Leaving Their Mark
Volunteers aim to document every historical marker in North America.
By Gwendolyn Purdom | Online Only | Aug. 9, 2010
On a sparse stretch of highway in Laurel Hill, N.C., a simple metal plaque marks the place where Sherman's army camped on the march north from Georgia in March 1865. A lumpy stone post in Martinez, Calif., tells of an 1874 bartender who served up the first martini there "when a miner came into his saloon with a fistful of nuggets and asked for something special." At the edge of Marathon County, Wis., the first flight by a home-built flying machine in 1911 is commemorated on a brown-and-white marker flanked with pine trees.
Braking for roadside historical markers like these had always been a hobby for J.J. Prats. In 2005, the Springfield, Va., computer programmer planned to create an online album of marker photographs collected over the years when he realized he could invite other history buffs to contribute to the project. Prats tweaked the input software to make it accessible to the public, and The Historical Marker Database went live January 1, 2006, publishing 179 historical marker descriptions in its first three months. Four years later, the site's postings have grown to more than 30,000, and its team of 21 volunteer editors and 1,401 contributing correspondents add an average of 200 new markers each week.
"The goal is to catalog every marker in North America," Prats says. At this rate, the project is well on its way. Because there is no national group solely responsible for erecting markers, the task is left to communities, counties, states, and nonprofit or fraternal groups. "There's no way of knowing how many markers there are," Prats says. "If Virginia has over 2,000, and it's a medium-sized state, there must be at least 100,000 out there [nationally]."
Documenting markers related to everything from the abolition of slavery to paleontology, the database is organized into 68 distinct categories, the majority of markers are associated with the U.S. Civil War, Notable People, and Notable Buildings. Category editors like Christopher Busta-Peck, who heads up the group's African American marker category, can submit their own write-ups or edit those associated with their area of expertise. The contributing editors maintain strict submission guidelines: A marker must be outdoors, permanent, and "must contain state historical or scientific facts beyond names, dates, and titles."
"There has to be something that tells the viewer why this place, or why this person, or why this event was so historically significant that it warranted spending whatever money it cost to make [a marker] out of metal, or stone, or wood and put it up for all to see," says Kevin White, associate editor.
Memorial and dedication plaques are not accepted, and neither are gravestones. All submissions must include a photograph, a copy of the marker's full text, and its geographical coordinates. Whenever possible, the editors encourage links to additional information and related history to run alongside the listing.
"Maybe the most important markers in the database are those we can't find any more information on the Internet about," Prats says. "When we can't find anything about a marker, in my opinion, we've found a very significant marker, a very significant piece of local history that, if it wasn't for that piece of metal on a pole, it might be forgotten."
Washington, D.C.-area IT consultant Craig Swain holds the site's top contributor spot with nearly 4,000 marker submissions, mostly in the U.S. Civil War category he edits.
"What interests me about the Civil War is the fact that you can get the discussion from both sides in its native language," Swain says. "The other part is that this is the stuff that's in my back yard; I can go out and I can walk the battlefield. I can stand in a place and say, 'This is the ground where that actually occurred.'"
The markers' tangible quality and their connection to local history is part of what drew contributors like Busta-Peck to the project.
"Part of what I see being wrong with history is there's too much gray text and not enough actual visuals," Busta-Peck says. "When people see that things actually happened in their neighborhood, it makes it more real."
Syd Whittle, category editor for California, Nevada, and Arizona-related markers, says she stumbled across the site while researching historical landmarks she could visit on vacation. Every day, Whittle says, others learn about the project in the same way.
"Constantly more and more people are discovering the site and marker hunting has become a really popular hobby," she says. "The backgrounds for the marker hunters are really different. Their reasons for doing it are all different."
As the database continues to grow, Prats and his team (most of whom he's only communicated with via e-mail) are considering changes that will allow the project to continue. Despite its ever-increasing size, the site still runs on a small server in Prats' basement; several nonprofits have offered to take over the server responsibility to prevent crashes or loss of data. A revamped category system and updated technology like an iPhone application are among the options the group has entertained.
"This hobby of mine is out of control, and I couldn't be happier," Prats says. Though he admits the site was initially focused on the Mid-Atlantic region, Prats says he's delighted to see how the effort has spread. With each new submission, another thread is stitched into the cloth of the American story.
"There are a substantial amount of markers when you get to the Dakotas or Montana," Craig Swain says. "We have a contributor who's been very good and diligent about submitting the markers from Idaho, and the story those markers tell, it's every bit as rich and vibrant as what we've got here in Virginia. ... There are more stories out there than you can shake a fist at."
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