Un-earthing Beech Fork; The Digital History Project Proposal

I am producing a digital history project, which will connect the oldest form of information sharing with a contemporary method of delivery. Just as the concept of “home” reaches into our anthropological past as the first connections we make, the oral tradition is that thread which serves as a continuous motion forward carrying the past through experience and perception. While cave paintings may be evidence of our existence, stories are evidence of our humanity. This project will tell the story of rural families and other participants in central Appalachia during the creation of Beech Fork Lake and park by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Description of research

My research pieces together first and second-hand narratives regarding the events and circumstances involved in the creation of Beech Fork Lake and park in Cabell and Wayne country, West Virginia, in 1970. I will research the reasons behind the mandate, which controlled flooding of Twelvepole Creek as part of the response to the Flood Control Act of 1962 and 1965 to “to design and construct any water resource development project, including navigation, flood control, and shore protection”. This was also an intertwined with a larger comprehensive movement by the federal government to protect wildlife and waterways while addressing flood issues and managing such risks, which involved the displacement of residents.  I will focus on the historical importance and reputation of the area, which, according to a rather obscure genealogical book claims it earned the name the “Bean Capital Of The World”. (1)

The main crux of the project comes from conducting oral history interviews with the displaced residents in that developed region, their close associates who know the story of this move well, and members of the Army Corps of Engineers who worked on the project in either planning or execution. I will ask about their experiences with respect to their role and insight they may have in the phenomenon of displacement itself by eminent domain.

Once these interviews are gathered, I will transcribe them and upload them on to a project website while I analyze them further for themes and details. As these emerge and bring to light interwoven experiences of those who were moved and those who worked on the project with the Corps, these experiences and the circumstances that led to the creation of the park will be included in a podcast that will be hosted and available on the website.

 The rationale for the Chosen Design

To work from research idea to artifact, I need to construct a framework and that combines why this is a project worth researching and how it will be digitally produced.  Out of the many forms of digital delivery, podcast production allows the content to have a combination of guided narrative and aural delivery, which is portable and can be entertaining while educational. In contrast to long-form oral history review, this contemporary form of broadcasting allows oral history participants to be heard in the first person through carefully crafted episodic pieces that preserve the thematically significant portions of their interview and deliver it to wide audiences through their chosen devices. Unlike traditional oral history interviews, these are filtered in order to fit into the research framework and to create a cohesive and interesting podcast just as a website or other form of delivery would sharpen its focus to reinforce the theme and encourage participation. This is also a potential drawback of the delivery method since editing lends itself to the bias of the producer. Efforts to achieve value neutrality, a concept coined by Sociologist Max Weber (2), in this case, will be deliberate to identify and minimize such bias.

According to Neilson media ratings, 124 million people in the US had listened to a podcast by 2017. (3) Will 124 million listeners want to hear about a small number of families forced to move for the sake of ecological management in West Virginia? Probably not. However, prior to its existence, the listenership will be zero and from that, the growth of the audience is open to the connected public. Podcasting is a form of digital storytelling as discussed by John Barber:

“The overlay of computer-based media onto storytelling has prompted a range of new approaches: from what noted radio historian Susan Douglas calls a return to orality, “a mode of communication reliant on storytelling, listening, and group memory” (Douglas, 1999, p. 29) to new storytelling experiences that include direct participation by listeners, even co-creation of stories.” (4)
Discussion of Intended Audience

So if not for the millions, who is the intended audience? The core audience would be those podcast subscribers who listen to the genre of “history podcasts”. Expanding the net, the podcast would appeal to regional historians (amateur and professional) from or familiar with this region. I would like to find an association with The Clio.com, which already links to public history sites and projects in that vicinity.  On a large thematic scale, the concept of eminent domain also appeals to some interests regarding personal and political freedom. (5) Also, on this macro level, those who have an interest in exploring the past, who might be interested in the Foxfire series would be interested in seeing a pivotal moment in the transformation of modern Appalachia from the past. Outward migration from the region has been relatively consistent since the 1970’s and this podcast might catch those on the “Hillbilly Highway” who feel a connection to the area and crave points for articulating its past. (6)

Justification of Research

Projects that develop the landscape for a large or mandated cause may move individuals and families from their “homeplace” and the stories of their existence might fade if not preserved. This research is necessary because outside of the time in which it occurred, no published scholarship exists which collects firsthand accounts of those affected or those who worked in the park’s development. Information about the project is found in US Army Corps of Engineer annual reports and newspapers from the era, but there has not been a project, which pieces together the scale and impacts this had on residents and the disruption of their lives and the culture of the region. The justification for the research lay in the absence of existing data and public history record of this event.

Several in-class readings have helped shaped the justification for this project. One discussion in Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History chapter entitled “Exploring the History Web” states that of the five main (valid) genres of digital history, the first mentioned is the archive, which this project essentially is.

Timeline and Collaboration

This is a project required for a semester course. Given the deadlines, I have planned the following timeline:

  • Regional and event historical research, on-going
  • Outreach and crowdsourcing for participants October 1  -November 10
  • Interviews October 18-November 10
  • Analysis Completion November 15
  • Podcast recording, editing November 15-December 1
  • Project complete for Presentation December 5

The location of the historical event is six hours north from Charlotte, and I will be doing the majority of research at this distance. I do have contacts at Cabell County Public Library and Marshall University who will assist if needed to expand the call for participation, assist in finding any obscure published material, or other services. They will be acknowledged and are appreciated.

Working Bibliography

As noted in the proposal above:

  1. Sociological Research OnlineVol 22, Issue 1, pp. 1 – 12
  2. Barber, John F. “Critical Essay:Digital storytelling: New opportunities for humanities scholarship and pedagogy” from Margo Berendsen, Jeffrey Hamerlinck, Gerald Webster. (2018) Digital Story Mapping to Advance Educational Atlas Design and Enable Student Engagement. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information 7:3, pages 125.
  3. https://www.podcastinsights.com/podcast-statistics/#Podcast_Listener_Stats
  4. Adkins, R. (1990). The Adkins family of Wayne County, West Virginia: also Cabell, Lincoln, and Boone : a genealogical history : the descendants of William and Elizabeth (Parker) Adkins of Henrico County, Virginia, from 1690 to 1990. Montgomery, Ala.: R. Adkins.
  5. Hoyman, M., & Mccall, J. (n.d.). “Not Imminent in My Domain!” County Leaders’ Attitudes toward Eminent Domain Decisions. Public Administration Review, 70(6), 885–893. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6210.2010.02220.x
  6. Alexander, J. (n.d.). Defining the diaspora: Appalachians in the great migration. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxvii(2), 219–247. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/36499626/

Others:

Class Blog 2: Comparing Search Choices

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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