I am surprised how often I hear that one thing or another is being celebrated because it happened a certain number of years ago. On the one hand, I understand that this is one way we positively integrate an awe for history into our collective experience of the current calendar year. On the other hand, it often feels a little hollow. The opportunity is taken to get some attention, but not so much to reflect on the current day in light of that important event, or that person’s impressive actions.
Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, so 2009 is being regarded as the 200th anniversary of Lincoln. I was treated last week to a special tour of the Tallman House in Janesville. It was my first visit to what was, in it’s day (1850s) the largest home in Wisconsin. The owners were powerful and generous people, but they are now overshadowed by the fact that their home is where Lincoln slept when he visited Wisconsin in 1859. This year is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s visit to Wisconsin!
While touring the house, however, I was more curious about the details of luxury and practicality than in the lore of Lincoln’s visit. I like thinking about these things because of how much and how little has changed, and how frequently, it seems, we fail to recognize which is which.
For instance, I loved learning about the “modern” indoor plumbing at the Tallman house, fed from rainwater caught in a cistern on the roof for sinks on every floor of the house. I know of “modern” homes being built now to catch rain for gardening or flushing toilets. Similarly, when thinking of Lincoln’s short stay with the Tallman’s, I wondered how many beds recent candidates Barrack Obama and John McCain must have slept in during 2008, and if those spots will be similarly preserved and revered? I marvel at how much President Obama has traveled during his first days in office to meet with people all over the planet. How different time and space and distance were in the 1900s!
I read a short piece in the spring issue of Orion magazine about a town in Minnesota that had been a bustling hub until the railroad veered traffic and commerce eight miles southeast to a neighboring town. The author, Katrina Vandenburg, grew up in Detroit, and drew comparisons between the growth and decline of her hometown as a direct function of the automobile (and peak oil). Janesville, is connected to this history, as well, with the closure of General Motor’s oldest plant, opened in 1919. The City of Janesville is under major financial distress and is being criticized, as the owners of the Tallman historic house, for letting it fall into disrepair.
Vandenburg’s essay is called “Nails” and, like my fascination with the Tallman’s plumbing, she is interested in the fact that nails were, in the 1800s, valued so differently than they are today. When residents abandoned the Minnesota town, they burned their homes and took the nails with them. Vandenburg is frustrated that, despite the fact that we know our history, we often do the same dumb things over and over. She wishes we would “build something better” with those saved nails.
I, too, hope we can learn from history. I want us to ask probing questions instead of retelling stories without asking why the story is interesting in the first place. Two hundred years from now, on a tour of the White House, will the most popular anecdote be of selecting and naming the Obama family puppy? Sure, we all fascinate on different parts of history, but these sparks have the potential to ignite our visionary powers and allow our minds to travel from the past to the future. My hope is that anniversaries of important dates do not emphasize how dead history is, but instead give our collective imagination juicy nuggets to fascinate upon.
by Jessica Becker