Bringing Preservation Home: Be a Backyard Detective
iscovering history in your backyard is a fun family activity. Teaching your children about history and preservation is often the first step in making sure that a beloved neighborhood landmark – and our shared heritage – is not lost forever.
But how do you begin? Let's say you've heard a rumor about a place in your community:
- It was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
- A well-known athlete or local hero lived there.
- It was designed by a famous architect.
- Famous (or infamous) people once gathered there.
You don't need a master's degree – or even lots of tools – to find out the history of a place. Most of the time, researching a building requires only your eyes, ears, feet, and a little time.
So, print this page, grab your kids, and start (re)discovering your community and your past. When you're done, be sure to tell us all about it.
Use Your Eyes
Architecture often gives important clues as to when a building was built and how it was used. The following ideas are a few ways to not only determine the age of a structure or place, but to start learning the stories behind it.
Sometimes noticing the small things can give lots of clues into the buildings history, so have your kids be detail detectives. Help them locate the cornerstones of historic buildings in your neighborhood or town. How many can you find? How old was the oldest building where you found a cornerstone? If you want to dig deeper, have your kids draw or take pictures (get permission when necessary) of two historic buildings or homes that are completely different in their architectural styles. Help them point out the important details and differences.
Look for cornerstone clues. In most communities, the construction of new buildings – especially public ones or those owned by important people – is a proud event, signifying progress and growth. Builders often commemorate new construction by incorporating a cornerstone into the structure. As the name implies, cornerstones are located at the base of one of the corners of a building. They often list the year of completion, the original owner's name, and the structure's first use.
Be a style sleuth. Just like the clothing we wear, building construction has gone through many fads over the years. Sometimes just by looking at a structure's style you can confirm whether assertions about its history are true. Most building styles are rooted in a particular era. For example, rustic Colonial architecture, which is characterized by its simplicity and use of local materials, was prevalent from the early 1600's until the American Revolution. Half a century later, the Victorian period ran from 1840 to 1910, encompassing a dozen or so specific ornate and highly-decorative phases.
Sneak a peek inside. If you can gain access to a building (don't forget to get permission, of course), there may be many historical hints inside. Craftsmen and builders – proud of their work – often signed and dated their eaves or corners. Trim, light fixtures, and even wallpaper can place a building in its design era.
Use Your Feet
Take a walk. It's a great way to learn more about your community's history – not to mention get some exercise and be green! The following are just some of the things that your family can learn on a walk.
If many graves share a date, check newspaper records to see if some kind of catastrophe – a flash flood, a tornado, an earthquake – may be the reason. Many tombstones are beautifully decorated. If your local cemetery allows it, consider having your family make a rubbing of some of the ones you like.
Visit a graveyard. A visit to a local cemetery can tell of battles and wars fought in your area, or of foreign wars that claimed your neighbors. Large numbers of children's tombstones from the 1800's reveal something about mortality rates back then.
Read the signs. Signs offer clues to a town's history. On street signs, you'll often find the names of famous residents – politicians, artists, patriots, athletes, policemen, firemen, and war heroes may be scattered throughout the city. Bring a notebook along so you can jot down names to learn more about later.
Visit the library. The local library is full of information about your town's history. Old city directories list early residents and their professions (this is where you can look up those names you wrote down earlier from the street signs). Old newspapers provide stories of battles, crimes, and other events, as well as notices of building permits and other helpful clues on historic places. And don't forget to read the ads; they give great insight into the daily life of the time.
Go the distance. Don't let your research end at the library. Local or county courthouses keep records of property transfers, the contents of estates, and details about court cases. Visit other county offices for birth, marriage, and death records. Local historical societies often have early photographs, exhibits, and books about your town.
Use Your Ears
One of the best ways to discover local history is to make a new friend, or just have a conversation with an old one. Oral histories are often one of the most important tools that historians use to document the past – and you can use them too!
Has your family lived in your town for decades? Have your kids interview older family members about what it was like to grow up in your community. Use old photo albums to compare and contrast specific places in town, as well as to learn about those places that no longer exist.
Find an older family member or neighbor who has lived in your community for many years. Ask them for a few minutes of their time to go down memory lane and talk about your town or a specific building that you like.
Write some questions down ahead of time so that you don't forget the topics you want to cover. Ask them how have things changed. How are they still the same? What memories do they have of the places that you are researching or interested in? Where did they hang out when they were kids? What places did they go to that no longer exist today?
Make sure to bring a notebook to record what you learn. When you are done with the interview, confirm what you learned from the oral histories. Memories can sometimes fade and we all exaggerate about past events from time to time. And of course, don't forget to thank your interviewee.
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