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NWA EDITORIAL: Calling all preservationists

And yes, that very well may include you by NWA Democrat-Gazette | April 13, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.

Preserved history often comes about by accident.

Take the example of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which included biblical texts dating back to the first century, much older than previously discovered texts. One might believe such documents had been carefully and intentionally preserved through the ages. But they actually laid undisturbed but forgotten inside a cave near Jericho for centuries. They surfaced when a boy, among a group of Arab teens tending flocks in 1947, tossed a stone into a nearby cave and was intrigued by the resulting sound of something shattering. It turned out to be clay pots that contained ancient scrolls that would become one of the great archeological finds of the century.

What’s the point?

All members of a community can play a vital role in preserving its history.

How about something a little closer to home?

Last month, the state of Arkansas announced it had acquired "a trove of records" that help fill in details about the life and times of Judge Isaac Parker, the federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith from 1875 to 1889. Out of more than 13,000 cases he tried, nearly 9,500 resulted in guilty pleas or convictions. The judge sentence 160 people to death, earning Judge Parker the reputation as the "hanging judge."

In the late 1950s, an amateur historian named William Fadjo Cravens was at work with others to preserve historic records from the Western District when someone came into his office with shocking news. The old courthouse was set to be demolished and the city clerk was burning records to clear out the place. Cravens, of Fort Smith, was a former congressman, lawyer and banker whose grandfather had been a defense attorney in Judge Parker's court in the mid-1800s.

"My dad ran back to the courthouse and was pulling the records out of the fire," David Cravens, a son of Fadjo, recently recalled in this newspaper. "He asked 'Can I have these?' and they said, 'Yeah, that's fine.'"

Flash forward to 2019: Wendy Richter, director of the State Archives, calls those rescued documents a significant acquisition for the state that describes details of the Western frontier. Deputy marshals filed travel vouchers that provide vivid descriptions of their surroundings and the people they interacted with," said Richter.

Arkansas purchased the 6,000-piece collection for $314,500.

It's astonishing how many stories there are about documents or relics of historic significance that are nearly lost to the ages because someone who doesn't fully appreciate preservation starts cleaning out a vault or a closet or a drawer. Sadly, for every collection rescued, there are others destroyed before anyone realizes the historic value of what's being destroyed.

Thankfully, the Cravens family recognized they had something of value, and not just in terms of dollars and cents. The state was willing to apply grant funding to purchase the documents because they contain volumes of information that help enlighten us 21st century Arkansans to what the Arkansas of the past looked and felt like. One of the great features of documents and artifacts from the past is their capacity to transport us to those earlier days, to help us see the reality of those times, not just the Hollywood version.

Julienne Crawford, a curator at the Arkansas State Archives, agreed that there can be a thin line between unhealthy hoarding and recognizing the value of documents and items in the telling of the state's history. But especially when people start throwing out old records and old items, it's a good time to start asking questions about whether historians might find value within the materials that might otherwise end up at a landfill or the burn barrel.

Does an object or record represent or provide insight into a milestone in local or state history? Is it connected to a significant event, person, community, place, business or organization? Does it reflect the art, tools or equipment unique to an era?

Crawford recalled the archives' acquisition of a diary from a doctor on Petit Jean Mountain back before communication was easy like it is today. Residents in a remote area, the diary explains in one instance, would hang up a sheet visible from a distance to signal a doctor was needed.

Such glimpses into a remote part of Arkansas from first-hand accounts help show what it was like to live in those times. And different papers from people from other walks of life -- from other socio-economic levels, other races, etc. -- provide different perspectives.

What may seem like a personal document, such as a photograph, may seem it has little value, but what if the building in the background was the general store serving a region for decades and nobody else has a photo of it?

Preservation relies on people recognizing potential value in the telling of history through photographs, documents and artifacts before everything gets bundled up and tossed aside. The State Archives, for example, contains about half a million photographs.

It's natural for people to think of their lives as something other than history, but all human history is made of periods individuals live through. Why are certain baseball cards so valuable? Because everyone else threw theirs into a trash can at some point. Documents that reveal new pieces of information about yesterday and yesteryear are invaluable.

Especially in an age of Marie Kondo-ish "tidying up" popularity or the counter-consumerism movement of minimalism, Crawford recommends people think carefully about whether documents, photos and other materials might have significance in the telling of local or state history. If so, contact a local historical museum or historical society. Reach out to the State Archives. Find someone who has a history with, well, history, and get some expert advice on whether what's about to be thrown out might have some value in the laudable efforts of preservation.

No, they are not dumping grounds for every unwanted object or document. But people who work at preserving Arkansas and local history need plenty of, shall we say, associate preservationists on the lookout for materials that can help tell the stories of the past in rich detail.

Like historic structures that fall to the wrecking ball, once historic pieces are destroyed, they're gone forever. Our local communities and our state have great stories in the past and in the present worth preserving. Everyone can play a role in doing just that.

Commentary on 04/13/2019

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