There and Back Again: Rural Historic Sites Project

A few of the literally thousands of salt and pepper shaker sets at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery in Traer, IA (pic: Kathleen Shaughnessy)

I am writing my post on a very bittersweet day–late this afternoon, I will be driving out to Clutier for my fortieth site visit, the last out of the forty historic sites I am writing on. In addition to working on the write-up stage for the other thirty-nine sites, I conducted my third and final informational interview today, something that I’ve really enjoyed doing–getting to hear the passion from my interviewees when they talk about why they do what they do, as well as learning about how each person came from their background (of which there has been quite a variety!) to where they are now. The work can be challenging, but they are able to see the big picture of why they love their jobs. I have deeply enjoyed working with the community partners at each site. Looking back at my previous blog post that I wrote over a month ago, I have visited so many sites in the interim that rather than try to summarize my visits and shortchange the experiences I had, I am thinking today about what I’ve learned on the road to this point.

Matchstick Marvels in Gladbrook, IA lives up to its name–a local artist recreates everything from Pinocchio to Notre Dame Cathedral using matchsticks! (pic: Kathleen Shaughnessy)

I have found that adjustment is necessary and a form of helpful growth. I began with a plan of a very formal model for interviews that I realized almost immediately couldn’t work as a one-size-fits-all. Experiencing the site meant experiencing, rather than necessarily sitting down and going through a list of questions one-by-one. Although that list has definitely been helpful in getting the ball rolling for conversations about the history of each site, I came to realize that there was as much if not more value in listening to what the site partners wanted to share off the cuff as in asking questions.

Some of the farm equipment on display at Dysart, IA’s Agricultural Museums (pic: Kathleen Shaughnessy)

I came to appreciate how welcoming the site partners were–in addition to sharing their history, they wanted to know about my own work and what brought me to this project. Transcribing my recordings from visits often involves skipping over time spent on anecdotes and small talk. The people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve picked up along the way have been truly rewarding–although I am still very much in the process of the writing portion of my write-up, today being my last necessary site visit has caused me to reflect. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to not only use my skills to help the sites, but to be learning so much in the process. Key tip for anyone new to traveling in rural Iowa: check on snacks, gas, and tire pressure before you start out, and then enjoy the ride.

Written by kathleenshaughnessy

I am a second-year PhD student at the University of Iowa working in long 19th-century British literature.