Havre de Grace Patch Launches History Column
Teacher and local history buff Gary Wasielewski kicks off our weekly history column
Havre de Grace has always had a sense of its history. It is as if its citizens always knew that historicalness would be its enduring trait.
The very streets define its place in various eras of history. A brisk walk takes you through the Revolution (think Franklin and Washington streets), bodies of water tied to its 19th century canal (Otsego and Ontario), local historical figures (Pennington and Seneca) and the names of fowl now more often found in wooden form in collectible shops than in the flesh (Canvasback and Bufflehead).
These choices create the nomenclature of our town.
We like to shout our history. A cannon, a light house, venerable and humble brick, and wooden and stone buildings remind us that we are historic. We can probably challenge most national jurisdictions for museums per capita or per square mile. These pieces dot the landscape and adorn our city flag, our emblems and the very character of this town. Signs that scream "THIS IS HISTORIC" do not let us forget our heritage.
Let's summarize our history: founded, considered for the nation's capital, burned up by the Brits, rails laid, canal dug, fish were caught, food was canned, some ducks were shot and horses were raced. These are the linchpins of our history. They create a trellis for other events to cling to and fill out. Benchmarks are beneficial for historical navigation and give us temporal orientation.
This placemat history is great for the tourist who kills time while waiting for their lunch and school age children trying to grasp the basic events of our past. But for those of us who know these waters, history does not need to shout.
It whispers to us. It exposes through subtleties.
For every well known historic place there are dozens of examples that hint at their past through slight clues; conjoined buildings of two different styles or peeled siding exposing clapboard facades. These hints are not exclusive to buildings alone.
James Deetz in his breakthrough work, "In Small Things Forgotten," uses the pedestrian artifact to develop insights into the past. Like a master detective, Deetz uses minute clues like pipe fragments to discuss race relations, or headstone designs to show change in early American views of the afterlife. He demonstrates that simple clues from ordinary lives can tell us amazing details of our past. Havre de Grace has plethora of clues if we know what to look for in our environs.
- Why do so many older buildings have slate roofs and granite foundations?
- In the downtown section, why are there so many oyster shells near the surface of the ground?
- Why does Pennington Street curve, while the other streets off Juniata Street are perpendicular?
There are citizens out there who know the answers to these questions. But will there always be? James Loewen in his book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" uses concepts of time or history from African cultures to describe the typical phenomenon of remembering the past. Essentially, much of our history in the practical sense is 'sasha.' Central African cultures like the Swahili believe that people are not truly dead until those who knew them have passed away as well.
Havre de Grace is rich in stories from the living who remember those who made their lives in Havre de Grace. We share traditions and stories of past events and repeat sayings of deceased relatives and friends to educate, warn and amuse each other.
But once that is gone, what's next?
The 'zamani' is the next phase, our history moves from the edge of recall to the abyss of the past with a capital 'P.' It becomes one with the ages. Relatives become ancestors, events are tied together as eras, maintenance becomes preservation and towns move from habitats to historic destinations. For the Swahili, these epochs overlap. For us they too overlap. We don't need to go to Africa to find the right words to describe this. Our own American novelist, William Faulkner, so succinctly describes our state here in Havre de Grace when he wrote, 'The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.'
We are all keepers of Havre de Grace history. Next time you pass down a tradition, tell a family story, repair your home, donate papers or objects to a local museum, share stories over dinner or a pint, or learn from others about our near and deep past, you are preserving our sasha and zamani.
But of most importance; What does the past whisper to you? What do you whisper to others? What will others, some day, whisper about us?