By Alexander Greff
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA; CMU ALUMUS
“Hey – are you the general?” Teenagers are always the one’s who ask first, though many of their parents aren’t far behind. It’s the question I seem to get more often than anything: more than anything about the house, the field equipment, the artillery pieces, or the stables – and it leaves me seriously reconsidering my commitment to grow a 1870s-style mustache. How was I supposed to know my facial hair would bleach in the summer sun?!
It was a grand, old-timey kind of summer that I spent, working as an undergraduate history major at Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the banks of the Missouri River in central North Dakota. It wasn’t my first stint working in public history (though that had also involved a cowboy-esque persona), but it was my most memorable. My work was split that summer between leading tours at a recreated Mandan Native American village site, and the adjoining 19th century frontier fort, which just so happened to be the final posting of George Armstrong Custer (only a Lieutenant Colonel after the Civil War, mind!) before the Little Bighorn. The fort posting also involved full living history -- the men in the blue woolen uniforms, the women in cotton dresses with petticoats and bonnets. Come the festival days of mid July, which involved activities in close proximity to horses, it was hard to tell who suffered most in the heat. And despite precipitous attempts to grow my hair out in a cool, period fashion, it was one of the best history related jobs I’ve had.
Public history is great for getting a real sense of the people’s perceptions of our field. You find out what interests people most about the past, like a real sense of connecting to famous or everyday people. Every time I had to put down my open-fire roasted cowboy coffee and explain to a family that I was not General Custer, but rather his aide dè campe and not fit to wear his fancy buckskins, I’d always get a laugh. Except with the teenagers. They laugh at nothing, but the unease of a docent earnestly describing the purpose of a fainting couch. Then they would laugh, because it meant talking about corsets. And this was public history – the conversation between the fixed stories of historical folks and objects, and the people with all new faces and interests to passed down our dusty road every day. If nothing else, working in public history is like being an improv-academic – you find that every person is interested in something different -- from cast iron cutlery, to the stables, to the firearms -- and that you’re responsible for keeping them entertained and, hopefully, letting them walk away better informed about the past.
Sometimes this goes awry and chaos becomes the teacher. On one day, with a particularly large tour, my colleague led the way under the line of cottonwood trees in front of the main house. From the back of the group there was little time to warn him of the six-foot long bull snake sliding out of the branches before it landed on his head, sending half the students running back towards the parking lot. “How lucky were these students?” I thought, nobody else every gets to join us in directly reliving all the parts of living on the frontier. Snakes were only one of the frequent interactions with the conditions of the past that, at least through terror, compelled visitors to think more about their own relationship with history…and how to safely approach a guest book laid across an outdoor veranda. (Another story, but I’m sure you can guess…)
Most days, working in public history was about taking all the mundane parts of the past and being given the chance to remember that history is full of weird things that interest people. The public historian is in the unique position not just to reach out to, but also to engage with the public in a way that research and writing doesn't often allow. And it's a great opportunity to remember the people (alive or long passed) who first interested you in history and to pass that opportunity on. So mind the snakes, grab some cowboy coffee, and try not to let the handlebar mustache distract you too much from jumping into history!