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A matter of public record


Nineteenth century Whig historians presented the past “as an inevitable progression toward ever greater liberty and enlightenment”; as “a story of progress toward the present.” By 1900, historians of the Whig persuasion–both British and American– actually believed that history had already been written. It simply remained to keep history up to date by adding the record of current events. The 20th century historian’s role would be reduced to accountancy. 

One of my favorite authors James Carse describes the past in two ways: either finished (as in the Whig point of view), a solid foundation for building the present; or unfinished and awaiting reinterpretation, re-writing and completion in our own time and terms. I’ll take Option B.

With resources like google.books and other OCR-readable online databases, the availability of historical material expands daily. I find it in my own homespun efforts to understand simple things like the professionalization of architecture or the design of turn-of-the-century churches. Perhaps this has become the reason I delay writing anything: there’ll be another tidbit tomorrow to change the direction of my thought.


Imagine the array of imaginary resources for telling the story of an imaginary place, much of it from the public record. Newspapers and other periodicals tend to disappear, especially when they are short-lived. [This has been especially true of small town newspapers in Dakota Territory.] But other document types are more likely to survive: deeds and contracts, certificates of birth and death, of marriage and divorce, lawsuits and transcripts of trial–not all of them necessarily in a agreement. Then add photographs, drawings, art and all the rest of non-verbal material culture. Finding a story to connect these pinpoints of light has been something I approach with a healthy mix of caution and excitement.

During a particularly tedious afternoon meeting, this postcard of Adams Restaurant (otherwise unidentified) spoke to me. Peter Vandervort’s knowledge of costume history had set the scene circa 1910. I was comfortable borrowing this building and its three ladies for a site in Agincourt. But every building tells a story and this could be no exception. So, in the next hour I wrote three news items from The Daily Plantagenet about the women posed at its entrance.


Maud Adams, the older woman on the left, was the owner of Adams Restaurant which she operated with her daughter Amanda (Mandy), in the center. The aproned girl on the right was Mary Riley, an Irish immigrant working her way west across America. This photo was an opportunity to tell several tangent stories: of a young widow thrust unexpectedly into the world of business circa 1890; of a daughter who knew only one parent; of a foreigner in a nation of immigrants. Their connected histories could be outlined in three typical news items: a death notice, a fuller obituary, and a letter to the editor from a friend unable to attend the memorial.


Situating the building and imagining what lay behind its spotless windows was a tentative step toward understanding how cities evolve. And the story from those three clippings grew to touch many other imagined lives and change their trajectories, as it has my own.

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