Offbeat History: Lesser Known Facts About the United States’ Past

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My first oral history!!!

The job has more or less stayed the same since this photo has been taken

The job has more or less stayed the same since this photo has been taken

It is one thing to read the secondary sources of other writers, but for the first time I had conducted primary research.  One day people will study my work.  For the first time in my young career I felt like a real historian.

I had prepared for this interview by first speaking with Helene Miller on a snowy Friday in February.  I had used the memories form as a guide for the preliminary questions I was asking in order to find out more about her life and connection with Paterson.  We spoke for a little while, and I was careful not to ask too many questions.  I was cautious because part of the process of doing an oral history interview is to keep it spontaneous.

Meanwhile, me and Ilyse Goldman had been in close contact with the media department over at William Paterson University.  For this interview they had sent over an extremely capable media team.  When I had arrived at the conference room of the nursing home, they had already set up a microphone, a big light,  and a camera (with all the bells and whistles).  This was certainly more than I was expecting for an interview, and I was more than pleased with it.

Helene Miller’s father and uncle had owned the New Deal Mill in Paterson.  The mill was named after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The mill was in the business of creating textiles.  This was also the place where Helene Miller had her first job.  The woman who usually did the bookkeeping there had to go on maternity leave.  Helene’s father had asked her if she could do it while she was out.  With an enthusiastic spirit Helene replied “I’ll try!”  At this point her life, she and her family moved over to East Paterson, which is now known as Elmwood Park.

She had told me that in the beginning of the interview that she was a shy person, but as the interview went on, she became less so.  When we concluded the interview and the crew was taking down their equipment, Helene had said “I hope that this will be of some help to you and others in the future.”  I can certainly say that I was lucky to have interviewed her, and I do believe her testimony will help to understand Paterson’s history for years to come.

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What is history?

What is history? How do we study it? Why does it matter?

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So what is this thing called history? It is a search for the truth.  It is a social science which aims to document the human experience through its writings and recorded actions.  It is a discourse of humanity with historians as its commentators.  History falls under the category of “social science”, but yet it is not exact.

So Why Study History?

The who, what, when, where, are most often set in stone.  Occasionally there are facts that are debatable, but why and how are not always so succinct.  Of course, events and facts in history are set in stone and need to be accurately studied.  But to understand their impacts  history’s true nature.  Through evidence and support you can begin to construct the frame work of the question “How did we get here?” After that question is answered, a historian may be able to ask “Where do we go from here?”  While no one can predict the future, we can look to the past and see similar problems and view them with an academic mind we can find a solution because of an appreciation of history.  Everyone has some bias, but it is a historians’ job to look at the past and see how its effect has rippled throughout time with appreciation for fact not opinion.

We study history because we can get a sense of our culture.  We can look to history to better understand ourselves and the struggles that our ancestors have faced and overcame.  In turn, we can better understand human nature.  There are other fields of social science such as sociology, and psychology that also deal with the nature of humanity.  I won’t discount these other fields of study.  But at the end of the day, we find that the people that have been written on the pages have a lot more in common with us than we thought.  When we flip through a history book, we can see a part of ourselves between the pages.

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Bring me a bookmobile…

Book Mobile


Being a historian, you get to read some very interesting stuff.  You get to read old books, newspapers from the 1800’s, and micro-fiche!

Remember this?

Remember these?

We live in a world where high speed wireless internet rules, and smartphones can summon a grad school dissertation at the tap of a finger. It is incredible how much information is out there.  But to this day I find that the most valuable information is still print.  In order to be published books need to go through a stringent fact checking and editing.  Finding old books is especially interesting to me because that’s where you find the most obscure facts!

I have started reading several books and documents that were published dating back to the 1880’s.  One of the more interesting documents I have come across is a census from 1824 that lists several names and professions.  Anymore interesting tidbits of obscure information I certainly post in the future.

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History is a polygon

The project is up and running. I was fortunate enough to have experience by working at the Botto House American Labor Museum.  The Botto House is a museum that has been dedicated to the workers

The Botto House American Labor Museum was a gathering place for the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike, a major strike in the history of Paterson, New Jersey.  The Strike broke out because of labor disputes between the silk mill owners and those who made that silk.  The owners were going to move the workers from a 2 loom system to a 4 loom system.

When the strike started, it was unsuccessful and ineffective.  Peaceful meetings in assembly halls were shut down by the Paterson police and strikes in the streets of Paterson were violently broken up.  The police departments were largely supported by the factory owners and the scales of justice tipped out of favor for the factory workers.

Mayor Brookman of Haledon, New Jersey was sympathetic to the plight of the strikers and invited the strikers to demonstrate there.  Haledon is one town over from Paterson and the strikers were able to assemble without the harassment of the police.

Working here I learned about one side of Paterson’s story.  The history that I studied here was just one of the many sides of the history of Paterson.  The research I am doing and the interviews I will be taking are going to be primary research.  Learning the other sides of the Paterson story will be important for future historical study.

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“If you want the ball, you can have it.”

Keith McDonald diligently working at Paterson Great Falls NHP

Keith is diligently working at Paterson Great Falls NHP

The National Park Service has given me the opportunity to do one of the things that I love the most; talk to people (and or course take copious historical notes for further research).  The National Park Service has had a lot of partnerships with the Student Conservation Association and this is one of them.   The Student Conservation Association’s mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of our environment and communities.  The SCA helps to give young people a chance to get some real world experience in conservation and restoration.

I am the new oral history intern at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park.  Probably the best thing about working at a new national park is that there is so much for an intern to do at any given moment.  The work is real, and the experiences are real.  I have heard of some friends at other internships who would complete their work early and be left re-organizing their files for the rest of the day.  Here the work is always important, and I am always kept in the loop.  I cannot even begin to describe the difference between working here as opposed to somewhere else.

My job has been interesting thusfar.  I have received a contact list of potential people to interview for Oral Histories, and a ton of research.  The research has been quite interesting so far, and I am currently starting to investigate other sources such as newspapers and other primary sources.

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