History-smithing interpretive markers

Posted on January 7, 2009 by


You’ll notice that I posted a photo of the monument to Lt. Col. Thomas F. Wildes over at my Shenandoah’s Civil War photo blog. After I posted it, I was wondering if Craig, over at To the Sound of the Guns, had a chance to see the monument yet, and sent him a link. Looks like I have a chance there to take a couple more photos and get the GPS data so I can submit this marker to The Historical Markers Database (HMDB). Interesting story behind this monument, so I look forward to expanding on it in the HMDB.

Anyway, in the e-mail exchange that followed, he directed my attention to a marker with a similar background up (actually down… if you understand the nature of the Shenandoah Valley and my location in it) at Stephens City. I was actually aware of the marker, but its failure as an interpretive marker must have totally blown past me. Seeing it again at the HMDB, I realized the problems.

First, the marker incorrectly provides the name of the central character… it should be Major Stearns, not “Major Streans.” Second, the marker provides to the reader (I’m focusing here on the perks behind user-centered design) a mere 25 words. I need to look it up again, but I feel sure that VDHR (Virginia Department of Historic Resources) markers allow for as many as 100 words on these types of signs. Third, well, this marker was erected in 1988… well beyond the earliest VDHR markers that provided so little data. It just seems that a lot more would have been provided on the marker considering the fact that it was placed just over 20 years ago. Oh, and fourth, ummm, wasn’t Stephens City the name given to Newtown after the Civil War?

To me, an interpretive marker should provide data in a manner that will draw the reader in (at least, that should be the hope when “smithing” the words for the marker) and spark an interest in the reader to conduct some form of independent research on his/her own to find out more. It may be as little as Googling for more info or looking into the topic in another book, but the “marker experience” should go beyond the interaction between the reader at the site of the marker (again, at least that is what I like to think about when drafting words for markers). Since critical information is flawed in this marker, looking for additional info about the incident provides a bit of a challenge.

So, the beauty of the HMDB is, when the marker fails, a person has a chance to provide extra data to the marker page. In this case, I took two sources from my collection to provide a reader with a more complete dose of information. Since I’m not limited to 100 words (VDHR markers) or even 350 words (Civil War Trails markers), I opted to provide raw data for the reader to take into consideration… without my interpretation of the data. I’ve provided two accounts of the story behind the Stearns story, one from a Union point of view (from William H. Beach’s book) and from a Confederate point of view (Harry Gilmor’s book). Considering Gilmor mentioned the burning of a few buildings before Stearns’ arrival in town, I figured I would also check the Official Records of the Rebellion to see if that lofty set of books might shed more light… it didn’t. There is nothing to show that the parsonage and other buildings were burned. However, two important orders relating to the incident were found, so I posted them to the HMDB page as well. As opposed to history presented with a slant, I wanted to present an “all things considered” environment (at least from all that I had handy in my collection) for consideration by the reader.

Oh, and of course, I should mention that both the Wildes monument and the Stearns marker are quite interesting considering both reflect in a positive way on Union officers… and are located in what was once considered the breadbasket of the Confederacy. I’m not sure who spearheaded the placement of the Stearns marker, but the Wildes monument was placed by locals… as was another monument in Dayton (well, really a bit outside what one might consider Dayton proper) to Phil Sheridan’s Engineer, Lt. John Rodgers Meigs. Again, as I just mentioned, as in the case of the Wildes monument, locals, several with Shenandoah Valley ancestry that goes back to the Civil War and well beyond, played a critical part in seeing that this monument went up. That reminds me, did I ever mention that the Lincoln Society of Virginia is based HERE, in the Shenandoah Valley? All-in-all some really rich data to consider when thinking about Civil War memory.

*Supplemental information: While the Meigs monument at Dayton, Virginia was erected in 2007, take a look at the statuary monument erected at the gravesite of Lt. Meigs in Arlington National Cemetery that is much older (a work completed ca. 1865, by Theophilus Fisk Mills). It portrays Meigs on the ground, as his body was supposedly found, very close to the site of the monument near Dayton, Va.