Wednesday, January 7, 2015

History Relevancy Campaign: Part 4 Our Communities

Note: This is part 4 in an 8 part series on the History Relevancy Campaign, based on an article titled "The Value of History: Seven Ways It is Relevant" from Public History News Vol. 35, No. 1.

Note: Any quotes designated by an asterisk (*) come from that article.

Special thanks to the NCPH as inspiration for this series.

From the campaign's call to action: We believe that history --- both knowledge of the past and the practice of researching and making sense of what happened in the past --- is critically important to the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the future of our nation.*

Our Communities- 3. Vital Places to Live and Work- History lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities.*

Community identity is a central component to most civic engagement. Towns and cities hold festivals, parades, and other events in an attempt to maintain traditions and build a sense of togetherness. Some do so successfully, some not so much. Only by buying in do events such as these succeed in building a community identity. Often, these events rely on historical themes such as "founder's day" or "Independence Day." My personal favorite was the 4-H fair. My grandmother, father, mother, and siblings were all a part of 4-H, and thus, I had a close personal connection to this yearly endeavor. Below is an essay I wrote describing my experiences with being a part of 4-H.

"What does the fair mean to you?" a local news interviewer asks me. I think to myself "What do they want to hear? What's the company line? What can I say and not look like an idiot on the air?" All of these things run through my mind because there is no simple answer. It's a part of my life and has been since I can remember. It is a part of my friends' and family's lives as well. We sit around talking nowadays about how good the old fairs were, and how much more time and effort we put into our projects way back when than the kids do today.

There's a country song where the singer describes a man's love of the rodeo, "it's boots and chaps, it's cowboy hats, it's spurs and a lotta gold, it's the white in his knuckles, the gold in the buckle he'll win the next go round, it's the ropes and the reins, the joy 'n the pains and they call the thing a rodeo."
That same line applies to the county fair I grew up with and now help with. When we were kids, we went through broken bones, cuts, scrapes, and bruises all with the hope of walking away with one of those purple ribbons. You'll hear, occasionally, today of a kid who got thrown from a horse, or stepped on by a steer, but parents today are much more guarded about their children. I'm reminded about this as I help the child of one of our friends with a lamb for the youth halter show. The ornery lamb spins around him, knocks him down, and leaves him with a rope burn on his palm for his inattentiveness. "Oh my God, are you okay honey? How could YOU let this happen to him?" she bawls at me. "Next time he'll pay attention and hold the rope a little tighter," I simply say. Ten minutes later, he is walking out of the arena with a big grin on his face, a ribbon in one hand, and the lamb in the other. "Thank you sooooo much," his mother says (now oblivious to her previous ranting) "he had sooooo much fun."
Fun, that's one word I would say hits the nail on the head for describing the fair. The fun of climbing up the rusty ladder to the dunk tank, only to be suddenly splashed down when some guy who thinks he's Nolan Ryan finally hits the target. Silently I remind myself "don't grab the fence, don't grab the fence." I forgot this one time, and was rewarded by tearing open all of my fingers on the chain link fence that guards us volunteers from errant pitches. In the split second as I started to drop, I pulled my hands in tight to my sides. -SPLASH, right into the murky, rusty, well water. Most people would think it's dirty, but we think it's just fine.

Dirty, hmmm, a silly, yet appropriate descriptor for our adventures. Sweat dripping from our brows; hay and straw stuck to our skin; manure coating our boots as we clean out pens on Friday morning. 
Last night though, we celebrated the real dirt and grime of the fair, the Greased Watermelon Contest (aka the most barbaric sport since the Coliseum). For the un-introduced; take two teams of five 4-Her's, hundreds of parents, siblings, and alumni cheering in the stands, two identical obstacle courses made of farm materials and kiddie pools, two watermelons, and coat it all with a giant wheel barrowful of black tractor axel grease. Each team runs through the course carrying the greased melon in a relay. The first team to have all of their members sitting with the watermelon at the end wins. What prize do you get for having your team make it through the tournament to win? A set of t-shirts from the local radio station and coupons for free milkshakes from the Dairy Producer's tent. Then, we spill out into the animal washstands to scrub off with the hoses and ice cold water because as the announcer has stated, "y'all go out with the rest of the animals." As we wash off, we start to take account of the fresh cuts and scrapes we've received.

A few years ago, one of the members of the fair Queens team leapt over the first bale of hay, landed on her shoulder with a sickening *CRACK,* and was carted to the hospital with a broken collarbone. 
Last year, the winner was a friend, and fellow alumnus who was running on my alumni team. She split open her thigh and a kindly doctor gifted her fifteen stitches, for all the fun though, she didn't realize she was in pain. When she looks back, she won't remember the pain, she'll remember the lights, the crowd, and the glory of it all.

Glory is a fitting word for those who know the fair. When you're nine years old there is no greater worry than when you're sitting in the Coliseum, waiting on your project that you've painstakingly assembled to be judged for the championship. You know that you're minutes away from knowing whether you'll have a blue star (a non-official designation that to a 4Her means you were better than most but not good enough to win), a reserve champion (good but you'll always wonder why it wasn't quite good enough), and a champion (a nice purple ribbon which gives you the right to dog on all the friends you just bested). When they start to announce the winner, your palms get all sweaty, your face gets clammy, your stomach starts to do loop-the-loops, and even a nuclear blast cannot separate your focus from the judge's words. Then in an instant your trance is broken, either in the glory of victory, or the agony of defeat. Before you realize it you're on the phone telling Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and any other person who will listen how you did, and if need be providing reasons for why you've lost. This news will spread throughout the grounds faster than you can walk because it's the key gossip of the day. "Who took miscellaneous crafts?" "Bill Walsh, he brought another one of those really cool looking' fountains he makes. You know, I heard his sister Joanne just got engaged."
Gossip is a crucial ingredient to successful fair living. Word on the fairgrounds spreads faster than soap opera news at a nursing home. This year, I'm trying to jump out in front of one of these rumors. Apparently, what started as a joke has half of the fairgrounds thinking that I'm engaged. I know I'll never stop it from spreading so I tell some key folks I know who spend the whole week at the fair, that it's not true. This won't make it halt, but they'll spread the word and eventually the wildfire will die out. I can't blame anyone though, after a while of sitting around, there's nothing better to do than to swap stories with folks about what's going on and who is shacking up with whom nowadays.
There's only one thing that pervades even more rumors and discussions of where the fair is headed.
"Too many city people now," one friend laments. "Nobody's bringin' their best to county anymore," another grumbles "they're all takin' their best to the open shows and invitationals." –THWAP! His tobacco juice splats into the dirt. He adjusts his buckle which is digging uncomfortably into his belly, "all they bring is throwaways they couldn't sell at auction. Gambles', Sheets', Jones' all out, nobody's left to bring some decent competition. Only ones who really put in the work are the ones bringin' six, seven hundred dollar steers they picked up from a cousin or neighbor." "Just a generation gap," I throw in. "Nah, it's all different now." –THAWP! There goes another mouthful of Skoal "it's just too damn hot out here today, never used to get this hot." "Alright guys," I interject, "gotta get runnin, just got a text sayin we've got another llama out, and one of my kids (once you become a leader, the members in you project become "your kids") has got hers hung up on a hog panel."

I can't tell the reporter all of this though; it'll never make the air. So instead I go back to the standard "it's all about bringing together the kids and the community while teaching them life skills." Anyone who's in 4-H will know it's a cookie cutter answer, but the truth is it keeps the reporters happy and the people in the community have their sound bite. That's all they really want from me anyway. I tell the interviewer I have to run, there's a kid trying to feed nachos to my sister's sheep. It's all in a day's work out here, and there's no job I love more.

The reality is that our 4-H fair provided a connection to our community's past (though that may have been more perceived than reality). As a result, we were deeply invested in maintaining what we saw, and continue to see, as an essential part of our hometown. While the hours devoted may seem silly to an outsider, these moments provide a way to develop personal and professional relationships that carry through to today. 

Developing relationships between generations in a community requires developing an overarching narrative that spans years. These relationships create continuity over time, and invest value in a locale among the participants. Citizens who place value in their community participate in its success. These are the truest stewards of civic engagement, the ones who become community and organizational leaders, thus ensuring the strength of a place for the next generation.

If you're interested in reading how history and events help foster community identity, take a look at the links below. If you have suggestions for other information, please comment below.

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