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Unsung Treasures of the National Park Service
08 / 22 / 16 | By: Colleen Benoit
August 25, 2016 marks the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. NPS is best known for its stewardship of America’s natural wonders, but its mission includes the preservation of places with cultural and historical significance as well. What many people may not realize is that in addition to preserving these important spaces, NPS also preserves our natural and cultural history within a treasure trove of archival holdings.
As diverse as the parks that hold them, these collections include land use histories, architectural and mechanical drawings, historic photographs, resource management records, rare books, and many others. Park sites preserve treasures like letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers; the personal papers of celebrated citizens including Carl Sandburg and Thomas Edison; and the corporate archives of historic companies, railroads, and research laboratories. These records often serve as a resource that can be found nowhere else.
Since 2001, History Associates has had the privilege of working with more than 75 parks, helping to process their archival materials. Over the course of this partnership, we witnessed first-hand how Park Service collections illustrate our country’s rich cultural legacy and have shared in the joy that comes from discovering this uniquely American heritage.
Documenting American Natural History
NPS is charged with preserving landscapes and most parks maintain natural resource records. As Karin Roberts at the Midwest Archeological Center (MWAC) noted, “By having the archives cataloged and easily searchable through finding aids, park staff, MWAC archeologists, and outside researchers can better understand past management of resources within the parks as well as plan for future archeological efforts.” These records, which include environmental, biological, and geological data, also help manage boundaries, produce wayside exhibits, and provide reference material for educational programs.
The Conservation Center at Harpers Ferry Center maintains an extensive collection of historic photographs gathered from parks across the country. History Associates helped inventory and catalog the photographs and create finding aids for the collections. These photos are frequently requested by the parks for exhibit material, and are used by researchers as well – some famous. Ken Burns used photographs from the collection in his series about the National Park Service in 2011.
Documenting American Cultural History
Notable among the Park’s collections are those that document distinct American communities. At Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Louisiana, cultural resource specialist Dustin Fuqua discovered a “lost” community that was preserved in the archives. Occupying more than 30 tenant quarters at Magnolia Plantation in the antebellum period through the 1960s, this community has completely vanished today. Through painstaking research and cross-referencing records, he’s been able to rediscover the people and the personalities who lived there. (An Unlikely Paper Trail: Identifying the Sites and Inhabitants of the Magnolia Plantation Tenant Quarters Community) Dustin and his team are now planning to make finding aids for the processed collections, including ones completed by History Associates, available online – part of a larger NPS Web Catalog initiative to put all available finding aids online (for more information, visit the NPS Museum Management Program website).
When the archives become available, it can be surprising who uses them and what discoveries are made. At Steamtown National Historic Site, park historian Pat McKnight was surprised by the appeal of a collection of materials and artifacts from the Nathan Manufacturing Company, a producer of train whistles. “We have had inquiries from all over the country about the collection. We even had a protracted exchange with a railroad in Australia.”
Keweenaw National Historical Park in Michigan’s “Copper Country” maintains collections that document the local mining community, including mining company records, family papers, and records from local organizations. The processed archives help inform resource management decisions, but park archivist Jeremiah Mason noted that they are a resource for others as well. “We serve a lot of outside researchers here at Keweenaw.” He added, “Some of those are working on scholarly research; many are doing family history or property research.”
Sometimes, the act of archival processing itself can discover history. NPS holds the records of the National Council of Negro Women, an organization founded by Mary McLeod Bethune and lead for fifty years by Civil Rights icon Dr. Dorothy I. Height. While working with these materials at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House site in Washington, D.C., History Associates archivist Valerie Vanden Bossche discovered a pen tucked into the files. From looking at the accompanying materials, she realized that it was a pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Bill and given to Dr. Dorothy Height. The pen is now featured in the National Park Service, Centennial One Object Exhibit.
A Cause for Celebration
As NPS looks to its second century of service, its mission has begun to expand into helping communities preserve and interpret their heritage. The archival collections will continue to play a significant role in how we as a nation understand, appreciate – and celebrate – our public spaces.
History Associates Senior Archivist Laura Starr contributed to this article.
We wish to thank park officials who provided insights for this article, including Karin Roberts at the Midwest Archaeological Center, Keely Rennie Tucker at the Midwest Regional Office, Dustin Fuqua at Cane River Creole National Historic Park, Jeremiah Mason at Keweenaw National Historic Park, Pat McKnight at Steamtown National Historic Site, and John Roberts, Senior Archivist with the Museum Management Program. History Associates is also grateful to have worked with hundreds of dedicated park staff over the years!