2009

11 February 2009: Preserved sites lack historical integrity

Preserved sites lack historical integrity

An adage says, “History is written by the winners.” An Internet search for the source of the quote is inconclusive with some giving credit to themselves, others to Napoleon, and a few suggesting the idea might be perhaps some millennia old.

That dilemma gets at the crux of the nature of history: it can be debated, inconclusive, and even a pack of lies—or, more benignly, myths—handed down from one generation to another.

James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, deconstructs some of our more fabled tales such as our adulation of Christopher Columbus and the syrupy First Thanksgiving. Loewen’s ultimate target is the use of classroom history texts that his study found to be “an embarrassing amalgam of bland optimism, blind patriotism, and misinformation pure and simple.”

The problem, he holds, is that “textbooks exclude conflict or real suspense. They leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character.” And, I will add, “local” character.

A corollary to Loewen’s original thesis is that our historical shrines contribute to the same sense of false history as classroom texts, so aid and abet in the spreading of gooey myths and legends passed off as what really happened.

In Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong, Loewen maintains he “shows how our shrines of public history suffer from the same kinds of omissions, distortions, and outright falsehoods found in our American history textbooks.”

It is in that arena historical societies play the same role as textbooks do in the classroom: obfuscating truth in order to cleanse or edit the record.

Locally, the discovery of gold by George Jackson and Downieville’s and Georgetown’s settlings are being feted this year at their sesquicentennial anniversaries.

What we are looking at with these historical episodes is the difference between an event, which does apply to all three, and the physical embodiment of the event, which now applies solely to Downieville and Georgetown.

Both Jackson and the founders of the towns were imperfect beings who were likely going about their lives much as we are doing today: finding meaning and purpose through the process of survival.

Greg Markle, our county surveyor, plans to re-enact Jackson’s journey through film. Knowing Greg, I have no doubt he will be most sensitive to details about Jackson—the good, the bad, and the ugly—so to give the viewer ample information to draw his/her own conclusions about the man and what he did.

Georgetown and other such “preserved” historical sites and communities spread across America, on the other hand, already physically sit for the world to see, ostensibly in their present incarnations as windows into their pasts.

Like the others though, Georgetown has evolved into a caricature of its old self, a 21st-century doll-house version of a select group’s vision of what its past was. The problem is the current incarnation hardly reflects its past reality.

The closest establishment to being a 19th-century saloon is the Red Ram, and while the building in which it sits and its mirrored, ornate bar are relics of that storied time, it’s not believable that with its sports bar motif, replete with a television and micro-brew beers, the Ram would be mistaken for its great-granddaddy.

Besides, there is the absence of an accompanying brothel, a staple of every outpost in the Old West, and gambling for which one has to traverse some 20 miles over four-lane Central City Parkway or, if more thrill seeking, Oh My God Road, which, with all its improvements, hardly elicits terrified screams of “Oh, my Gawd!” from riders in SUV’s.

There are the flagstone sidewalks, the pavement on Sixth St., and gentrified electric street lights that have replaced wood, dirt, and kerosene, as well as the dearth of hitching posts removed to provide parking spaces for gasoline-powered buggies.

Finally, there is that diesel-powered train, which can claim historical relevance only in context of any rail being historical.

Historical Georgetown, Inc. claims it is in the business of portraying the town as it was. The problem is, what it is, is not what it was. And that is OK because ultimately HGI is simply marketing a product. Historical accuracy or relevance is irrelevant, and acknowledging that it makes banalities and platitudes about sticking to historical character nonsensical and silly.

History is not an airbrushed and doctored snapshot of the past, but living, ongoing, and ever-changing.

So, with that in mind, one wonders what the fuss is about regarding the potential for wind turbines adorning the mountainside above the town. After all, they would be sharing the same space as the unsightly power lines and towers that are part of Georgetown’s history and in the future would be part of its history.

Otherwise, if we want to really reflect the atmosphere of Georgetown’s founding, we should abandon gas and electric sources of energy, denude the mountains of the pine and spruce, remove the asphalt, and replace the stone in the sidewalks with rough planking.

And, I bet, there would be a market for open-stakes gambling and a cathouse for gents to escape to after loosing their shirts so to enjoy the more sensual of human experiences.

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