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Saturday, March 9, 2024

March 9-10, 2024: National Park Studying: National Historic Parks

[On March 3rd, 1849, Congress created a new federal government agency, the Department of the Interior. One of the department’s most significant focal points has become the National Park System, so this week I’ve celebrated Interior’s 175th birthday by AmericanStudying a handful of our great Parks, leading up to this post on National Historic Parks!]

On one particularly impressive thing each at three of America’s many wonderful National Historic Parks.

1)      Appomattox Court House: I visited Appomattox with my sons on a number of our annual Virginia trips, and each time I was struck by the same thing: the incredibly impressive short informational film at the visitors center. That might be a strange thing to highlight at a site surrounded by such history, but at the same time the informational film is a key part of any historic site visit and experience. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better one than Appomattox’s: in just a few minutes it manages to feature not only the specific military and diplomatic contexts of the Civil War’s closing moments, but also broader histories of the build-up to the war, the war overall, and (most importantly and impressively) the aftermaths of peace and abolition for African Americans and the nation as a whole. If you’re ever in the Lynchburg, Virginia area, I recommend Appomattox Court House National Historic Park for that wonderful film alone (and a lot more, but the film by itself is enough to get you there)!

2)      Lowell: I’ve been to the Lowell Mills National Historic Park a handful of times, including two wonderful visits with my sons’ respective 5th grade class field trips. That has given me a unique appreciation for how the site teaches its histories and stories to elementary school kids, and I have nothing but great things to say about those educators and their tours and programs. But on those two visits, just as on my prior and subsequent ones, I was most struck by one particular exhibit: Mill Girls & Immigrants, an exhibit that makes perfect use of one of the mill’s early 19th century boardinghouses. There’s a lot of great stuff in that exhibit, but it features perhaps my favorite single museum space: a recreated boardinghouse bedroom where, at the press of a button, the voices of a group of mill workers (quoting from actual letters and journals) emerge from different corners of the bedroom, overlapping and fading and reemerging in a combination of individual identities and communal experience. I can’t possibly do it justice, so if you’re ever in Lowell, be sure to visit the second floor of that Mill Girls & Immigrants exhibit and see and hear it for yourself!

3)      Minute Man: My sons’ other big 5th grade field trips were to Concord’s Minute Man National Historic Park, but I didn’t get to tag along on those. I’ve been to Minute Man a few times, however, and have each time been particularly struck by one core element of the park. While the park features a visitors center and a number of individual sites, its main attraction is the long winding path on which visitors can follow the trail of the colonial Minute Men and the British Redcoats on that historic April 1775 day. While the highway is visible from certain spots along the path, from many others it’s not; and overall the path, the surrounding historic buildings, and even I believe the woods and other natural landmarks have largely been preserved as they were in 1775. The effect reflects the best kind of immersive experience that these National Historic Parks can create, a sense that we have truly entered into a historic world and are experiencing a partial but powerful version of that place and time.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other National Parks, Historic or otherwise, you’d highlight?

PPS. After scheduling this post, I published a Saturday Evening Post Considering History column inspired by our newest National Historic Site and looking at a range of others beyond these three!

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