New digs.

This month I started a new position as the Associate Director and Oral Historian for the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. I’m eager to continue the public and oral history work I began with Under Connecticut Skies, to have a chance to utilize my curatorial and digital media skills, and to work with the amazing people and collections here at Hagley. It’s also a delight to come each day to the stunning nineteenth-century industrial landscape that is the lower Brandywine. Come see our amazing machine shop if you’re in Wilmington!


Although it be not always so plentiful.

In honor of the holiday, please enjoy this, the earliest description of the first Thanksgiving, from a letter to England printed in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, first published in 1622:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Happy Thanksgiving.

OWOT, day 2.

Today at One Week | One Tool we’ve been laboring on our first big task: figuring out what tool we’re actually going to build.

We had our big brainstorming session this afternoon, and are now opening up the floor for feedback. We’ve set up a site where you can vote on the potential tools we’ve come up with, as well as to comment on our ideas. Voting closes at 10 a.m. eastern time tomorrow, Tuesday 30 July 2013, when we’ll begin to narrow the field.

Tomorrow: the real work begins.

Farewell, Smithsonian, for now…

Today was my last day as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History. The good news: the weather was perfect for lunch with colleagues on our rooftop terrace, with stunning views reaching from the Library of Congress to the Washington Monument.

On the roof at NMAH on my last day at the Smithsonian.
On the roof at NMAH on my last day at the Smithsonian. Photo by Steve Velasquez.

Thanks to everyone who made my time at the Smithsonian so rewarding, productive, and valuable. I hope to come back someday.


It’s always reassuring to know that there are several of these on the shelf where you work…

McMaster catalogs in the trade literature collections, National Museum of American History.
McMaster catalogs in the trade literature collections, Smithsonian Libraries, National Museum of American History.

…although, of course, in a history museum we use them a little differently.

For more information on the amazing trade literature collection at American History, you can search the holdings, browse selected digitized items, or come and visit.

The new old way of getting around.

As someone who doesn’t own a car of her own, recent news about proposed upgrades and expansions to the rail network in Massachusetts is a thrilling prospect, particularly for my future life in New England. Paul and I were thinking about these issues over the weekend, when we added another stretch of the Air Line State Park Trail to our walked-it list. The Air Line was a rapid route between Boston and New York City, operated by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad beginning in 1873, which began to be abandoned in the 1950s, although parts remained in operation until the 1970s. In the early 2000s, it was gradually turned into a long state trail, which runs 40-odd miles and counting across central-east Connecticut. We’ve walked a couple of its easternmost sections now, and each time we turn to one another and say, “Would it be incredible if we could just hop on a train in Middletown and be in Boston or New York in a couple of hours?”

The Air Line crossing the impressive Lyman Viaduct, ca. 1880.
The Air Line crossing the impressive Lyman Viaduct, ca. 1880.

The explosion of rails-to-trails projects in the past two decades, and the current interest in restoring and improving rail service in places like New England, as evidenced by Deval Patrick’s plan in Massachusetts and some improvements Amtrak has been making of late, are certainly reason for hope and celebration in times of high fuel prices and airfares. I have been taking the train regularly between Washington and New Haven, and have found it to be a wonderful way to get around, one I wish I could make use of whenever I travel. It is nowhere near the hassle of air travel, and I can actually get work done (which I can’t do on, say, the bus). If we could invest in more high-speed rail in this country, I think it would make a lot more sense for many travelers.

But while there is much to be enthusiastic about, when I walk on the Air Line, or get a glimpse of an abandoned track while driving around Connecticut, I feel like we are forgetting things. The first is the enormous set of changes we have witnessed in the past 60 years or so in how places in the U.S. are connected to one another. We have a tendency to imagine that we are always becoming more and more connected — through cars and highways and phones and the internet — but a mile on the Air Line, or a glance at an old rail route map, should dispel us of these notions. It’s not that we’re becoming more connected; we’re connecting up different places in different ways.

One of the big changes we’ve seen is how small towns are connected to big ones, hinterlands to centers. When doing my own research, which relates to rural life in the 20th-century U.S., I am often struck by how closely connected rural places were, both to urban areas and to one another, for most of the century between the Civil War and the 1960s. Extension officials and agricultural and home demonstration agents write of their extensive travels across their states and counties, going primarily by train. While there is plenty of truth to the story of how the automobile transformed life for farm families in the early decades of the twentieth century, we have a tendency to imagine that these places were more isolated before the Model A than they are today. But that is only if you are speaking of short-distance travel between farms and from farm to town. If you want to know how easy it was for people living in small towns to travel beyond that space, contemplate some of these railroad maps from the late-19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries:

Railroads and Townships of Massachusetts, A. Williams & Co., Boston, 1879.
Railroads and Townships of Massachusetts, A. Williams & Co., Boston, 1879. (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, digital ID g3760 rr002350.)
New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad lines, 1929.
New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad lines, 1929.
New Haven Railroad, 1956.
New Haven Railroad, 1956.

It’s clear that, while major urban areas have always had great connections to one another, one of the big differences between even the 1950s and today is how big cities are connected to smaller towns that are not necessarily their suburbs, and how those smaller towns are connected to one another. In most cases, they aren’t anymore, by any means of transportation other than the automobile.

For instance, in the 1920s, it would have been possible for Paul and I to take a steamboat directly from our home in Middletown, CT, to Trefethen Landing on Peaks Island, Maine, where the Ericksons have a summer cottage. To get there now, we drive about five hours overland, including the always-a-huge-pain-in-the-butt stretch of 495 around Boston, then have to pay an arm and a leg to either park our car somewhere in town, or bring it over on the ferry. I’m sure it’s faster, but I’m not sure it’s better.

Ithaca, NY, another town in which I’ve spent a lot of time, is another great example. When I lived in Ithaca during the summer of 2011, I had my bike as my sole form of transport. When I wanted to visit my parents in Albany, I had to rent a car. If I wanted to go to New York City to visit a friend, or to Connecticut to visit my husband, I would have had to either fly or rent a car again. There was no bus service to be found. But each day I was in the archives, reading reports of extension workers who were taking trains from Ithaca all over the state and beyond, to towns as small as Geneseo and as large as Chicago or New York City. I was jealous. Why was I trapped in Ithaca’s heat wave, when the people I was studying could travel so freely?

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that “things were better in the old days” or anything like that. As we are wise to remember, the railroads were the original trusts and monopolies, the corporations that gave us standard time, that helped exterminate the buffalo, that benefited more than possibly anyone from government subsidy, and that mastered the art of turning state favor into enormous profit. They explain so much about landscape change in this country, about settlement, about politics. They are surely deserving both of our pride and our invective, from the Canadian Railroad Trilogy to The Octopus.

Nonetheless, I still like to travel by rail. I hope to be able to do it more and more in the future. Although there is something magical about walking along a track once traveled by high-speed trains, on the whole I think I’d rather be able to travel that way, too.

The secret of Haddam Neck.

At the tail end of our spring break time together, Paul and I got into a good habit: working in the mornings, then reconvening in midafternoon to go on a long walk. We took to picking out a nearby state park, trying a new one each afternoon. We did this three days in a row, making trips to a section of the Air Line Trail, George Dudley Seymour and Hurd State Parks, and Millers Pond State Park.

George Dudley Seymour and Hurd State Parks are located on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River, above and along a spit of land called Haddam Neck. We’d never explored this area before, but were drawn to George Dudley Seymour State Park in particular because of the description of the vestiges of native grasslands that remained there, as well as the promise of ruins. The location was once the family estate of an agricultural implement manufacturer, a fact which only made the spot more interesting to me. Apparently, the company used to test its equipment on what must have been fertile bottomlands. The area is now also a wildlife management area for the state, and its swampy areas attract a great deal of bird life.

We parked our car at the end of a steep road, crossed a very old bridge, and descended toward the river through the woods along an old paved road that ran alongside a beautiful rushing stream. When we reached the open, grassy areas, there were huge hawks and vultures soaring overhead, making great circles. The breeze was blowing swiftly, but it was sunny and not too cold. After traversing a muddy area without getting our feet soaked, we made it down to the river, where I was able to stick my hand in the waters of the Connecticut for the first time. Even though we live in a town right on the river, the present configuration of highways makes it almost impossible to get to from where we live. On the opposite bank were grand old houses, and we could spot the abandoned rail line that runs along the western shore, as well as a trestle that presumably crosses a stream that flows into the river.

Heading south along a path that skirted the bank, we made our way along essentially an overgrown sandbar with the river on one side and swamp on the other. The spit of sandy land narrowed until the trail opened up onto a clearing: a sand pit that is clearly a recreational area for ATVs. This was a signal to us that we’d passed beyond the boundaries of the park, so we retraced our steps and headed north along the river towards Hurd State Park.

Our route took us uphill into the woods once again, and then wound along under some power lines. We spotted the turkey vultures and hawks again, and a three-quarters moon was high against the blue sky. When we reached the top of the ride, we mounted some granite boulders to get a peek at the lovely river vista below us. I found a fragment of ceramic insulator on the ground that gave my my first up-close look at those spindle-shaped insulators you always see on high-tension line installations. As we planned our route back to the car, we first missed our turn, but eventually found our unblazed trail and made our way back to the old roadway along the stream, past some lovely beech woods and across smaller streams and freshets running with spring melt.

When we returned to the car, we decided that, since we hadn’t explored the area much, we should continue to drive down Haddam Neck, to see what there was to see. We made our way south, as close to the shore as we could manage, past a mix of old clapboard houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, and a fair bit of new construction, mostly pretty high-end. I was navigating using our trusty Connecticut and Rhode Island Gazetteer, and figured we could make it down pretty close to the end of the neck. But not long after we had turned onto the colorfully named Injun Hollow Road, we reached a sudden and surprising dead end: a set of gates and a chain-link fence that indicated we were not to travel further. Although the gates were open, they and the fence were covered in forbidding signs saying things like, “It is a federal crime to trespass on this property” and “Do not enter” and all manner of go-away, intimidating language. “What is this place?” Paul asked me, as he slowed to a stop. “I have no idea,” I replied. Nothing on the map seemed to indicate that there would be any such impediment to our arriving at the tip of the neck. The signs were clear in their message, but said nothing about who owned the property or what it was. “Weird,” Paul said, as he executed a three-point turn, and we headed uphill again, thoroughly puzzled.

Despite our sudden need to turn around, we did explore a bit more of the neck before we headed back over the bridge and home. Mostly, it seemed to us, Haddam Neck was filled with high-end homes, some new, and plenty of historic houses. We got wrapped up in pointing out the interesting ones (and grimacing at some of the huge new ones), and forgot about our strange encounter with the fence and gates. We came home, made dinner, watched a movie, and went back to our computers to put in a little more work before bed.

As I sat at my machine, I decided to take a look at Google Maps to see a bit more about where we had been. First I was interested in learning about the sand pit, and seeing how far we had walked in the end. Then I took a look at the power lines, to see if they marched toward the two power plants on the west side of the river as I had figured. And then I got to thinking, hey, what about that place at the end of the road? What was that? I decided to test my landscape-reading skills from above and panned over to where we had been stopped short.

What I saw was this:

First I looked to see where we had been forced to stop on Injun Hollow Road. I located the spot: just before the road got close to the shore, there was a small pond, and immediately northwest of that was a structure I recalled seeing when we had turned around. I followed the road down, past where we had been forced to turn back. Here was a big empty space with a small parking lot beside it. The grass had the recently-resurfaced look of a former industrial site. At the opposite end, a road named Canal Road split off, along an inlet. Now this was starting to look very industrial: kind of like a power plant. I continued on. This inlet flowed back into the river further down. It reminded me of the Columbia Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Portage, WI, which I had visited as part of a Place-Based Workshop on energy back in 2010. Hm, I thought. This is interesting.

Then I had my revelation. I panned up a bit on the map to follow Canal Road to its terminus. There I saw something I recognized: a rectangular concrete platform covered in cylinders, something that, from above, looks a lot like a clump of capacitors from the inside of an old stereo. Suddenly I knew what I was looking at. This had to be nuclear waste. On the same Place-Based Workshop that had brought me to the Columbia station, we had also visited the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois. There, we had seen the dry-cask storage system that housed spent nuclear fuel that had finished its time in the spent fuel pool, or that they didn’t have room for in the pool anymore. (Primer here: nuclear waste is a huge problem, and every nuclear power plant is doing its own piecemeal thing to deal with its accumulating waste. Since there is no national disposal site for spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste, most plants just deal with it as they can.) I had definitely seen this kind of thing before, from the ground. This used to be a nuclear power plant.

Where were the nuclear plants in Connecticut? A quick internet search turned up two. And the one I’d heard of, Connecticut Yankee, was what I was looking at, what had forced us to turn back on the road. It was built in 1968, and the decommissioning process, begun in 1998, was completed in 2007, the year my map had been printed.

“Paul,” I called downstairs. “Do you want to know why we had to turn around today? Do you know what is there?”

“What?” he asked.

“Come up here. You have to see this.” I heard his feet on the stairs. He came to stand beside my desk. I looked up at him. “It’s the Connecticut Yankee nuclear plant. Look.” I showed him the satellite images, took him to the web site. “Well, holy shit,” he said. We then proceeded to scour the site, looking at pictures of the final deconstruction, including workers removing the core, and the incredibly involved process of demolishing the massive concrete containment building. The core and the reactor pressure vessel were shipped quietly away on a barge, bound for burial in Barnwell, SC. Eerie.

So we spent the next hour or so completely transfixed, looking at the satellite views, browsing the web site, reading about the plant. I kept oscillating between pride at having figured it out and deep uneasiness at the proximity of the plant to where we had been (not to mention where we live now), and its invisibility. I had had to do some digging — not a lot, but enough — and exercise both my curiosity and my experience with power plant sites to figure it out. This is all within recent memory. There is a social group for former plant employees that meets monthly. I am sure our neighbors could tell us all about it.

After we figured out the secret of Haddam Neck, we thought differently about the houses we had seen, and our impressions of this somewhat well-to-do area along the river. We understood why there were so many homes for sale there, why all the houses dated from either before the mid-twentieth century or just a few years ago. We understood better the path of the power lines and the deliberately scary yet uninformative signage. And we had a striking reminder of the landscapes of energy in this country, the way our power system is inscribed upon the landscape, and connects distant places like a spit of land jutting into the Connecticut River and a small town in South Carolina. It also made us think about durability, and lifetimes, and half-lives. 30 years. It’s not a very long time for a power plant to be around. Especially when its legacy is buried in the landscape, in several places, for a long time to come.

But, hey, if you’re interested in buying property on Haddam Neck now that the nuclear plant is gone, you don’t have to settle for a 19th-century farmhouse and a piddly few acres. You want 7,500 feet of river frontage? 582 acres of land? Archaeological sites on the property and proximity to cultural attractions? Connecticut Yankee could be yours. Check out the fact sheet for more info!

Working in the shade, and always in shadow.

Have you ever been curious about those long, vertically slatted, empty-looking barns near Bradley Airport and lining the riverfront of Glastonbury? In case you weren’t aware, they’re tobacco barns, for drying the shade-grown tobacco (yep, that’s what those ghostly canopies in the fields are for) that has been a central crop in the Connecticut River Valley for over a century. Connecticut History has a great piece up about the history of Connecticut tobacco culture, and the labor sources (young southern black students, among them a young Martin Luther King, Jr.) that supported it during the twentieth century.

Tobacco barns near Hartford, CT.
Tobacco barns near Hartford, CT.

The intertwined stories of race, class, and farm labor in America continue to be both incredibly significant and the great invisible aspect of current movements around farms, food, and agriculture. From the days of Carey McWilliams, Dorothea Lange, and John Steinbeck, to the era of Harvest of Shame (which you may now watch in its entirety here), to the United Farm Workers and the lettuce and grape boycotts of the ’60s and ’70s, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, social commentators, labor advocates, concerned consumers, and workers themselves have repeatedly attempted to draw Americans’ attention to the plight of those who tend, fertilize, cultivate, pick, and process our foodstuffs here at home. But, despite these efforts, Americans on the consuming end have generally failed to latch on to farm labor issues as a lasting cause and concern, even while they have become more conscious of the health problems associated with certain types of industrial agriculture and our modern food system.

Part of this is related, I think, to how, at least in the last few decades, movements around food have been consumption-side rather than production-side: they have focused on the ways in which the American food system is contributing to the ill health of those eating processed foods. The most well known of these critiques today is the one Michael Pollan lays out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. (To be fair, Pollan has acknowledged criticism for his focus on the consumer, and replies that he does talk about labor issues more in his shorter pieces for such publications as the New York Times Magazine. You can see him respond to historians about these and other issues at the recent AHA meeting here.) There’s been some great historical work lately on health, environment, and labor in the food industry — Linda Nash’s Inescapable Ecologies springs most immediately to mind — but I would guess that the average Whole-Foods shopper is not thinking about the labor that produced his or her purchases as much as he or she is about what is most healthy or safe for his or her family. Indeed, as an NPR interview this morning reminded me, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is staunchly anti-union, and has a new book out about what he calls “conscious capitalism” — a great reminder of the diverse set of ideologies and beliefs that intersect and find common ground in today’s food movement (and, as my friend and colleague Andrew Case will remind me, that have long latched on to food and health concerns, J.I. Rodale being just one example).

What is perhaps most interesting to me about the article on Connecticut shade-grown tobacco labor is the way it sheds light on how enduring ideas in this country have been about the suitability of certain people and certain bodies to particular kinds of farm labor and the tending of specific crops: the notion that black students from the South, for example, were perfect for harvesting Connecticut tobacco. These ideas have a long history that goes back to the colonial period, when European settlers were uncertain whether their own bodies could survive in the environment of the New World, and believed that a process of “seasoning” European bodies to these new conditions was required before they could thrive. Like plants and other organisms, humans needed an adjustment period when being transplanted from their natural environment to another, foreign one. (Some good books that deal with this process are Joyce Chaplin’s Subject Matter and Conevery Bolton Valencius’s The Health of the Country.)

Farm workers harvesting tobacco and fitting leaves into bulk curing racks being pulled by tractor.
Harvesting tobacco in North Carolina (n.d.), Agricultural Extension and Research Services, North Carolina State University Libraries, Digital Collections.

A corollary to these notions of bodily adjustment, seasoning, and environment was the idea that other bodies — most notably those of Native Americans and Africans — were better suited to the climates and conditions of the American continent. These peoples also possessed knowledge that Europeans required in order to thrive not just physically but economically as well: knowledge about plants, animals, the cultivation of particular crops chief among them. Southern rice culture was successful largely because of the knowledge of African slaves — and, of course, their labor. What is perhaps most striking about the development of agriculture in what would eventually become the United States is how utterly dependent its earliest practitioners were upon the knowledge and labor of subjugated peoples. The appropriation, or at least the control, of that knowledge went hand in hand with the control of those bodies. (A work that deals with these connections among labor, power, race, and knowledge is Andrew Zimmerman’s excellent Alabama in Africa.)

The legacy of slavery is the much more well known dimension of these enduring associations between peoples and plants. Many plantation owners believed that blacks were constitutionally suited to the field labor involved in cotton cultivation, tobacco culture, and rice harvesting. These beliefs were not confined to the South: ideas about who should cultivate what crops, and, perhaps more importantly, who should be able to own land, were everywhere in evidence. California’s exclusion acts barred Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning land, and this legislated discrimination continued into the 20th century. The South was, of course, riddled with continued discrimination upheld by statute and enforced through both economic subjugation and threat of bodily harm. Tenancy was a huge problem there; the exploson of migrant labor in the 1920s and ’30s, as agricultural depression hit the nation in the wake of World War I, became a national concern, and prompted the exposes of the FSA photographers like Lange, and the books of Upton Sinclair, Carey McWilliams, and John Steinbeck. While the groups of people who do the labor have shifted in the intervening decades, the problems, to a frightening degree, remain the same.

The connections between knowledge and labor here are of particular interest to me. In my own research on 4-H, I’ve encountered such amazing documents as extension reports from Montana that discuss how counties are utilizing the labor of Japanese and German POWs to bring in the sugar beet crop: the Germans were of particular use to beet growers, as Germany had pioneered sugar-beet cultivation and processing, and many of them were familiar with the crop and the methods required to harvest it properly. County agents remark upon how useful this knowledge is to them. The labor and the knowledge are never far apart.

I think it’s important to remember these intertwined stories of race and labor when we think about our food system today — for, as Pollan admits in his comments at the AHA, when you pull on one thread of the problem, you find that you’ve ended up grabbing a whole snarling mess. Food and eating are connected to growing and farming which are connected to the environment and the health of everyone, not just consumers; human and environmental health are connected to labor conditions; these, in turn are connected to how we organize space and the geographies of inequality in our nation, which are the result of historical processes that have to do with land tenure, property law, and the legacies of racism and oppression. As we approach the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, let us be conscious of the ways in which justice may be enacted in our country, and how connected our actions are, not just as individuals, but as groups and communities, to the lives of all our fellow citizens.