Essential history

8612245488_b7de7cd9ea_bHistory gives us a perspective on change that few other disciplines can. Looking back we can see where we were 10, 20, 100 years ago. If we examine how our lives were — or how others lived — then we have a distinct measure of how far we’ve come and how much things have changed. Today’s college students don’t know a world without computers or cell phones. In much the same way, their parents don’t remember life without  television. And what modern child could imagine riding a horse to school or thinking that store-bought bread or clothing wasn’t the norm but a novelty?

Change sometimes feels threatening or unwanted, and often those fears, even when unfounded, are very real. Only when we look backwards can we sometimes see the value in change. Who, for instance, would willingly return to days before mass electrification? Yet when kerosene lamps ruled, for many homeowners the prospect of electrical current running through the walls of their houses was truly frightening.

Some people can envision the future well enough to embrace it without reservations; people like the Wright Brothers or George Westinghouse. But for the rest of us, change often requires the perspective of time. If looking into the past offers valuable lessons, then it would follow that preserving that past becomes an important part of establishing change.

The valley has plenty of organizations that are doing exactly that: preserving history. Rosemarie Palmer, JMU faculty emeriti, works diligently with the Harrisonburg Rockingham Historical Society. In fact, I got an email from Rosemarie this week with a schedule of upcoming events.

This morning’s Daily News-Record reported on the continuing effort of  Clerk of the Circuit Court for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County Chaz Evans-Haywood (’96) to restore and digitize the county’s records. When Chaz took over the office a number of years ago, thousands of documents and record books were stored haphazardly. Going back as far as the 1700s, they were degrading and in disarray. Through his efforts and those of his staff, the history of Rockingham County is being taken care of, and perhaps as importantly, is being made available to the public.

Anyone who visits the third floor of Harrisonburg’s Public Safety Building on Main Street will find another adventure in local history. The Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum is a walk back through a century of one essential civic function for the community. To see how firefighters battled blazes before the advent of walkie-talkies is to discover they used “bugles” to communicate during a fire event. It is fun, interesting, welcoming, and best of all it is history well done.  Harrisonburg’s longtime Fire Chief Larry Shifflett is the instigator who has collected and catalogued an amazing collection from old Harrisonburg: photos, memorabilia, equipment and displays. And Wanda Willis, fire prevention specialist and safe kids coordinator, is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.

I can’t help but share one small tidbit of Madison history that seems especially appropriate. Accordingly to L. Sean Crowley’s history of Madison:

When the good news was received [that the General Assembly had approved a school at Harrisonburg], the entire News­Register building was illuminated in a blaze of lights and the town’s fire whistle broke the night silence with a prolonged blast, waking many residents and prompting dozens of inquiring calls to the central telephone office. 

History is too often discarded, trashed and forgotten, but individuals like Larry and Chaz and Rosemarie are making sure we have the opportunity to stand back and look back, giving us the all important understanding that change which moves of forward is change we should embrace.

If you have a child or an interest in history, do not miss the Firefighters Museum!  It’s located in the the Public Safety Building on Main Street.

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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