"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Let Us Now Praise Little-Known Men

     I believe in giving credit where credit is due.  I write on a number of subjects, which, although related both geographically and thematically, might lead you to believe that I possess a vast, in-depth knowledge of many issues.  You would be wrong.  I recognize that even the small slice of reality about which I write is far too complex to understand completely.  Perhaps more to the point, no one—myself included—has the time to become intimately familiar with such a wide variety of subjects.  We depend on those who have done the spade work for us, the amateur local historians.


     Writing history is a collegial effort; anyone who attempts it alone will produce a defective product.  All written history proceeds on what was written before it, whether the primary sources of the times themselves or the secondary sources prepared afterward.  What counts is what each new work adds to the previous wisdom, changing it and making it reflect more closely what actually happened.  It’s a repetitive process, with no final, conclusive viewpoint.

     Those of us who would write of broad subjects over an extended time depend in particular on the secondary sources, and thus on their compilers.  The primary sources are just to overwhelming in number to review them all.  That’s where the diligent recorders of local history come in.  If it wasn’t for them, we pretenders to professionalism would have very little to work with.  We depend on their integrity, as compilers from the primary records.  We trust them for those most basic components of research, who, what, where,and when.   They have to get those right before we can venture into the how and why with any hope of making a contribution.  Neither of us does it for the money, I can assure you (mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be historians).  I suspect that their work will also be the more enduring, as their research will allow future professionals to troll through its contents and produce new “insights.”
 
     Local historians tend to fall into three broadly defined categories: the very lucky but very few who actually are paid to write, those who pursue local history as a hobby then really get involved after they retire, and those who somehow find the time to research and write while they are pursuing careers and raising families.  All three groups leave legacies, and each has a worthy example in the towns along the Schuylkill River.

     Local writing about the history of localities in Montgomery County is dominated by the work of Edward Hocker.  The column in the Times Herald for which he would become famous, “Up and Down Montgomery County,” began appearing in 1922.  He did, in fact, range up and down the county, although during his time Norristown was quite central to the county, so many of his columns focused on the borough.  These establish him as the preeminent historian of Norristown.  He tried diligently to write something about just about everywhere in the county, and purists fault him for overstressing local connections to major events, as not everywhere in the county had something of significance to remember.  Regardless, Hocker’s columns are a marvelous source of early county history, and that of Norristown in particular.  I have perused them many times for my work.  Edward Hocker died in 1962, at the age of 89, but his columns were re-run in the Times Herald for decades.  I’ve always though the parent company should publish a collection of his articles.  I think they would sell well (hint, hint).

     Edward Hocker was a professional; i.e., he was paid to write what he did.  Most local historians, however, are amateurs.  This is NOT a judgment on the quality of their work, merely recognition that they don’t do it for money.  They do it out of love for their communities, a love that actually costs them money, but they do it anyway.

     Pottstown has long had just such a dedicated chronicler.  Michael Snyder somewhat straddles the line between professional and amateur, in the sense that he was a public school history teacher (now retired).  That certainly counts as pursuing a career, yet he still found time to write over one hundred articles on Pottstown history for the Pottstown Mercury, and continues to write today.  He published a book, Pottstown Remembered, in 2010, and currently serves as the president of the Pottstown Historical Society.  I’ve emailed him about my current research, and look forward to meeting and talking with him on my next return to the area.  I know he will teach me a lot about Pottstown history.

     The “twin boroughs,” Royersford and Spring City, are fortunate that William “Bill”Brunner chose to live where he did.  Bill typifies the second group of local historians; he worked for a living and raised a family before retiring in 2001.  He began as a collector of local post cards (he has published a book of them), and has become the local authority for this fascinating hobby.  Bill joined the Board of Directors of the Spring Ford Area Historical Society in 1990, more than a decade before he actually retired.  He became president of the Society in 2003 and remains so today.  He still writes the quarterly society newsletter, and features a historical topic in each one.  Bill has been—and continues to be—very supportive of my research efforts.  He gave me personal attention upon my first visit to the Spring-Ford Area Historical Society, and we continue to correspond.  I benefit greatly from his knowledge and from his passion for his community’s history.  Royersford and Spring City play little part in the local discourse about our communities, and that is unfortunate.  Their history is a component of the region’s history, their situation is faced by other communities of larger size, and their future will say much about how we respond to the challenges facing our towns.

     Downriver lies Conshohocken, a town that has always seemed to generate more than its share of proponents, people dedicated to spreading and preserving information about life in the borough.  For a long time, William “Bill” Collins was at the center (although I don’t want to overlook his wife), remembering and writing about Conshohocken.  Bill didn’t so much straddle the line between professional and amateur as render it irrelevant through his lifestyle.

     Bill Collins left us some time ago, but Conshohocken is fortunate in having someone who has labored long and hard—and continues to labor—at remembering and promoting his beloved borough.  He personifies my third classification, those who have had to put earning a living and raising a family first, yet still found the time to generate an amazing amount of historical output.  I can attest to this personally, having spent no small amount of time examining every document and publication concerning Conshohocken history to which I can gain access.  My research has led me to this conclusion: if any of you, sometime in the last thirty years or so, have read something published about Conshohocken—its churches, its fire companies, or the many other subjects that make up its history—then you have probably read something written by Jack Coll.  He is an extraordinarily prolific writer, has published photo books for Arcadia Press, and not just about Conshohocken.  His vision extends much farther than that.  He has accumulated a considerable photo archive, and provided me with images for my book What Killed Downtown?  He also has personal experiences of downtown Norristown’s collapse that I utilized in the book itself.  Remember, he has done all this in addition to raising a family and making a living, as one of the local merchants I like to celebrate (here’s a hint: it’s on Fayette Street, and has his last name in the title).  You don’t have to go to the Conshohocken Library or Historical Society to read his work, although I always encourage such activities on general grounds; he publishes articles regularly on the website Conshystuff (http://conshystuff.com/).  The website is the work of his son Brian, who is quickly developing a reputation on his own for boosting Conshohocken and its people.

     To my mind, the fundamental work of these quiet, often little-known recorders of local history cannot be overestimated.  If I had to do all that work of accumulation, I would have little time left over to pontificate.  So here’s to them!