Finding the Layers in Your Town
Mary Joan Cook, December 1990
Have you ever wondered how your hometown got its name, or the elementary school you attended or the street on which you lived? A few years ago I decided to use that kind of wondering as the motivation for my student's freshman research paper.
James Michener's The Source, the fascinating story of an archaelogical dig through a fifteen-layer fictional site at Makor, in the Holy Land, suggested my "find the layers of your town" assignment. At each layer of the dig an object was discovered, and around this object Michener created a story related to and incorporating the historical and scriptural persons and events of that layer's period. Michener's fecund imagination gave life to the bare archaeological remains. The excavated objects took on a new significance when their "story" was told.
In my first assignment for this research/term paper, I talk about Michener's book and its layers. I explain that the layers of a town's history are actually evident, that if one reads the signs carefully, the past is present. One need not dig physically to find a town's history. Most of its "layers" are, in fact, visible today. They surround us even as we walk or drive down its streets or lanes; we need only to learn to look. The alert observer can detect evidence which suggests the town's political, economic, religious, social, and educational history and its founders, developers, educators, political leaders, and industrialists.
I ask the students to look around their own town at the names of streets, buildings and parks, at monuments and plaques, at houses of worship, to visit old cemeteries and to jot down any observations they make or any questions they may have. Since almost all of our students either commute or return home regularly on weekends, this assignment can easily be carried out. Students from neighboring states also participate, but since this research project does demand some on-site time it would exclude students who could neither fit this in nor substitute another appropriate site for their research. In my own experience, no student has been unable to carry out the assignment.
One major premise of this "layers" study is that the signs of the past are readily visible. Throughout, the students are reminded that the layers they are looking for are not hidden away inside buildings. A few illustrative slides of significant local street names, monuments, cemetery headstones, and old buildings in Hartford are shown in class to help the students see the kinds of evidence they will be seeking. I might use, for instance, two Indian street names (Wawarme and Sequassen), several Dutch street names (one commemorates Adrian Block, the seventeenth-century Dutch navigator whose ship traveled up the Connecticut River), a statue of Thomas Hooker, the city's founder, a bronze plaque (mounted on a large boulder) which summarizes the three-centuried history of Hartford's original high school, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the 1847 plaque on a major department store, and a statue of the nineteenth-century industrialist, Samuel Colt, in the park named for him.
As I show the objects pictured, I explain that they and many others like them preserve Hartford's story, taking us from the river and Indian layer up through the centuries to the skyscrapers and bridges of our own day.
In introducing the project, I also often use a film called The Long Tidal River, narrated by Katherine Hepburn and produced by her brother-in-law Ellsworth Grant; in it one sees the central role played by the Connecticut River over the centuries. It is a good introduction to the significance of the terrain as a piece of evidence to be noted in studying a town's history. For comparable films and videos focusing on other parts of the country, the two-volume Education Film/Video Locator (3rd ed., 1986) is a helpful tool.
Having shown the students how slides graphically present historic monuments and other evidence of the town's story, I strongly recommend that they use slides in their final oral presentation. Although the use of slides is not required, some kind of illustrative material is. Most of the students in fact take slides which they use for their final presentation and then keep for themselves. Those who do not incorporate slides use overhead transparencies (which can easily be produced at our media center), maps, drawings, and/or displayed photographs.
A class session is devoted to sharing orally the students' notes on the "look around your town" assignment. Typically, in this sharing, someone will mention observing that several cemetary headstones bear the same names as certain streets or that the local Congregational church has a sign which dates the church back to the seventeenth century or that a lake in the area has an Indian name. (I remember one student who, at this point, wondered why there was a "College Street" in Old Saybrook and who later discovered that Yale University itself was originally located in that spot.) As one listens to these observations, the speaker's voice rings with a tone that says, "I want to find out more about this."
In their next assignment, the students are asked to interview someone in the town who has lived there many years or who has studied its history. I usually suggest the town historian, a librarian, an elderly resident (perhaps a relative or friend of the family); lately I have added that one might visit a local nursing home and ask a member of the staff to recommend a knowledgeable person. At least one interviewee must be cited in the final research paper.
My reasons for requiring such a citation are varied. To begin with, most students do not spontaneously turn to interviewing as a means of research; they rely, rather, on written materials. Assigning the interview leads them to this means and introduces them to its effectiveness as a source. Moreover, the interview for this "layers of your town" project focuses on the knowledge of the elderly and on their lived experience. One goal of the assignment is to encourage interaction between the student and the interviewee and thereby to encourage the student's appreciation of the elderly person's knowledge gained through lived experience. Thirdly, by listening, the researcher is able to share the perspective of how one can personally remember the town as it was, who can bridge the past and the present, for whom riding the trolley down Main Street to the end of the line was a Sunday adventure.
High points of the interview are shared orally with the class. Almost always, the student conveys the results of this interview with a great deal of enthusiasm and appreciation of the experience. The interviewee has obviously enjoyed reminiscing about the town with an interested listener. I can remember one student describing a drive through the town of Enfield. In the car with him had an elderly informant who excitedly poured forth into a tape recorder the story of building after building. And another student comes to mind who heard from two women in their nineties the story of working as teenagers in the town magnate's textile factory. Just a few simple questions, such as "What was Main Street like when you were young?" evoke a heartwarming response and one which will add valuable details to the young researcher's essay.
The students, equipped now with their own lived experience in the town, their recent observations, and the information gained from interviewing, turn next to books, journals, newspapers, and other written sources, seeking documentation and verification for their interviewee's comments and answers to their own questions concerning street names or old buildings or the dates for the coming of various ethnic or religious groups. Now they must find out if what they guessed or heard is true, whether it is legend and hearsay or recorded fact. What do historians write about the famed "Charter Oak"? and is the capitol actually built on the original site of Trinity College? Is the street name "Navillus" truly a disguised tribute to the Sullivan immigrant? The students enter readily into this phase of research. If they expect their readers to accept their assertions about the town's past and about the significance of the signs which they have observed, they must find and cite authoritative sources in addition to their interviewee's recollections.
They are advised to take notes carefully and from a variety of sources. In addition to their using the local and college libraries, I suggest they try the state and local historical societies, the town hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the State Library in Hartford. Each of these sources has proved helpful to students. Old maps of the early settlers' land allotments, property deeds, newspaper articles written for the bicentennial celebrations, up-to-date brochures on the town's development, all serve to document the student's research.
Recently, one student, curious about the number of French street names in her neighborhood, ferreted out the answers she needed from land records, old newspapers, and parish church bulletins. When she drives by Caya, Burgoyne, and Levesque streets now, she knows well the intriguing story of the young Canadian developer who named them.
About midway in the semester, several class hours are devoted to three-minute talks by the students. Students each choose an interesting facet of their study; this may be a notable person in the town's history, a house, a local legend, a historic event, or a particular institution; the possibilities are varied. It is important that the student narrow the subject of this talk lest it become identical with the scope of the entire paper. By this time, the speakers are apt to be so enthusiastic and so knowledgeable that I use a handbell to signal that their time is up.
At the conclusion of these talks, all students are asked to write for about thirty minutes from their notes on what they have heard. These essays, written in class, may focus on any aspects of the talks. The principle of organization is up to the student. I do, however, suggest considering points of comparison and/or contrast in the material heard. All must also strive for an engaging opening and satisfying closing. As a set of in-class essays, these, which I do grade, are apt to be very successful.
When the research on the town's history is complete, the students must decide on their focus for the final paper. Most are eager to discuss their choice of a focus with me, and we do this either formally in a scheduled conference or informally before or after class. At this point in the process, I also ask them to develop a thesis statement and topic outline. To help them, I present, on an overhead transparency, an effective outline and thesis statement of a former student. Students submit their outline to me about four weeks before the research paper is due. I return the outline with comments, suggestions, and/or corrections. They develop their final paper from this outline. I do not ask to see their preliminary drafts, although this step could easily be added to the process.
The selection of a focus or theme encourages originality in the organization of the paper and is one of the ways in which the student impresses on it her/his own perspective. Usually during the research, the student becomes especially interested in a particular facet of the story. It might be a family's contribution over the centuries; one student, for instance, traced her family from the founding of the little Connecticut town to her own residence there now. One chose to focus on contemporary evidence of the Shaker community's history in Enfield; another on the tradition of their town's independence. Still another did a sensitive study of the Little River that ran through Hartford and emptied into the more majestic Connecticut River. Using the rhetorical figure of personification, she pictured the "giving river," changing over the centuries until it was literally buried under a new highway.
Another important original aspect of the paper lies in the students' explicit linking of today's evidence of the town's history with their own research. The students are frequently reminded that in their essay they must refer to the still-visible evidence of the people, events, topographical features, buildings, and institutions that formed the town they know today. The student writing on Hartford, for instance, would point to the still evident remains of the Little River, to the statuary on Burr Mall depicting a pioneering family and labelled "The Safe Arrival," to the plaque on Center Church commemorating its first pastor and date of establishment, to the streets named Potter, Asylum, Pratt, Wyllys, and Morgan, to the Amos Bull House, and to Mark Twain's mansion in Nook Farm. Explicitly referring the reader to observable signs of the town's story, of its chronological layers, is essential for the successful completion of this research paper.
Near the end of the semester, students each use their own set of fifteen to twenty slides or other types of illustrative material and share their research with the class. The illustrations picture the terrain, the historic buildings, public monuments, street signs, cemetery headstones, ruins, and other evidence of the town's layered history. The time allotted to each presentation varies with the size of the class. Typically, four, fifty-minute class periods are devoted to these presentations. The class size ranges from fifteen to the low twenties and the time of each presentation from nine to twelve minutes. Several slide-projector carousels are provided, and students can follow one another smoothly.
The presentations are always enthusiastic as the students point out with considerable confidence and authority the historic aspects of their town. The use of slides or other illustrative material lessens the student speaker's self-consciousness and heightens the attentiveness of the listeners. The latter, having researched their own towns, appreciate the work which has gone into their classmate's presentation and form a supportive, interested audience.
In giving the presentation, too, originality surfaces. In my experience, the most creative was an amateur videotape in which the student, costumed elaborately as Wethersfield's traditional symbol, the red onion, was pictured parading through the town's center, pausing here and there to comment on selected historic sites.
During the presentations themselves, I am basically a listener. Occasionally I make a general recommendation to a speaker or help a student who is having difficulty with the slide projector. In addition, of course, I take notes and evaluate each student's work. At the end of the course, I meet individually with each student for a fifteen-minute conference whereupon I review with them my judgement of both the research paper and the oral presentation.
This "find the layers of your town" topic has without doubt worked far better than any other topic in my twenty-plus years of teaching the research paper. It has proved to be one that interests the students, lends itself to research, is not too esoteric, and demands originality. I have tried it with at least one-hundred students, both traditional age and older. The older students, men and women, many of whom are just beginning or returning to college, carry out this assignment as a part of Communication 104, a course intended to help them make the transition back to school. The assignment enables them to combine research with their own experience as mature adults, as well as residents of the town. And in the excitement of learning and communicating the answers to their questions about their town's history, they overcome some of their fears about writing and speaking in an academic setting.
The traditional-aged freshmen in my classes (all young women) find that their research interests the whole family; often this includes grandparents, whose knowledge on this topic is a joyfully recovered resource. The topic, and the research involved, may even provide a wholesome link between home and college life. In addition, the in-class sharing on their hometown, its special places and meaning, introduces these young people to one another at a level which is not readily reached in a formal academic setting.
In closing, it is important to mention one or more outcomes of this "finding the layers of your town" assignment; that is, the application of historical imagination. Our imagination, by which we can picture that which is not present to us, frees us from the restrictions of the here and now and allows us to transcend our immediate environment. Imagination enlarges our world. It enables us to picture other times, other places, other people. It helps us to extend ourselves, to understand what we have not personally experienced, to bond with those from different times and places. It is imagination which can help us envision a past we have not experienced. With it we are able to place ourselves in another time and identify more easily with those who have preceded us.
The students who have been researching the layers of their towns can, with imagination and newly acquired knowledge, frequently picture the town as it was in its different historical periods. They "see" the Town Green in the eighteenth century, the mainstreet, or the country roads. They can picture the coming of the railroad, the Civil War regiment commemorated in the monument on the green as it departed for camp, and the Saturday night dances in the little wooden hall, still standing on Pearl Street. They hear the bustling factory summoning its workers with a shrill whistle.
The student of Hartford's story may stand on the bank of the Connecticut River at the site of the seventeenth-century Dutch fort and can imagine off to the west, clearly visible from this vantage point, the great oak, and beyond that the beginnings of the English settlement.
Such imaginings brings the past to life and a new understanding of the present. It enlarges one's perspective as the surface view is deepened with a knowledge of the layers which have formed the town and an appreciation of its centuried human story.
This appreciative awareness of the past, which adds a new dimension to the students' surroundings, is a major goal of the "find the layers of your town" assignment, an awareness which I hope will enrich their daily lives and the lives of those with whom they share their research.
—Mary Joan Cook has taught courses in writing and in oral communication at Saint Joseph College for twenty-four years. In conjunction with an NEH grant, she recently developed and team-taught an American studies course which grew out of the "layers" project and was entitled "Layers in the City: Hartford."