age” of 1999 and even 2010. Yet, some groups still have greater access than others. I think about the aim of public history to reach and engage, and I wonder about the dismally funded school systems who, without the deliberate consideration of their plight, could not provide educational tools to expose and educate children. The positive side of the report is that the 18 and younger crowd is the most “connected”. But, what they focus their eyeballs on is another issue altogether.

I firmly agree that all historians should now acquaint themselves, if not master, current and emerging technologies in order to study and interpret data while sharing and presenting research in farther reaching, more meaningful ways than the more elitist past. However, we really need to consider the most common or typical level of technical useage rather that can translate or be manipulated for more sophisticated innovation when it then becomes most accessible. Public spaces such as a well funded museum might be able to host a virtual-reality history exhibit, but that experience fulfills the goals of a humanist project by also providing a comparable experience in common technologies such as an app or 360-degree photography on a website.

I am relieved that the digital divide is closing, but we still have the hurdle of how sophisticated the experience can be, and how fruitful, once we’re on the highway.

History as Res Publica

I have been fascinated by history since a young age. In early memories I find myself looking at family photo albums, books of old movie posters, and captivated by the stories of gods and saints. It makes me feel closer to others to know of their experiences and our shared history. But, as early as high school I began to wonder about the losers of the battle, the peasants out of royal frame, my own ancestors who somehow made it to Appalachia via ports and gates.

For some the idea of a “public history”, one that is accessible and speaks of many voices, is a radical idea. Howard Zinn, an academic “saint” to be sure, is sometimes seen as an American threat because he dared to bring the experiences of those who built the country onto the stage of those who own. This is just one example of the mid-20th Century paradigm shift for the discipline of History (big H) that goes from ivory tower lectures on the greatness of white men to the significant contributions of all human groups in creating the world of the present. Public History is a dynamic telling of historical events using their words, and deliberately excavating obscured lives previously deemed marginal or insignificant.

What I’ve discovered in my first class in the new phase of my life studying public history is that it also encompasses he presentation of this information. Just as C Wright Mills and his peers advocated for “public sociology” to go from academia to social change, history underwent a more “res publica” approach- not for historians but for the people. Canon was revisited to include women, non-whites, etc. (forgive the brevity there). The way in which it is collected also expanded for inclusiveness* and more importantly the intended audience is for everyone, increasing access, scope, reach, application, and listening to feedback. This utilizes emerging technology that can reach schools and libraries as well as public spaces and museums which are aimed at educating and revealing more precise and universal experiences and truths.

The first site I’ll review here is the ROY ROSENZWEIG CENTER FOR HISTORY AND NEW MEDIA (RRCHNM). Essentially they are “a multi-disciplinary team that develops online teaching resources, digital collections and exhibits, open-source software, and training in digital literacy and skills.”  Based at George Mason University, the group collects and lists public history exhibits and programs found online and presents a searchable directory. Think of it as a static trade magazine that highlights individuals, engagement opportunities, and news items related to public history in its many forms. The benefit of such a site is that it can bring you to a collection that might be harder to search casually online. As we know, Google tells you what its friends are doing above all else, and those not in the in-crowd might have a goldmine you’ll never see. Beyond this opportunity to find what you seek you can also browse and find the wealth of other points of view and sites that open up complimentary or contrary information to the more mainstream versions of history that remain in traditional education curricula.

For instance, consider the narratives that can come from exploring these two sites:

  • Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution: a lively introduction to the French Revolution presents an extraordinary archive of some of the most important documentary evidence from the Revolution, including 338 texts, 245 images, and a number of maps and songs. Lynn Hunt of UCLA and Jack Censer of George Mason University—both internationally renowned scholars of the Revolution—served as principal authors and editors. The site is a collaboration of CHNM and American Social History Project (City University of New York), and supported by grants from the Florence Gould Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  
  • Children and Youth in Historywebsite was designed to help teachers and students learn about young people throughout history by providing access to information about the lived experiences of children and youth from multiple perspectives as well as changing notions about childhood and adolescence in past cultures and civilizations. 

The RRCHNM, while not being a snappy acronym, it a great example of the new face of public history. The scholars who lead the projects and collect the information invite collaboration and highlight achievements and opportunities to share history, not just their own. Presenting it online and for free allows educators at all levels to search the material and share among students or hobbyists or the unidentified. 

When we think about “net neutrality” or vocation and grade-driven budgeting for educational institutions and libraries, we should consider sites like these and the people behind them. Wealthy endowments can only go so far. Public history would be successful when it is a dialog all can attend to and participate in.

Feel free to share links to other archives or projects along these lines. That’s the point 😀

 

*Inclusiveness has been discussed recently as a term describing a benevolent invitation by those in power. It’s worth looking into.