Finding "Place" in the Past

By Camden Burd

M-20 is a not a particularly unique highway. It’s just one of many that crisscross the Michigan landscape. Yet the highway does carry some special significance to me. I drove it often when commuting between my family’s small cabin near Remus (pictured above) and Mt. Pleasant while studying at Central Michigan University. I can still visualize many of the sites along the route. Whether it was the humble façade of the Remus Tavern or the grandiose “Welcome to Mt. Pleasant” painted across the Ann Arbor Railroad Bridge on western edge of town, the familiar landmarks connected me to specific place, time, and experience.

We all have these places: a childhood home, a familiar walk, an iconic tree—even a favorite coffee shop can stir feelings of familiarity, and comfort. Most significantly, though, they create meaning. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, scholar of landscape studies, describes this type of attachment as a “sense of place.” People often transform mundane locations, nameless vistas, and sprawling landscapes into places because of “a lively awareness of the familiar environment, a ritual repetition, [and] a sense of fellowship based on shared experience.” Understanding the significance of a place tells us about the values of people who find meaning in the landscapes, monuments, and activities associated with those particular places.  

Historicizing a “sense place” has been the constant thread of my academic work since I began my MA in History at Central Michigan University in 2012. I first became interested with the study of place when I examined the historical roots of Michigan’s tourism industry in Northern Michigan. I was enamored with the perennial tradition of tourists and cottage-goers that traveled “Up North” for recreation and respite. With guidance from Jay Martin and Brittany Bayless Fremion, I dedicated my MA thesis to the cultural and environmental roots of the still-modern tradition. The core material of that research would later become the basis for my first peer-reviewed article, “Imagining a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists, and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” published in the Michigan Historical Review. Since then I have written on various topics related to “sense of place.” Whether it was an essay describing how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha served as a shared language for progressive-era conservationists to find new meaning in the cutover districts of the Upper Midwest or another article that illustrates how diminished economic activity on the Erie Canal motivated state and national politicians to create a new heritage-tourism industry along the artificial river. I have always started my research with a particular place and study the people who found meaning in it. Like a mirror, the study of the sense of place can reveal cultural assumptions, environmental values, and community values. 

Of course, a place’s meaning can change over time. Economic forces often disrupt livelihoods and community networks. New technologies shift the nature of work and how individuals interact with each other as well as local geography. Environmental changes can also shift the meaning of a place. Forests fall, rivers become dammed, and the behemoth influence of industrialization commodifies, extracts, and alters landscapes beyond recognition. Therefore, a sense of place can be a valuable lens to study past cultures. How historic groups value, interpret, and use landscape offers historians a unique lens to track environmental, economic, political, and cultural shifts over time. After all, these are the places where people make a home, find work, form identity, and create meaning.

 

Some suggested/favorite readings on Place:

Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Jared Famer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).


Camden Burd received his PhD in History from the University of Rochester in 2019. Before his time in Western New York, he spent two years completing his MA in History from Central Michigan University. During the 2019-2020 academic year Camden will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden.

www.camdenburd.com

Alexis de Tocquville’s “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” and the Clarke Historical Library’s Fall Exhibit 2018

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By Gillian Macdonald

As a PhD student in the history department you expect to be a teaching assistant for much of your time in the program.  Recently, however, the History Department at Central Michigan University has partnered with the Clarke Historical Library and the Michigan Historical Review to open up new opportunities for PhD students to embrace possible alternative careers to being a tenured professor. As the job market remains ever so thin, this opportunity is particularly helpful in offering training for careers outside of traditional tenure-track positions. 

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As one of the first PhD students to be granted this opportunity, let me take some time to describe my responsibilities at the Clarke Historical Library…my new home away from home as Frank Boles has so wonderfully called it. Simply put, arranging and creating exhibits is hard, detailed work. Anyone that thinks it is anything less than stressful (but enjoyable) up until the last minute is likely still enjoying the euphoria of finishing a project to give an accurate assessment. While exhibit curators and designers are fun people to work with, there is a lot of negotiation throughout the process. As historians we hope to see all elements of our research make it into an exhibit, but it is simply not possible to do so. That leads me to the Clarke’s Fall 2018 exhibit:  Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The idea for the exhibit itself began with United States District Court Judge Avern Cohen.

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Alexis de Tocqueville visited Michigan in the 1830s.  “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” or “Quinze jours dans le désert,” describes the journey he and Gustave de Beaumont took along the Saginaw Trail in 1831.  “We are going with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically as possible the entire scope of that vast American society which everybody talks about and nobody knows.” Enamored with the vast forest and wilderness of Michigan, he described the interior of Michigan with great admiration: “While exploring this flourishing wilderness...you feel only quiet admiration, a gentle, melancholy emotion, and a vague disgust with civilized life. With a sort of savage instinct, it pains you to think that soon this delightful solitude will have been utterly transformed.” Tocqueville’s travels in Michigan were part of a commissioned trip to the United States to examine the prison system.  However, his true aim was to explore the untapped outer limits of civilization was only made clear upon his arrival. 

Despite only being part of about half of the process for this exhibit, it is challenging nonetheless. The excruciating detail and time-consuming activities make a time crunch almost inevitable. Nonetheless, I had so much fun. Hands-on work and practical applications of history and the training that we get in the history department are put to the test not to mention an ability to create statistics about Michigan in the 1830s from scratch. This particular exhibit is marvelous (and I don’t just say that because I helped). It is the result of hard labor and a lot of fun exploring stacks and running back and forth from the printer doing last-minute labeling. Another fun perk is that the Clarke’s very own Bryan Whitledge is now on a first name basis with the Countess Stephanie de Tocqueville, so that’s pretty cool too. 

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In summary, the Clarke has one of the nicest housing spaces for exhibits that I have seen in any university library (in my limited experience). With this, they have a unique ability to showcase collections and exhibits, work with departments, be an archival library, and house a journal. You should check it out!

The Michigan Historical Review

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By Susan Paton, Assistant Editor, the Michigan Historical Review

For those of you who have not yet heard of us, the Michigan Historical Review is the state’s only scholarly journal covering Michigan history, and we are published twice a year out of our office in the Clarke Historical Library. It has its roots in an earlier journal, The Great Lakes Review, which began publication in 1984 out of CMU’s English Department (they took it over from Northeastern Illinois University who had been publishing it since 1974). It was then ‘repurposed’ into an academic history journal and came under the jurisdiction of the Clarke and CMU’s History Department. Under a unique partnership, the University provided the salary for an assistant editor, the Clarke supplied the office space, the History Department provided a course release and stipend for an editor (and for many years the book review editor as well), and the Historical Society of Michigan guaranteed a large number of printed copies by including it as part of one of their membership packages.

Thus, in 1986, the Michigan Historical Review was born, and we have been publishing twice a year ever since. What that means to Michigan and Midwestern history is the addition of over 200 articles (double-blind, peer-reviewed) and 1100 book reviews into the field. Most of our subscribers are university libraries, though we also have individual subscribers, and we can currently be found in either paper or electronic form in over twenty nations and thirty US states. Our participation in JSTOR, a national database of humanities-related journals, means an even wider distribution, averaging over 25,000 article requests and 12,000 article downloads per year.

I have worked as the MHR’s Assistant Editor during two separate periods: first for a couple of years in the late 1990s, while working on my PhD, and then again beginning in 2012. (In the interim period I owned and managed a restaurant and a wine & cheese market—but that is another story.) In my capacity here at the MHR, I edit article manuscripts and book reviews as well as oversee the daily operations of our small office. My duties are, thus, extremely varied, perhaps the primary reason I enjoy this job so much. On any given day I get to read (oh, and correct) a range of history articles, contact publishers about new books on Midwestern history, keep tabs on our many subscribers, answer our correspondence, and remind tardy book reviewers that we are hoping to hear from them soon—and a host of other little details.

I have learned so much about Michigan’s remarkable history over these past few years, and I have really enjoyed getting to know and work with so many fascinating and curious people. And the pleasure of getting to work at a job with so many appealing facets is matched by what is perhaps an even greater perk of my job—I get to work in the Clarke Library. For a nerd like myself (and I am probably safe in assuming like many of you), being around such a wealth of fusty volumes and beguiling artifacts is a dream come true. But the best part of working at the Clarke is its people, truly the kindest staff on CMU’S campus. And if this sounds a bit like a swan song, I guess it is. It is with very mixed emotions that I leave this job at the end of next month. I am moving to sunny California so I can be a bigger part of my grandson’s life. If CMU had a crown, the MHR and the Clarke would be its brightest gems. And I am so honored and gratified to have been able to call this little corner of campus home for these past six years. If you haven’t read one of our issues yet, I hope you will stop on by sometime soon. 


Susan Paton, has been the Assistant Editor of the Michigan Historical Review for a couple of years in the late 1990s, and then again since 2012. She will retire at the end of next month.