Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Finding a Sense of Place

I began a new consulting project last week at the all volunteer Sayre Historical Society in Sayre, Pa, that reminded me, once again, about why local history matters. I barely knew Sayre, but my two days in the archives there gave me a chance to get a sense of a place. The historical society--not yet open to the public--is in a beautiful 19th century passenger depot once used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad. As I sat going through the archives and collections records, I began to get a sense of this particular community. Trains--unfortunately no longer passenger ones--still pass right by the building, so my day was filled with the huffing of trains and the occassional whistle. As I looked across the tracks, I could see several large, somewhat decrepit buildings--I found out they were once hotels for railroad workers laying over. In the further distance, the dome of the Ukrainian Church...just one block down, the new restaurant serving falafels and grape leaves, both places evidence of the diversity of immigrants that have made Sayre their home. Sayre has a tremendous tradition of music--bands from the locomotive shops, church groups, country-western groups--I found pictures, uniforms and instruments from many of them. Driving back to my hotel, I passed a small, beautifully restored bandstand in the square--and, a small miracle in this day of multi-plexes--a still operating movie theater right on the town square.

All of this is why I work in local history. In a way, it's like putting on x-ray glasses, allowing me to see back into a community--and then to gain an understanding of the community's present, and I hope, help a community to envision its future.

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