Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We have probably all heard this statement that has, in different forms and wordings, been attributed to Edmund Burke, George Santayana, and Winston Churchill. The message is clear. History is important. History entails many eras, areas, foci, and branches. When we think of history, many of us call to mind important events in the world or American history. (My personal favorites are nineteenth-century British social and literary studies). While it is enjoyable and paramount to examine research that helps us understand the world, it is also imperative to study and understand our local history. Let’s delve into the reasons why this is so.
Traveling the World – or Not
I love to travel. I have seen and experienced historical sites, nature areas, science museums, cultural festivals (I will probably never forget that St. Patrick’s Day parade in the snow a few years ago), and gorgeous art exhibits. One of my most recent quests found me at a historical church at which I literally (and I do mean literally, not figuratively) gasped when I opened the door to the sanctuary. The art in this building is phenomenal, amazing, magnificent, majestic. It’s no wonder it is one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas Art and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. That said, I have never had the opportunity to travel farther than the four states that border Kansas. Perhaps these are the only states I will ever visit. I may never be able to travel across the United States on my dream literary tour. I may never make that trip to England for my history studies. That, however, has not halted my love of travel, nor has it dulled my traveling experiences. In fact, people are often flabbergasted when I tell them of the locations I have visited. They had no idea these places even existed.
To Study History
In the same way that it is educational and entertaining to travel to wonderful locations in one’s area, studying one’s own history is a wonderful learning experience. Just as traveling to a closer location does not negate the experience of traveling, so studying one’s local and regional history can be an enjoyable exploration. I remember when my sons were younger, we made a weekly trip, beginning on Kansas Day, to the Salina Public Library to study the history of Kansas. We hit the historical books. We discovered Native American history. We studied John Brown and Bleeding Kansas. We investigated how Kansas was influential at the start of the American Civil War. We explored how and when Kansas was recognized as a state in the Union. (Believe it or not, this study came in handy a few years later when I debated with one of my history professors that Kansas was just as important in the Civil War as the Eastern Theater. There was more to this war than the battles only).
For Labor Day, we have explored the history of workers in Salina itself. We have explored industry in our city. After all, Salina was (and still is to some extent) an industrial city. We saw current industries, such as Tony’s Pizza and Great Plains Manufacturing. We researched the historical Vitrified Brick Facility that produced 4,000 bricks daily (and was housed where Indian Rock Park is now). We then traveled to the city to see which buildings that were made from those bricks are still standing. As one gazes upon these buildings, it is inspiring to think early Salinans created these bricks and built these buildings. Perhaps they were ancestors of yours or mine. The lasting quality of these simple tools and the projects built from them are a testament to the hard work and creativity that is part of our city’s heritage.
To Know the Beginnings
In 1858, David Phillips, William A. Phillips, Alexander M. Campbell, Sr., James Muir, and A.C. Spillman traveled from Lawrence to what would become Salina. The first dugout here was built north of what is today known as the Elm Street Bridge. The first building in Salina was on the corner of Iron Avenue and Fifth Street. The first baby born (and who survived infancy) in Salina was Christina Campbell, the daughter of Alexander Campbell and Christina Phillips Campbell. Salina would become a supplier of tools needed by those seeking gold in the Rocky Mountains. The railroad cinched our industrial heritage when it came to town in 1867, bringing more people and opportunities (City of Salina). Salina, Kansas, was incorporated as a city in the year 1870. Knowing this history allows us to celebrate the accomplishments of our ancestors. It motivates us to celebrate who we are as a community and encourages us to understand who we are as a society.
To Keep Our History
Anyone who knows me knows one of my big passions is the idea that we need to respect and protect our history. Knowing our local history encourages us to become involved in preserving our history. In Salina, we have the fabulous Smoky Hill Museum that I frequently visit. I have attended concerts and other events at the gorgeous, historic Stiefel Theatre. I adore going to the Central Kansas Flywheels Museum to understand more about our farming culture. These are all fantastic locations to explore. I hope everyone takes advantage of these opportunities. However, I want to see more preservation of our historical artifacts. We, as a society, can only understand the pertinence of preserving our history when we know that history – when we perceive what those artifacts are, where they came from, and who they represent. We have to know our history in order to protect it.
To Do Better
I would like to say the good times and the celebrations are the only parts of our local history to study. It always feels good to see the positive. It’s fun to browse antique photographs of graduations and weddings and new babies and blueprints for grand buildings. However, history is not just good. It’s not just something of which we should be proud. History is composed of people. That means there are going to be some negative, not-so-good things, too. If history always makes us proud, I can promise we are not viewing all of history. Our all-American city of Salina (named such in 1989) is no different than the rest of the world. We must explore these gloomy, even bad, areas of our local history.
In Caldwell Plaza, just outside the south doors of the Salina Public Library, there is a sign containing the story of a man who became part of an event I am sure all of us would prefer had not happened. In 1893, Dana Adams was convicted of assault. We cannot truly be sure how fair his trial was. He was an African American man. The man he was accused of assaulting was white. Adams was supposed to be sent to Leavenworth, Kansas. However, he never made it out of Salina. A mob of people ripped Adams from the train he had boarded and hanged him near what is now the Union Station train depot at 419 N. 7th St. Adams is now buried at Gypsum Hill Cemetery at 2020 E. Iron Ave.
Why, you may ask, do we want to hear about or study such horrible actions? I can understand that. None of us likes to hear of such atrocities. If you are like me, such studies can make me depressed, anxious, and even physically ill. Consider, however, that the lynching of Dana Adams was not brought to the public’s attention until 2018 – 125 years after it actually occurred. The marker to remember the injustice against him was not placed until last year (Rankin). Not only does Dana Adams deserve to be remembered, we, as a community, must proclaim loudly and boldly that we do not stand for what occurred. Only by recognizing the horror can we make this proclamation. Only by remembering can we do better for the future of our community.
Many Branches of the Historical Tree
One of the questions I often hear involves where to begin a study of local history. I am going to let you in on some ways historians approach such studies. There are several branches of historical study – and the tree that holds these branches grows more and more as the years progress. Some of the basic branches of history’s tree are pretty self-explanatory: military historians study the military and wars. Economic history is the study of economic systems. Political historians study political actions. Social historians study society. I often say social historians study the stories of people that need to be told – stories that have often been ignored. Cultural historians study the cultural aspects of society. What makes our city’s culture ours? There are branches of art history, scientific history, women’s history, and the list goes on.
How does this apply to our study of local history? Let’s take a moment to discuss. Knowing the history of the founders of Kansas is cultural history. Why did the individuals listed above travel to this area? What was their purpose? What about the railroad? How did it improve the quality of life for Salina’s early inhabitants? Searching for answers will lead the researcher to information about economic history. My family’s study of the workers in Salina, Kansas, is social history. It’s the story of those who may not always be remembered in history books. The story of Dana Adams is also social history. It’s a study of the oppression of a man, based upon his race. It’s a story that needs to be told. That church I recently visited is both cultural history and art history. (Did I mention there is a grotto outside of the larger building that is a part of World War II history?). Understanding the branches of history really brings the stories to life. It gives us a focus. Ask the who, how, and why questions. Find the answers. Discover what branches of history are your favorites and prepare to research.
Next, find primary (first-hand/eyewitness) sources and secondary (those written well after the events occurred) sources. A great place to initiate such research is the Salina Public Library. In our Campbell Room, you will find archives related to Salina’s history. The Gale Primary Sources archives on the website for the Salina Public Library (https://go.gale.com/ps/aboutThisCollection?p=GDSC&u=salinapl&mCode=3FMI) is also a fantastic resource for primary source research from Salina’s past. It can be found by clicking the research tab, databases A-Z, History & Government, Kansas History. Both of these archives are indispensable for Salina researchers.
Just For Fun
Here are some local history trivia questions you might be interested in answering to help get you started on your research journey. Did you know there is a reason Iron Avenue is called Iron Avenue and College Street is named College Street? What happened to the opera house that used to provide a venue for entertainment? Just why are Lee Jeans associated with Salina? Did you know Salina used to have a street car? If I have not convinced you of important reasons to study local history, maybe these fun questions will show there doesn’t have to be a reason. I am a huge proponent of learning just for the joy and sake of learning. Be curious. Be creative. Dig into the archives. Make new discoveries. Expand your horizons. As we here at the library like to say, be a lifelong learner.
City of Salina, http://salina-ks.gov/content/18394/18526/20322/default.aspx, 2023. Accessed 10 July 2023.
Rankin, Charles. “Salina Community Remembers Dana Adams, a Black Man Lynched in 1893, with Historical Marker.” Salina Journal. June 19, 2022. https://www.salina.com/story/news/2022/06/19/salina-dedicates-marker-remembrance-black-man-lynched-1893/7659416001/. Accessed 10 July 2023.