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Center for Engagement and Community Development

Lost Kansas: Recovering the Stories of Places and People Going Home: Hidden Histories of the Flint Hills

Project Title(s): Lost Kansas: Recovering the Stories of Places and People and Going Home: Hidden Histories of the Flint Hills         

Abstract: Two projects have generated a sustained and ongoing partnership between the faculty and students of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies and community museum volunteers across Kansas. Extensive, collaborative historical research on nearly forgotten communities has resulted in both permanent online and print publications. Student researchers receive direct mentoring from community members and those members in turn find new value and purpose in the preservation of their community’s material culture. Past and continuing collaborations have been mutually recognized with federal grants, awards, presentations, exhibits, new student scholarships and a profound sense of accomplishment in the recovery and public celebration of our shared legacy as Kansans.

The Partnership: This application details the work of the staff and students of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies, an undergraduate research lab in the College of Arts and Sciences, and volunteers in the many county and city historical societies and museums that have collaborated with the CCRS since 2010.*

Lost Kansas. The CCRS was established in 2007-08 as an undergrad research lab in history, primarily concerned with recovering and publishing, in book form, the history of a single small town, Broughton, Kansas. The success of that project, and the interest it generated in the community museum in Clay County, pointed to the broader mission of attempting to save, through campus/community collaboration, the stories of towns whose memories were in grave danger of being lost. This led the director of the CCRS, Dr. Bonnie Lynn-Sherow to apply for an NEH Digital Humanities Grant in 2008 titled: Lost Kansas: Recovering the Legacy of Places and People. This grant provided her with training in digital humanities, specifically employing an exhibit platform, OMEKA, developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. With a publication platform in place and public access through the web, the work of students and their community collaborators gained potential for teaching, learning and the engagement of community members not directly involved with the initial research.

              Encouraged by the enthusiasm for this work expressed by the student researchers and community collaborators, Dr. MJ Morgan, research director for the Center, quickly recognized that this work was an exciting form of engaged learning and developed courses to support this ongoing initiative. “Kansas Communities” became the core course, under the department of History. Open to all majors, students were introduced to core skills in data management, primary source research, oral history collection, historic interpretation, artifact evaluation, image production and online publication. Several other courses were adapted to incorporate these skills such as American Agricultural History, African American Kansas, Immigrant Kansas and upper division research courses in history and Rural Sociology. In addition to teaching these important skills, Lost Kansas research meant FIELD TRIPS. Professor Morgan, in particular, became well known for taking her students to the “field” which in some cases, were actual fields, or woods, or country roads or abandoned school houses, churches and graveyards (more than 80 by last count).  These trips often incorporated a local “guide” often a local resident caretaker with deep roots in that location. These trips were followed up with additional student-initiated one-on-one meetings in peoples’ homes, in museums, cafes and other off-campus locations. These meetings created personal bonds between young men and women and rural residents. Each found value in the knowledge and skills of the other as they worked together to preserve past memories and make new ones. The sustained success of this NEH sponsored digital archive received national recognition in the fall of 2017 by the National Humanities Alliance:

Lost Kansas Communities is an innovative digital project dedicated to preserving the memory of Kansas’s lost and disappearing locales. Kansas State students—more than 500 at last count—perform primary research by combing archives, creating maps, and documenting oral histories. The best final projects are published on the project’s digital archive, which is publicly accessible. Initially funded by an NEH grant in 2008, Lost Kansas Communities has since taken on a life of its own and become a major program of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies. The project has driven the creation of the Bruntzel Award for excellence in local history, partnerships with local agencies, a major exhibition at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, and many, many donations . . .  (nehforall.org)

Going Home: Hidden Histories of the Flint Hills. Following the untimely death of Mr. Mark Chapman in April of 2014, Director Lynn-Sherow initiated a dialogue with the Flint Hills Discovery Center about featuring the amazing work of the CCRS students and their community research mentors and collaborators. This exhibit would honor the generosity and vision of Mr. Chapman. Two years of planning, research, artifact collection and interpretation culminated in a full-fledged interactive exhibit in the temporary gallery of the FHDC from September of 2016 to January of 2017. More than 12,000 unique visitors engaged with the exhibits’ many features, including an interactive touch screen with more than 300 communities and kiosks featuring seven representative towns that students had researched: Broughton, Volland, Cedar Point, Chalk, Bodarc, Kaw village at Little John Creek and Maple City. Once again, community members pitched in help with the interpretation of several themes related to small town life.

              But the one feature of the exhibit that was carefully planned for engagement was the StoryStore. This was a ¾ replica of a general store** that was actually a sound booth equipped with recording equipment and hooked up to the Story Corps app. Visitors were encouraged to tell their own stories of home, with family members and others and to preserve those stories by uploading them to the Library of Congress (part of the app). To launch this portion of the exhibit, the CCRS students invited their community collaborators to come to the exhibit and they would facilitate their story recordings. Contributors came in from across the Flint Hills, as far south as Maple City, only 5 miles from the Oklahoma Border to Marshall County north of Manhattan. They came to witness their own family stories, and hundreds and hundreds of their photos, featured in the kiosk’s interactive touch pads. And they came to watch the several films, shot, produced and edited by students in the CCRS, of these same community members, talking about home and what it meant to them and still means to them even now.  And while an exhibit is not a conventional “publication” it fulfilled all of the goals of a publication by reaching a wide audience with new information, created and narrated by the engaged effort of students and community members. The films, materials and all of the research for the exhibit is still available for online visitors, sustaining its impact into the foreseeable future. The exhibit itself now travels to new locations under the umbrella of the Discovery Center and the Story Store is now housed in the new Clay County Museum in Clay Center, Kansas. Going Home has since inspired a number of small historical societies to re-think their exhibits, ask for guidance and has generally reinvigorated their efforts.  In recognition of this wonderful response to the exhibit and the now on-going requests for even more engagement with the CCRS, Director Lynn-Sherow wrote another NEH grant that would support a new initiative designed to help small museums to plan for the future. This grant was fully funded in the fall of 2017.

*We have included letters from only two of the small historical societies that have contributed to the archive or collaborated in the exhibit in keeping with the award guidelines.

*The K-State General Association of Contractors student organization won a national award for their work on constructing the Story Store.

Lessons Learned and Best Practices:  After ten years of managing engagement projects between students and community members, we have developed a checklist of items required for a successful outcome. 

  • Do your research.  This simply means that students should do as much secondary work as they can BEFORE engaging with community members. If the project involves a small town site, what can you learn easily and quickly to orient your work?  Have you found the location of the town? Have you searched the library resources of the CCRS (eg. The Bruntzel book for dates, names and incorporation details).  Is there a county history available to read online or through Interlibrary loan?  Have you done a basic search through Kansas History: Journal of the Central Plains? Have you identified secondary and related themes (eg. Blue Rapids had a Gypsum mine. What do you know about that industry in Kansas? Have you made a list of names associated with the town that you can search for on Ancestry.com and in Newspapers.com? There are other databases of small town businesses, phone directories, Find a Grave, etc. Finally, have you checked the Kansas Memory Database at the Kansas State Historical Society? If time, have you paid a visit to the Riley County Geneological Society near campus? There are print resources here that are not available online.
  • Prepare your Collaborator with a phone call.  If you are hoping/planning to interview a current or former resident, they need to know a few things first: a. who you are and why you are asking them to participate b. what the intended final product of the interview might be c. find out if they have any barriers to being interviewed (hearing, sight, mobility).  If collaborators need additional assurance, direct them to the Directors of the CCRS.
  • Write out your interview questions and SEND THEM TO YOUR COLLABORATOR.  This is the most important step in having a good collaboration.  Most rural residents are sure they will not have anything to say. This is not true, of course, so a set of questions will get them started.  Send the questions early at least a week in advance. Make sure they understand that it is only a guide, it is not a test or limited in any way.
  • Collect your equipment and paperwork.  The CCRS has a very clear policy regarding permissions. Students MUST gain the permission of historical society volunteers, individuals and any other donor at the outset of the interview or research session.  All artifacts and photographs must be listed and signed for if they are going to be included in the research or brought to the Center for scanning and/or restoration. Required equipment (scanners, cameras, recorders) must be reserved and checked out in advance. Students can ask for training before their research date.
  • DON’T BE LATE.  We explain to our students that as researchers in the CCRS they are representing not just themselves but Kansas State University in everything they do. Be professional. Dress nicely, be polite.  And come prepared to listen, not talk. 
  • After the research date. Send a thank-you note. Don’t delay. We maintain cards and envelopes and stamps in the CCRS for students to use. Organize your research into folders, make copies and give your permission forms to the CCRS office. They will scan and file them for safekeeping.
  • Keep your collaborators updated. This is easy for students to forget. They have gathered the information and now they want to get down to writing up their histories. But their collaborators are also anxious to know how things are going and may have done some additional digging on the students’ behalf. Sending a draft of your research to your collaborator before it is published is also a good safeguard against making mistakes of fact or context.

Final Project outcomes and Benefits:  This is fairly well described in the earlier sections of this grant, but the final product is most often a paper of publishable quality that is post on our archive: www.ksu.edu/history/chapman. Once the paper is completed, students are instructed to send their work to every collaborator they interacted with.  In addition, the CCRS will send an announcement of the new work to the local newspapers that cover that rural area. Finally, new papers are announced via social media on our CCRS facebook page, twitter, Instagram and other sites. 

In the case of our paid interns, who do more extensive projects, student publications are bound and several copies are sent to the local historical society for their archive. In some cases, historical societies will reprint the bound copies for sale in their gift shops as a way of supporting future student researchers!

It is important to stress is the cumulative effect of more than two hundred research projects over several years. Trusted networks take years to build and lead to greater and greater opportunities—and genuine friendships. In many cases these networks become paid positions for former student researchers such as Allana Saenger, now collections curator at the Riley County Historical Society and Katherine Goerl, now Executive director of the Geary County Historical Society in Junction City, Kansas. Student authors have also used their experiences in engaged research to be admitted and funded to graduate schools in public or applied history, law school, public service, government and non-profit management.