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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 22, 2005

Notes from a material girl
Seeking a broader, deeper history

What is history" And where is it found" How is it kept"

Journalism, it has been said, is the first take of history. Newspapers chronicle the important events in a community or a state or a nation. Years later, when accounts are filtered and compiled, evaluated and analyzed, they are put into history books, taught in schools.

That kind of history has centered on the widely-recognized important people, mostly men — the elected leaders, the generals, the noteworthy judges.

But there’s another kind of history, too, a history not often found between the covers of books, not often taught in the classroom. That sort of social history is often largely female. It can be passed down through stories — which scholars refer to as oral tradition — and it can also be found in objects.

Rabbi Susan Gulack, a member of Ohav Shalom, has been blowing the shofar during the daily morning service at her synagogue as the congregation prepares for the Days of Awe — Rosh ha ‘Shana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

"Every time I blow this ram’s horn, a thrill travels up my spine as I realize how it connects me and all Jews through thousands of years of history," she says. "These blasts are meant to awaken the congregation to the fact that the High Holidays are coming and must get ready."

Some objects are quiet, but they speak to us nonetheless.

Recently, the Community Caregivers held a quilt show in the park at the center of Altamont. Organizer Ruth Dickinson, a quilter herself, told me how she could look at a quilt made by people she knew and see their life’s stories there.

When she looks at the Caregivers’ quilt, she said, she is able to tell when a certain person died and when another person’s granddaughter was born.

"A quilter will tell you" said Dickinson, "a quilt has a life of its own. It has a story."

The story, of course is personal, and, unlike the written words on a page, not accessible to all.

I have a quilt, handed down to me by my grandmother made for her by her grandmother to take with her as she left Bermuda for this country.

On a black velvet ground, hexagonal patches create an orgy of bright colors — silk and brocade, satin and voile, stitched together in gaudy Victorian style by friends and relatives who loved my grandmother.

I can read their embroidered names — Mother and May, Sadie and Belle — and I can finger the symbols they portrayed — an anchor, a heart, a horseshoe. I touch them and they touch me.

Some of the symbols are readable: A row of forget-me-nots must mean cherish me, an arrow shot through two golden rings must signify an imminent wedding.

But what of the feathers" What of the maraca"

The embroidered date is clear — 1887 — but the history is not. The mystery does not make the quilt any less precious to me. It gives me worlds to ponder, worlds I’ve never known.

I appreciate the uniqueness of handmade objects, living as I do in an era when most everything is mass-produced. As I visited local antiques displays this weekend to take photographs for our newspaper’s antiques guide, I enjoyed fingering a well-worn chopping bowl, made by hand over a century ago; I enjoyed listening to the sound of a clock that ticked the time away.

I am a materialist, for sure, but not in the modern mold. My husband and I frequent flea markets more often than malls. Our house is largely furnished with goods cast off from an earlier time.

Part of my passion probably comes from being raised in a household where my German grandmother’s adage was frequently quoted: Waste not, want not.

The expanded philosophy: Use it up, wear it out; make it do, or do without.

But it’s more than that. I value the personality of old objects.

A recent lawn sale netted a 10-cent dishtowel sewn in years gone by from a 100-pound bag of Iroquois Growing Mash, complete with the faded stencil of a native American in traditional headdress. The towel had been patched by an unknown hand long ago.

I like fingering its worn edges: I am a material girl.

My husband’s favorite recent find cost a buck and came from a barrel of old fireplace utensils. It’s a hand-forged iron shovel with a well-worn brass knob on top of its handle. The scoop, attached with a spade-shaped phalange, is just slightly off center.

My husband will use the century-old tool to scrape ashes from our fireplace this winter and he’ll feel much the richer for it.

Not all the objects that embody our history can be held in the hand and privately enjoyed. Some of them — like old houses — present themselves to the public every day.

This weekend, history and hamlet pride will be celebrated in Clarksville during New Scotland’s sixth Plum Fest. At center stage are two old houses that speak volumes about the hamlet’s history.

We commend the town and the two historical societies — New Scotland’s and Clarksville’s — for distinguishing these houses with historical markers. They will help passers-by read the homes’ histories.

On Saturday, during Plum Fest, one marker will be unveiled at the Meed House, on the Delaware Turnpike. In 1810, the spacious Victorian belonged to Judge Henry L. Meed, an early Bethlehem supervisor who was the first postmaster in the village that preceded Clarksville, Bethlehem P.O.

A second marker will then be dedicated in front of another house on the Delaware Turnpike, built by Adam Clark in 1833. Clark was the first postmaster in the newly-formed hamlet that bears his name.

On Sunday, a third marker will be dedicated in front of the house built by Teunis Hougtaling in the 18th Century. John and Jean Hoagland have been stewards of the house for over three decades and have had it placed on both the state and national historic registers.

They have invited descendants of the man who built their home to the ceremony; more than 40 descendants of Teunis Houghtaling, many who have never met each other, will come from across the country.

What a grand idea. A house shapes the people who live in it and no doubt the Houghtalings will discover much about their past as they share family stories at a reunion prompted by their homestead.

Preserving old buildings preserves our history. As more and more buildings are mass-produced, saving the old ones helps our communities preserve their identities.

Celebrating these places, as a community, is both wise and wonderful. The Enterprise, as the community’s newspaper, will continue to document such events in our everyday lives. If we write the first take of local history with care to such details, the record for future generations will have more breadth and depth.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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