Gypsy Coeds Ride the Silver Streak

When I began my internship at the Peoria Riverfront Museum this past May, I had a vague idea of what to expect. I had put together a small panel exhibit at Marquette University, and I had also developed a small exhibit for the Milwaukee County Historical Society. But I had never produced an exhibit that would serve as the main feature of a gallery. The Gypsy Coeds Ride the Silver Streak will occupy 2,000 square feet at the Peoria Riverfront Museum beginning this Friday, October 16, to January 17, 2016. Sifting through research materials and finding objects to feature in the exhibit was a rewarding and challenging process, and after fifteen weeks I feel like I learned more about the exhibit development process and how a small museum operates.

The Story

Twenty young women from Bradford, Illinois, traveled the country in a silver 1926 Ford Model T over eight summers in the 1930s and 1940s. They called themselves the Gypsy Coeds, and they dubbed their old “flivver” the Silver Streak. Wherever they went—Canada, New York, Atlanta, or California—they drew a crowd. Everyone wondered how these girls could travel across the country without a proper chaperone. The crowds were also astonished that the ancient “tin Lizzie” still ran! After all, by the last trip the car was sixteen years old. But the girls trusted the old Ford, and their story struck a chord with townsfolk and celebrities across North America.

I started work on the exhibit in the middle of May, and Kristan McKinsey, my supervisor and curator of the museum, already had a wealth of information for me to process. McKinsey had heard about the Gypsy Coeds from a museum member and had contacted John Butte, the owner of the Silver Streak. Butte had already begun extensive research on the Gypsy Coeds and the Silver Streak in preparation for writing a book about the trips. He had also developed a website about the girls and the car. Butte shared many of the objects he had at his disposal; his mother was a Gypsy Coed, and she collected many souvenirs on her trip in 1939. I had many resources at my disposal, and I was confident that I could put together a fun and educational exhibit.

McKinsey suggested that I begin by brainstorming ideas of what I wanted the exhibit to have in it; how would I convey this remarkable story? My interest in oral history led me to think of incorporating that element some how. McKinsey had also informed me that the museum had an interactive touch-screen, and she wanted to use it to trace the routes of some of the Gypsy Coeds’ more significant trips. But I also incorporated more traditional exhibit elements: labels, objects, and photographs. After discussing my ideas with McKinsey, she suggested creating a project timeline. After creating the timeline, I dove into the research.

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From Preservation to Community Engagement in Chrysler Village

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

Spanning several years and spawning multiple course projects, the Chrysler Village History Project offers unique insight into the dynamics of a long-term collaboration between a local community, history graduate students, and faculty. The following account presents the evolution of the project to foster continued reflection on the practice of public history inside and outside the classroom.

The Origin Story

In early 2013, an energetic young alderman from the Southwest side of Chicago reached out to Loyola professor Dr. Theodore Karamanski with a request to nominate the neighborhood of Chrysler Village to the National Register of Historic Places. Located in the Clearing neighborhood just south of Midway Airport, Chrysler Village was one of the few housing construction projects undertaken in Chicago during World War II. It was strategically located near the Ford-Chrysler plant where workers assembled B-29 “Superfortress” bomber engines. Characterized by winding streets and a centrally-located park, Chrysler Village also represents an important link between prewar planned communities and postwar suburban development. As part of a preservation course led by Dr. Karamanski in the Spring of 2013, fellow Loyola history graduate students and I unearthed the neighborhood’s historical significance through extensive research in the archives and on the ground in Chrysler Village.* We continued to develop the nomination in the months after class until the nomination was officially accepted in early 2014 and Chrysler Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial photograph of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950, courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society
Aerial view of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950. Photo courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society

Now What?

As satisfying as it was to help put Chrysler Village on the National Register, we couldn’t help but ask how the listing could better benefit the community.  At the 2014 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, Kim Connelley Hicks and I joined a roundtable on preservation to discuss how we could build on our nomination to create a sustained, financially soluble, and socially relevant project for a changing community. The roundtable generated a host of great ideas, but as the original core of students moved on in their lives and careers, we needed leaders with a plan to move the project forward.

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NCPH 2014: A Newbie’s Reflections

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

I do not know if it was the sea, the sun, or that California feeling, but I drank the Kool-aid. Throughout my graduate school experience, I have been told how NCPH is not like other conferences and how the people working in this field are supportive and encouraging of the work their colleagues are doing. From my experience at NCPH 2014 in Monterey Bay, California, I can testify to those statements. As I said to a professor on my return to Chicago, I had an odd, but exciting realization meeting others in the field, outside of my immediate circle.

Three instances stand out in my mind as indicative of the supportive and encouraging nature of the NCPH community. The first is my own experience. I participated in the poster session and a roundtable discussion, and both, produced some very insightful and productive discussions. My colleague, Laura Pearce, and I presented an exhibit proposal we developed for a required class, “Addressing Absences: Exhibiting African-American Suffragist”. At the beginning of the class, partnerships were being developed through our professor and community organizations.

Unfortunately, as things happen, the partnerships dissolved (scheduling conflicts and other distractions) and the exhibits never materialized. When we presented our work at NCPH, Laura and I were continually asked, “Where is this up?” “Is this still up?” “Is this online?” and when we informed visitors it had never actually come to fruition their response was simply, “Why?” Our colleagues wanted to see our exhibit realized, we received several recommendations of organizations we could and should approach with the proposal, and there was talk of going digital with it. So, after graduation, Laura and I have decided to pursue our exhibit proposal, using many of the connections and suggestions we received at NCPH.

 

Additionally, the roundtable I sat on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement”, only reaffirmed the notion that our historical work must be centered in the contemporary community. My colleague on this panel, Rachel Boyle, makes several excellent points on this on this issue in her reflection on NCPH.

 

The third instance was in the panel “Pubic Historians interpret the Far West: A Field Report”. Danica Willis has been the Cultural Resource Manager at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in northern California for the last three years. As a National Recreation Area, Whiskeytown attracts people, as Danica put it “for the beautiful lake, and the beautiful waterfalls, and the beautiful hiking”, but these visitors don’t necessarily understand the historical development of the area they are playing in. Over Danica’s time at Whiskeytown, she has pushed and prodded more interpretation and community involvement to Whiskeytown. Some of these ideas have worked great, as it did with the “Whiskeytown Harvest Festival” in which Danica promoted apple picking from the recreational area’s substantial orchard. In addition, the visitors were encouraged to think about why the orchards were there, who put them there, and how the planters would have used them. And like all experiments, some failed. But, Danica is excited about continuing to create a fuller and richer understanding (she apparently has a large white board full of ideas) of Whiskeytown as a place.

The conversations and discussions I observed and partook in at NCPH’s annual conference made me excited for the field.

 

Preservation and Ephemerality in Public History: Reflecting on NCPH 2014 from a Mile High

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

I am currently sitting in the Denver airport on my layover to Chicago after a fantastic annual meeting of the National Council on Public History.  I was reluctant to leave sunny Monterey for the snowy Midwest, but as always I feel invigorated the conversations with other historians committed to engaging and serving the public.  Two panels in particular remain fresh in my mind as dynamic counterpoints that framed the conference’s theme of sustainability: one on preservation, the other on ephemerality.

People > Things

It occurs to me that the title of the panel on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement” should’ve be swapped around to read, “Sustaining Community Engagement through Historic Preservation,” as it became clear through the course of the panel that preservation should be used in the interest of community engagement and not vice versa.  In other words, people are more important than buildings.  This theme was echoed by Sheila Brennan in the “Ephemerality in Public History” panel, who suggested that public historians should resist hoarding objects for prosperity and instead focus on digitizing objects for greater access or allowing the public to touch and use objects for a full transformative tactile experience. (Check out the notes and slides from her presentation here.)

Rethinking Sustainability

Another recurring question in the panels: how should—or shouldn’t—a project be sustained after the public historian has concluded their involvement? Approaching the end of her dissertation work, Abby Gateau is currently mentoring a successor, while also having successfully aroused a strong and energetic community base who can carry forward the public history work she instigated.  Mark Tebeau reinforced the value of thinking about the end from the beginning, suggesting that recognizing ephemerality of products and projects can lead to better best practices. Finally, Thomas Cauvin, from the audience, reminded us that archives are not the only repositories for saving the past and documenting public history projects—people preserve memory.

The panels on preservation and ephemerality, and the NCPH Annual Meeting as a whole, served as a refreshing reminder to base our public history work in the contemporary community.

Public History Has Revisionist Roots, and the NYT Is ON IT

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

The public historians assembled here in sunny Monterey spent their first day and a half covering what has become familiar yet still challenging ground for those of us in the profession. In round-tables, poster sessions, panel sessions, and working groups, they swapped insights on the cultural work that goes into interpreting an increasingly inclusive past to a likewise increasingly diverse public. The sessions I have attended include those about museum exhibits “co-created” with community members, the latest in attempts to interpret slavery at historic sites, my own working group about innovative reuse of “less-than-charismatic” structures, and sustaining public history though community engagement. Implicit in all these topics is the internalized impact of social history and the commitment to embracing marginalized voices—-both historical and contemporary. I actually feel that this laudable aspect of public history has become a little too familiar for practitioners, maybe even sometimes taken for granted. I’m certain that the social and even activist history ethic undergirds the projects highlighted thus far in Monterey. But I still crave even more forceful, direct, and critical expressions of public history work as ‘on a mission,’ for lack of better phrase.

So imagine how surprised I was to read that, according to the New York Times, museums have generally gone too far in exploring diverse, contested, and contradictory themes. Edward Rothstein’s “New Insights into History May Skew the Big Picture” deserves a much fuller take-down than I care to provide at this time (and I hope that many of us currently here in Monterey will get home, unpack, and take up that very task). But suffice to say Rothstein’s synthesis of gripes about major exhibits is vague, myopic, and intellectually sloppy. The closest he comes to coherently expressing his critique is a passage that could have been ripped from a disgruntled letter to the editor circa 1995 circa Smithsonian circa Enola Gay exhibit.

This mixture of new insight accompanied by new simplifications has become familiar elsewhere as well. The transformation of history that began in the 1960s (inspired by the American political left), took decades to have full impact on museums, but its perspectives have now become commonplace. Museums, in their traditional roles, were almost mythological institutions claiming to display the origins and themes of a society, shaping understandings with a coherent interpretation of the past. That model has now been remade with the singular replaced by the plural, coherence displaced by multiplicity.

Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey's Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in need of revision.
Colorful varieties of taffy at Monterey’s Candyland. Or to some a distracting diversity in ironic need of revision.

There’s a lot to unpack from that paragraph and from Rothstein’s subsequent expressions of dismay about the scourge of “identity museums” (he seems to have a particular disdain for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). For example, Rothstein should be reminded that those hoary “almost mythological institutions” of yesteryear were as much “identity museums” as the NMAI or any other such place. It’s just that the identity promoted then was elite and white. And then there’s his alarm at the way that the National Archives dares to call to attention to the fact that the nation’s past (and, gasp, present) has failed to live up to its lofty ideals. 

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