David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A reporter from the Pioneer Press called the other day to talk about listing on the National Register of Historic Places childhood homes of people who later became significant. There is some debate by historians as to whether or not where someone lived as a child shaped or even represents the significant thing a person might be known for later. For instance, the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home in Sauk Centre is where Lewis grew up, but he did not write his novels there. Does the home in Sauk Centre represent his Nobel prize-winning writing?
Similarly Frances Gumm (later Judy Garland) was born in Grand Rapids MN, but her family relocated when she was three. How much did those first three years of life set the stage for Judy’s later significance?
Recently further information about aviator Amelia Earhart turned up to show that she was a student in St. Paul in 1913.
There are many other examples, but these three spring to mind. Searching the National Register of Historic Places for “listing a childhood home” turned up nearly 400 leads to childhood homes of presidents, artists, inventors, and many other famous Americans.
Other historians argue that childhood places do shape who people later became. Whether local historical organizations do or not matters less than whether we are consistent in how we select what represents our stories. One of the exhibit ideas that has yet to take root is to show what native sons and daughters have done in the world. Sometimes local history organizations can be too focused on just what happened within their borders and do not tell the story of their people on a state, national, or world stage. For example, Pope County Historical Societyhas been sharing the story of Glenwood native Cleora Helbing, former director of education at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1930s-50s, even though the things that document Helbing’s significance did not originate in Pope County. Many other Minnesotans have accomplished significant things after leaving home. How might these stories be documented and shared? What’s the right balance between local-specific and what locals do in the world?
How might you tell the story of people from your community that have had a role in the wider world?