This presentation is part of the Texas Cultural Landscape Symposium, February 23-26, Waco, TX.
Dr. Perky Beisel: I appreciate the opportunity to be here today and to tell you about the Voices from Small Places project as it relates to identifying, documenting, and preserving rural cultural landscapes. Our project grew out of the strong conviction that there is a rich heritage in rural areas, but too often this history is either invisible to outsiders or deemed insignificant because it does not match the usual definitions in historic preservation of notable events, architects, or styles. To most, it appears that the people are gone, the traditions have ended, and the physical evidence has crumbled to dust. However, we believe that these small places are in fact a critical part of the national narrative because they encapsulate the slowly evolving land-use changes of the last 200 years and the communities that once thrived in the east Texas landscape.
More importantly, we have been able to document that the community members still self-identify with these rural places even if they live hundreds of miles away. A small core group continues to use and alter the landscape, and while not everything is extant, plenty of examples remain to be documented orally, archivally, and physically.
Let me begin by explaining a little bit about the Voices from Small Places project and our approach to documenting rural cultural landscapes. The Voices project is a collaborative approach between community liaisons, community members, and researchers. In our case, a public historian, an archivist, and a historical geographer. The communities we work with have less than 100 people today. In the past, they were much larger communities but after World War II, community members began to move away for better jobs or better schools and because east Texas land-based livelihoods became dependent upon large scale operations. In the last decade or so, the population drain has slowed with retirees returning home, but the communities will never return to their halcyon days in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The two communities we have worked with are Arcadia and Shelby County and the Merville Creek area of Rusk and Panola Counties that spans the border. Our first step when we decide to begin a project is to identify an individual in a proposed partner community who is a trusted the community and who is passionate about documenting and preserving the stories.
And on the right-hand side, that’s Jake Keeling. And in this case, a young 20-something who took that role for the Merville Creek interviewing. I think she was about 98 at that point, a lady who had lived in that home site, it was the second house on that property her entire life. So we find these people who are documenting, preserving the story’s artifacts and most importantly in the landscapes of the past. This is a place-based project and so the community liaison is someone who still lives there, who feels an intense connection to the full community, not just his or her family. Even for the community liaison, it is a learning process.
Oftentimes, when we are out in the community and all excited about torn and dirty ledgers, an abandoned dipping vat, the small cemetery, and I get very excited about dipping vats, an old the roadbed, or some other such element, skepticism is part of the usual reaction from the liaison and the community. You all think this is important? And we’re like, yes. However, we’re able to reassure and reinforce the understanding that there are significant elements in this cultural landscape, that their history is important. Once we identify the liaison, then he or she helps connect us with other community members. We set up oral history and archival documentation events, and most importantly, for perhaps you today here, facilitate access to private property, either virtually, through photovoice, which all of us spend a bit more time on, or through the more traditional historic resources documentation process.
So how do we make east Texas’ rural cultural landscape, which is seemingly invisible when driving at 70 miles per hour, visible? We slow down. We meet and talk with the community members. We explore the back roads including every dirt farm and logging road, and we have a lot of them, in a five-mile radius. By doing this, we can better document and identify historic land uses in east Texas. For our purposes, we acknowledge that the Caddo have a long history here, but they’re not part of what we’re looking at unless community members come to us about sites or artifacts. And also, the French and the Spanish left very few traces beyond the El Camino Real.
What we begin with is the first wave of Americans, both free and enslaved, who cleared the forest and expanded the open areas for subsistence farming and cotton. This century of land-use from the 1830s to the 1930s has bequeathed us cotton gins, roadside stores, crossroads, churches, schools, and scattered farmsteads. In the early 20th century, cotton production began to move west, rural east Texans began investing in dairy farming and beef herds. In this phase, we got pastures, dipping vats, dairy barns, milking parlors, and central collection sites.
However, dairying is hard, intensive labor and by the 1950s, poultry production had become the new opportunity. While the beef cattle remain, chicken houses now dotted the landscape. Since the 1990s, chicken farming has consolidated into larger operations and timber has become the predominant crop, and it is a crop, with a simultaneous overlay of second-generation oil and gas exploration. So this is a broad listing of the types of histories and uses that we’re looking at.
So, we begin with oral histories, with early adopters and we’ll circle back around and interview more people as they become aware of the project over the course of this two-year project. Secondly, we scan and then return archival materials from families, churches, schools, businesses, social organizations. The third step is using photovoice. Photovoice is a community photo documentation approach that enables community members to identify and document the cultural resources and natural elements to which they attach meaning and significance. Photovoice combines photographs with a written description and a contemporary sketch that often reveal some of the most poignant stories of the community history and identity. These are the stories, places, and uses that as outside researchers we would most likely fail to identify.
Lastly, I’ll make a note here, it often involves natural and cultural. So it’s a wonderful combination of the stories that you get. And we don’t necessarily get the same stories in the oral history. Sometimes these just come out in their photovoice diaries. They talk about changes of things that we wouldn’t know. This process is certainly slow. We average two years per community. All of us on the researcher sides do this in our extra time, no time-release or funding. However, we are able to create a comprehensive snapshot of the current conditions, document past uses, and work with the current residents or those that are related and come back for events to become more proactive in preserving the significant features of their cultural landscapes.
And sometimes we’ve been most touched by not only these more typical items but the things that we would never realize without the community, the empty field that looks like nothing, but it was where the school once was. On behalf of the full team, I appreciate this opportunity to tell you about the Voices from Small Places approach, a combination, circular approach of oral history, documentation, archival, and photovoice. Copies of all the interviews, archival scans, photovoice journals are shared back with the community, placed in local libraries, and on deposit at the East Texas Research Center, a state-designated regional repository. We hope traditional historic preservation funding and guidelines will expand to incorporate more opportunities for rural cultural landscapes and non-income producing sites, and thus enable small places throughout the state to preserve and interpret their historic resources in the future.
Dr. Perky Beisel co-directs the M.A. in Public History program at Stephen F. Austin State University. She led the digitization/update of the City of Nacogdoches Historic Sites Survey, the Angelina County Historic Sites Survey, and the Houston County Cemetery and Historic Sites Survey. Her recent work includes National Register nominations and the Voices from Small Places Project. Since 2005 Beisel has overseen the transcription of over one hundred oral histories for community groups and research projects. She serves on several boards including the Association for Gravestone Studies and the Nacogdoches Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission, and regularly leads other public history projects with local museums, cemetery associations, genealogical groups, and regional archives. Her research interests include stable architecture, the timber industry during the Gilded Age, and agricultural history. Beisel earned her D.A. in History from Middle Tennessee State University and an M.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Missouri.