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I was listening to NPR this morning, as I often do at work, and was listening to a local arts-discussion program, “The Walt Bodine Show.” He had on, as his guest for the hour, Thomas Spencer, a professor at Central Missouri State College, who had edited a book of essays titled The Other Missouri History: Populists, Prostitutes, and Regular Folks. From the sound of it, it is a book of social history framed in terms of the stories of ordinary people whose names don't resound from the history books, who didn't make big waves in the world, but who serve as good examples of the way people lived, thought, and acted in their contemporary time frames. There are essays about the sociopolitical clout of our well-to-do, yet working-class farmers, anecdotes about how 19th century women's social clubs helped push societal reforms, and how the neverending, century-old fight against prosititution in Kansas City has never yielded the desired results, but instead has served only to shuffle the population of prostitutes to different areas of the city

I'm looking forward to reading the book, as this is the sort of history that I am very much interested in learning. I've a long-held fascination with personal stories that fit within the framework of larger social forces of any given era. I think this sort of fascination began when I was a little kid, asking my great-grandmother to tell me what life was like for a little girl in turn-of-the-century Berlin, or talking to a neighbor lady of similar age, and hearing about what kind of games little girls played out on the prairie in 1910, or what it was like for her boys in the 1930s going to school in a one-room school on their farm.

I had a wonderful teacher in the 4th grade who taught Nebraska History as though she were telling a grand adventure story, talking about the native Lakota who used to live in our area and who hunted bison, talking about the pioneers who even back then mostly considered Nebraska to be the equivalent of “fly-over” territory (though back then, I guess it would be Conestoga-through territory), using the Oregon Trail or the more southerly Mormon trail as their fastest exit westward. It wasn't really until the 1870s, when the railways finally provided a safe and reliable means of getting goods out to the frontier that people began to stick around in inhospitable, dry, flat Nebraska. Mrs. Reeves brought our state history to us kids in the form of stories, tying in the “Little House” books many of us already knew and enjoyed with similar anecdotes from celebrated Nebraskan authors like Bess Streeter Aldrich, Willa Cather, and, of course Mari Sandoz.

Many stories had similarities with each other; a small child laid itself down for a nap in the tall grass near a family's cabin and was taken for lost until it awoke hours later. Unprepared for the harsh High Plains winters, families found themselves constrained to burn cow or buffalo chips (literally dried lumps of said animals' shit) to warm their houses. There were the droughts, the grasshopper plagues, and the maddening, constant wind. The wind, plus the isolation of the prairies, plus the hardscrabble living of settler life provoked depression in succeptible individuals, and it was not unheard of for people to commit suicide over the bleakness of it all. To a person suffering a depression, the wind does truly have a mournful sound to it, and its sheer velocity and persistence can seem almost malicious as it drives the cold into your bones or the high-summer dust in through the crack under your door. Mrs. Reeves even shared family stories about Nebraska life—stories of her own childhood during the Dustbowl, of buckets of milk which came from the barn yellowy-white and rich, and entered the house brown and full of grit, despite having tight fitting covers snapped snugly across the tops of the buckets.

True stories of ordinary people, living as best they knew how within the constraints of their time are the kinds of stories I love to learn about. For a summer I worked for the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Society, mostly as an office aide, but during that time I had the opportunity to learn more about Ms. Sandoz and her family, and more about the settling of the region. I started learning more about the small, local post-offices, such as the one run by Jules Sandoz, and the one which had been situated in the Old Dunlap Store, very near where I grew up. Two summers later, I worked in the Dawes County Historical Museum, and got to learn even more of these types of stories. I learned about the notorious Gay '90s Chadron prostitute known as Red Jacket, on account of the garment she sported when she was on call. I learned about the beginnings of the State College, and came to recognize many faces of the original student body, as they re-appeared in many local photos, and in a wonderful stash of photos which had belonged to original Chadron Normal School alum Neva Lutsey. I delighted in that stock of old photos of college girls goofing around, taken nearly a century before my own college career. The photos were telling of many things we still see in schoolgirl memoirs—stagey chumminess of girls cramming into the view of the camera, mugging gleefully, dressed in the closest approximation of the top trends of the day. Girls and boys clowning, with the boys wearing articles of feminine attire and girls pulling exaggeratedly wry faces. The best find in that collection of informal photos was an envelope containing some 30 or 40 postage-stamp sized photobooth pictures, akin to those that teenagers today pose for in booths in shopping malls. Featuring Neva Lutsey and many other kids her age, the photos are the most candid I have ever seen from the era. Circa 1897, judging by the fashions and hairstyles, the photos show kids preening in hammy poses that would do Paris Hilton proud, In one series Neva progresses from a young lady properly dressed for the street in a hat and cloak to a coquette with her thick, wavy hair all down around her shoulders. In another photo, one of her girlfriends poses back-to-camera to best show off a complicated hairstyle.

I love the details that old photos reveal and conceal. For a famous example, there's an old Solomon Butcher photograph of a Nebraskan farm family, circa 1880, posed outdoors in their farmyard, with the parlor organ outside with them, though nary a building in sight. This would seem a cryptic photograph—certainly these people didn't live out in the open air with only a pump organ as their sole creature comfort, but it turns out that the wife was embarrassed by the family soddy, but very proud of the parlor organ their successful harvest had allowed them to buy, so she asked Butcher if he could compromise by taking a photo of the family grouped around the organ outside of their house. Similar photos exist of families sitting in front of their soddies, proudly showcasing a shiny Singer sewing machine or a prized threshing machine. Another photo I remember seeing in a book of photos selected to demonstrate the evolution of ladies' fashion, there was an image of a little girl, probably between 9 and 12 years of age, posed standing beside an intricate piano-stool with two fancy bantam hens perched on the seat. Apparently, these two chickens were the little girl's pets. Immediately, I felt an affinity with this child, as, when I was her age, I had a number of ridiculously tame bantam hens which I considered great pets. I find, when I study old photos, that there are plenty of little things that I can see as links to the past, which help me understand the motivations of the folks who have gone before, and maybe what my life and the lives of my contemporaries will look like to our future kin.

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