"Now," the teacher said, "who knows when the Mexican War started?"
The boy fidgeted irritably in his seat. When the teacher looked at him pointedly, he just shrugged. What difference did it make when some war started? It didn't have anything to do with him. It was always the same with their history lessons: boring dates, boring facts, dead people, and long-ago events that everyone knew were forever in the past -- "history." His mind drifted to the fine spring morning, baseball, and fishing.
Years later, the boy grown into a man ran across some history books. These books didn't recite dry facts and endless dates; they described the times and the events that shaped them, the heroic struggles, the double-dealing, the impact of one small event in turning the course of an entire nation in later years -- ten years, twenty years, fifty years into the future. The books didn't list names of famous persons with short reasons why these people were important; instead, they told of men who had passed by only a few miles from where the boy grew up, men and women who lived life large, who forged trails and explored the wilderness, who wrote with sharp and humorous insight or whose stalwart actions turned the balance in a critical moment.
The past suddenly took on vivid color and life and meaning, and the man shook his head as he thought about how these opportunities to explain history had been wasted when he was a boy. Perhaps it was in that moment his conviction formed that other people should know that history is more than just dates and names, and means more than just a passing grade on a test.
The Kansas Collection reflects this belief. For example, here you won't find dry statements such as "Josiah Gregg left Independence, Missouri on a trading expedition on May 15, 1831 and arrived in Council Grove on May 26, 1831." Instead, you find Josiah Gregg's own description of that journey in Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844:
"At last all are fairly launched upon the broad prairie -- the miseries of preparation are over -- the thousand anxieties occasioned by wearisome consultations and delays are felt no more. The charioteer, as he smacks his whip, feels a bounding elasticity of soul within him, which he finds it impossible to restrain; even the mules prick up their ears with a peculiarly conceited air, as if in anticipation of that change of scene which will presently follow. Harmony and good feeling prevail everywhere.
In the Kansas Collection, you will not find a brief reference to Midwest rail shipping in the late 1800s; instead you will find Fred Wishart's absorbing recollection of riding the rails with his father on a February night nearly 100 years ago, when he was a small boy:
"My father, Dave Wishart, was quite a trader both in land and stock (mostly horses). In one trade he got hold of a quarter section of land out west and having sold out the stock of shoes he decided to try his hand farming again. So after having made a trip out to the new location to put in some fall wheat the previous fall, he moved out bag and baggage the next spring.
And you will not find in the Kansas Collection a short biography of lawman Tom Smith...instead you can learn the sort of man he was by reading the stirring article, "Tom Smith of Abilene":
"Beginning back in 1867, the hard-bitten drovers from Texas had regularly escorted cantankerous longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to be loaded into east-bound cattle cars on a siding of the Kansas Pacific railroad; and immediately afterward the weary cowpunchers would invigorate the economy of the accommodating Kansas town with a wild splurge of pleasure-seeking. While some merchants enticed the rambunctious visitors to waste their latest earnings on local attractions, the city had gone through two years of terror generated by shooting and shouting ruffians invading from distant localities. Exhibiting a defiant brashness, the alien cowboys openly taunted the administrators of local city government.
History is not a dry assortment of dates and facts, nor is it wildly romanticized stories that hide more of the past than they reveal. History is simply how things were...how events happened...and who was there when they did. That is certainly interesting enough! The Kansas Collection, created by Lynn Nelson and directed by Dick Taylor, is dedicated to this idea, to let the voices of the past be heard again through their own accounts, through descriptive narratives, and through photographs and postcards of the time.
Ah, but if it's dates and places you want -- the Kansas Collection has those too. They're just given KanColl-style:
Why are dates in history important? True, all those "on this day in history" features would be pretty slim if we didn't know the date things occurred, but does it really matter whether something happened in 987 A.D. or 988? or December 2 instead of December 3?
Well, it might....if something happened in 988 that would have made the event in 987 impossible, or if what transpired on December 2 led to the events on December 3. Dates help in understanding what else was going on at the time a particular event occurred. For example, in Summerfield, a description of how the world looked to the town's founders in 1888 takes us back to that time and explains their enthusiasm in creating a town on a new route of the Kansas City, Wyandotte, and Neosho Railroad.
As another example, when early pioneers were heading West to settle the Frontier in 1859, taking along Capt. Randolph Marcy's manual A Prairie Traveler, this was the same year that Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, work began on the Suez Canal, and a serious drought began that brought famine to Kansas, led to many settlers returning East, and caused Eastern states to send relief to those settlers who stayed.
This was the world these folks lived in, the news they read about...sometimes little knowing what that news would lead to in future years. The development of the gasoline automobile, which could traverse the West on special highways in a matter of two or three days, might have seemed like an impossible dream to the prairie traveller of 1859; yet that was the year the first oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Names are important to people: they name their children, cities, trees, cars, cats, rivers -- well, "you name it," they've got one for it. Which may not be the same as the name you're using -- and in learning about history, this can get pretty frustrating!
Some differences can be attributed to spelling changes or usage over time. But some changes are deliberate, and in Kansas, as noted in the article "Forgotten Counties of Kansas," "It would appear that the favorite pastime of the early settlers was organizing new counties and changing the names of those already organized." A quick look at the list of name changes for Kansas places in KanColl's Orphan Trains gallery will give you an idea of how enthusiastic these folks were! And Cutler's History of the State of Kansas is full of stories of counties that exchanged boundaries sometimes from year to year.
For example, the history of the development of Chase county includes a bewhildering series of changes: "Chase County was established by an act of the Territorial Legislature of 1859, which was approved by Governor Medary, February 11. Its territory was taken from the counties of Wise and Butler; the township line between Townships 17 and 18 was made the south boundary of Wise; that between Townships 21 and 22 the north boundary of Butler. Wise and Butler were formed by the Territorial Legislature of 1855, and the name of Wise was changed to Morris by an act of the Legislature of 1859. The Legislature of 1800 made the eastern boundary of Chase and Butler counties the range line between 9 and 10. The State Legislature of 1864 provided for the taking off of Township 22 in Ranges 6, 7, 8 and 9 from Butler and making it the southern portion of Chase. In 1878 eighteen sections were taken off of the east side of Townships 20, 21 and 22, Range 5, and made a part of Chase." By the way, if all this talk of ranges and townships has you confused, KanColl's Land Survey provides an easily understood explanation of what these are.)
It's easy to see that events can be shaped by the places in which they occur; it is also true that we shape places to fit our view of how things should be. Jamake Highwater, in The Primal Mind, points out that architecture can tell us how people view their world, and their relationship to nature: "Do their buildings contrast with the forms of the earth, or do they echo them? It tells us how they think about space." The neatly ordered English garden reveals something very different about the person who creates it and how they relate to Nature than the person who creates a natural rock garden...not to mention the person who doesn't have a garden at all.
You can see this in Kansas architecture too. Classic New England-style churches, impossibly grand hotels, imposing government buildings, and easily-transported tipis all illustrate how the people who built in Kansas saw their world, and their place in it. Also revealing is how many of these structures have vanished, victims of fire, weather, or simple disinterest. A few years back, the Kansas State Historical Society sold a book with old photographs of buildings in Topeka, Kansas. On page after page, the editor noted that this building had been torn down to make way for a freeway, that building had been replaced by a more modern-looking one, this house was destroyed when a parking lot was needed....
Kansans seemed to have the idea, persisting to this day, that if you wanted something, you just threw out the old and started over with something new. Part of that may be an echo of the pioneer spirit, part of it may be a rejection of the tradition-bound places Kansans emigrated from, and part of it may simply be a response to the natural abundance of Kansas resources -- "there's always more where that came from." Whatever the reason, many buildings have, and are, disappearing -- making old photographs and postcards such as those in the Kansas Collection important in seeing how the world looked fifty, eighty, a hundred years ago.