Studying Local History in the Digital Age: The Story of Asaph Perry

Article excerpt

ONE YEAR AGO WE HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE of discovering some forgotten and unused historical resources hidden in a storage closet at the Cherokee County Georgia Historical Society. From these resources, we were able to weave an intriguing narrative encompassing people and events in history. We hope our story will encourage other teachers and students to explore primary sources from their community--in local archives, libraries, historical associations, and homes.

In the historical society storage closet, we found a somewhat tattered box of letters, correspondences, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia from the family of a man named William Asaph Perry. (1) The box had not been catalogued and was among an assortment of other local historical primary documents and artifacts. Like many small and medium sized communities, Cherokee County does not have a formal local historical archive. Instead, some of the most important local primary historical resources and the relating stories of the past are maintained by amateur enthusiasts and an historical society.

We decided to explore the Perry materials along with a small group of university pre-service social studies teachers. The reasons were multifold; for one thing we wanted to tell a story that was, in a sense, untold. The pre-service teachers who participated were particularly interested in the prospect of developing a resource that could later be used in their classrooms. They also wanted to create something that was flexible enough to work in various contexts, so we made a deliberate effort to expand our content focus. For example, since Asaph Perry was born in 1870 and came of age at a time of tremendous change and innovation, we decided to tell some of his story in the context of these changes. Broadening this context enabled us to explore how technological changes allowed Asaph Perry and others in the late 1890S and early 1900s to live and work differently than their parents.

Students in a high school history class in Cherokee County also explored the Perry resources. The study of Asaph Perry allowed these students to identify, themselves within larger historical contexts and to also recognize "their shared humanity and common problems" regardless of time or place. (2) The study of personal or local history empowered our students to make sense of larger narratives about the past. Asaph Perry's story is not an unusual one, but it is a story about, and full of, opportunities--opportunities for teachers to help students engage and make sense of the past. The life of Asaph Perry, a resident of Cherokee County during the era in which modern America would begin to emerge, exemplifies a variety of historical themes in American history: technological change, industrialization, entrepreneurial spirit, family life, and changing gender roles.

Students had a unique opportunity to examine the life and times of a real family using actual documents written by and to Perry, as well as other relevant artifacts he collected. However, the documents and artifacts only gave us glimpses into his life. Our aim was to understand as much about Perry's life as possible, but to do this with a parallel aim of engaging lager stories and themes from history Students in our classes, armed with the tools of historical analysis, inquired about the past using these specific artifacts and, in a sense, Asaph Perry become a telescope into the past. The study of Perry's life within the larger context of American history allowed our students to truly understand the changes that were taking place--industrial, technological, economic, and societal--during a time when the modern United States that they now live in was beginning to take shape. Alone, the significance of Asaph Perry's letters is not evident; however, using the processes of analysis and interpretation, students gained a deeper understanding of the past.

Invested with a personal and scholarly interest, we pursued Asaph Perry's story, much like historian Carl Becket's "Mr. …