Exploring Local History

In 1751 the mountain for which my town was named was first surveyed and put on a map by Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson, and Joshua Fry. In the 1800s, Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, was a stagecoach stop and later a railroad stop, all of which created a booming, bustling town. Adults in our community may not know these details about the town they walk through every day, but their children and grandchildren do. My third graders study local history each year in an effort to learn stewardship and the importance of cultural and historic preservation.

I have a passion for primary sources. I love looking at an old picture and wondering about the life of the person in it. I love reading an old advertisement or newspaper article and learning about what life was like during that time. I share this enthusiasm for the past with my students. When I see their eyes light up watching a 1939 video of their town painstakingly preserved by a local civic group, I know I've hooked them.

Making connections to the past is not always easy for students. They often lack the background knowledge to pick out details that would be obvious to an adult. It is exciting to see those connections happen through focused study and hands-on experiences. I try to provide opportunities for my students to dive deeper into local history and learn more about how our town became what it is today.

Primary Sources

Introducing students to primary sources is easier than you think. If you aren't sure where to start, the Library of Congress offers professional development opportunities that should not be missed. They also support KidCitizen, one of my favorite resources when teaching elementary students about primary sources. KidCitizen is part of the Congress, Civic Participation, and Primary Sources Project. They have developed episodes to walk a student through analyzing primary sources. The first episode explains what primary sources are, and kids are quickly engaged in the program. You can also create your own activities using the program.

Primary sources for curriculum topics such as the Great Depression or World War II are readily available, but what about primary sources for local history? Our county applies for a grant each year to Ancestry.com. This provides access to the Ancestry site as well as Fold3, which offers military records, and Newspapers.com, which is my favorite. I search Newspapers.com for historical events, popular topics, and advertisements. I have discovered "The Baseball Fuss" of 1893, a local hotel advertisement from the late 1800s, and reports of various fires that swept through our town destroying many of the buildings. I also have found access to sources through my public library.

I have spent the past several years collecting artifacts from Pilot Mountain. With the help of local historians, public librarians, and my own family, I have a significant collection of photographs, letters, advertisements, and articles relating to my town. A former teacher and local historian, Carolyn Boyles helped me tremendously by providing access to the numerous pictures she used in her book Early Days of Pilot Mountain, North Carolina: A History and Genealogy. These photos are featured in many of my lessons. One lesson asks students to examine them with magnifying glasses looking for details. Another places them in a slide show explaining the background of the photo and where it is located. The photos are also used on a notes sheet students take with them on their walking historical tour of the town. Students also use them to study and replicate the buildings in Minecraft as they create something from the past in a very modern format.

Local Resources

Another great local resource is our small public library which has a local history room. Our librarian pulls resources to share with students. They learn the proper way to handle delicate documents, how to preserve them, and the variety of materials housed at the library including genealogies, yearbooks, photos, and family bibles. Sometimes you can find local history collections in community colleges, museums, universities, and even private collections of historians and genealogists. Don't be afraid to ask. My best resources were just a phone call away.

Our school is within walking distance of our public library and downtown, and our walking historical tour is a favorite part of our study. I lead students down the sidewalks pointing out buildings and sharing stories of the past. We make a stop at the visitor's center which houses more photos, high school trophies, and other relics from days gone by. If you are from a larger city or aren't able to take field trips, think about using Google Maps to study an area. State museums often have websites that include videos and virtual tours.

The students love to touch the buildings and imagine what used to be, but what they love most are the stories. We have listened to stories in the living room of a town resident as she told us about what it was like when she was in third grade. We have heard stories from members of the African American Historical Society. Carolyn Boyles told us stories of the people she interviewed for her book. I encourage students to seek out stories in their own families. This project has taken many directions over the past several years, but its focus remains the same: to shine a light on the past in a way that students will remember.

Preserving History

Talking about the importance of preservation is interwoven into all of my lessons on local history. We look at ways students can be good stewards of their town and its history. I discuss those who have renovated and restored buildings in our town, written books about the area, and those who continue to search for historical artifacts to help tell the story.

One of the ways I tell students they can preserve history is to talk to and interview older adults about the past and their childhoods. Let them tell you their stories. I share with them a book I compiled about my own family. It contains stories from my grandmother and her nine brothers and sisters. These stories most certainly would have been lost as all but one of them has since died. I would suggest students think about what interests them. They could ask about school, games, hobbies, travels, etc. There are many websites with interview questions, including genealogy sites. There are also oral history guidelines available through simple searches, but I would stress to students to be active listeners. Make sure they are listening to the answers and not simply thinking about their next question. If you are going to incorporate oral history interviews into your classroom, I would make sure students have time to practice. Use SeeSaw or a similar recording app and have them practice with another student. You can then view the interview later and offer suggestions.

Every town has a story, and it is the story that will capture your students. My students are fascinated by the fact that our town was once called Hog's Wallow and when they see a photo from the late 1800s of the muddy streets, they can see why. When I tell them that farmers used to drive their hogs through those streets to market, it creates even more of a picture. One of my jobs as a school librarian is to get students interested in stories, whether that is through the books I share with them, videos I show, or primary sources and oral histories.

So explore your local history. Reach out to the public library and genealogical and historical societies. If you can't walk through your town telling the story, then bring your town to your students. Most historians are passionate people who love sharing with others and make great guest speakers, live or virtually. Check with your public librarian and see if they will bring local history materials to your school. Create a local history collection in your own library or add local history resources to your reference section. The stories are waiting for you and your students.


Ancestry.com grant program: https://www.ancestryk12.com/k12/GrantProgram/

KidCitizen: https://www.kidcitizen.net/

Library of Congress, using primary sources: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/

Digital Public Library of America: https://dp.la/

See the companion infographic "Four Ideas for Growing STAR Historians"

About the Author

Amy Harpe, MLS, is the school librarian at Pilot Mountain Elementary School. She earned her bachelor's degree in English, and her master's in library science from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a National Board Certified teacher and was the winner of the 2017 American Library Association Sara Jaffarian School Library Program Award for Exemplary Humanities Programming. Amy is currently writing a historical fiction novel and loves to visit the North Carolina coast with her husband and two sons.

MLA Citation Harpe, Amy. "Exploring Local History." School Library Connection, October 2019, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2211571.

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Entry ID: 2211571

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