Allegany County’s youngest generation has been documenting the history of the county’s oldest generation for the past 11 years.
With titles like Reflections of the Silver Screen, Work and Wait, Prime Time and Echoes of an Era, the Historical Research Methods class in Allegany County Public Schools publishes an annual local history book as the culmination of a year of hard work. Students learn how to conduct interviews, perform historical research, photography, writing for publication, layout and design, the publishing process and supplemental skills depending on the project like video production and editing.
“It’s something above and beyond the general doldrums and stupid ‘learn by rote’ system that is in place most of the time,” said Myriah Strozykowski. She worked on Surviving the Great Depression, A History of Allegany County in the 1930s. “It gets students excited about writing and researching and interviewing and really brings history alive.”
However, what is now a successful class for juniors and seniors at Allegany County’s three public high schools began as an extracurricular project for four sophomores. Dan Whetzel, then a social studies teacher at Allegany High School in Cumberland, and Mike Lewis wanted to do something to preserve the history of the Lonaconing Silk Mill so he asked four sophomores to work on a project about the mill.
“There was no class time used and the students worked for two years, traveling back and forth for research at the mill and for interviews. This was by no means a weekly event, but we did work steadily,” said Whetzel who is now the director of social studies for Allegany County Public Schools.
He said that the project hadn’t originally been planned as a book. The students took their interviews and artifacts and were going to write a summary article about the mill.
“At that point we gathered around my desk with notebook paper, a manuscript, photo copies of photos and other items….The manuscript and photos were scotchtaped to notebook paper and we had our first book,” Whetzel said.
Since it was obvious the book needed help, he contacted a local printing company and got a quote to print the book. Then he approached a local company for a donation in exchange for advertising in the book. The company donated the money, but chose not to run an ad in the book.
The Lonaconing Silk Mill was published in 1999 and won the Oral History Association award for top project that year.
Brian White, another teacher at Allegany High School, liked the oral history idea and incorporated it into a semester-long class he and Whetzel began co-teaching. It has since grown into a two-year program that combines classroom instruction on the book’s subject with interviews with county residents and book production.
The number of students taking the class grown, too, as students wanted to be a part of producing a book. “Students responded by engaging in primary and secondary research on a level not typical for high school students; they were actually writing history, not just reading about it,” Whetzel said.
Strozykowski wanted to take the class, but couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict so she volunteered to work on the book after school on her own time. She’s not the only student who has done so, either.
“I loved hearing people talk about their lives,” said Kayla Bloom, one of the students who worked on Echoes of an Era, A History of Industry in Allegany County. “I saw them light up when they talked about aspects of their job they liked. I worked on the Western Maryland Railway chapter. I saw a man almost come to tears when he talked about the railroad switching from steam to diesel engines. He loved his steam engine; he was attached to it; he understood its bells, whistles, and coughs; he moved with it. I loved interacting with these people and giving them a sense that someone was genuinely interested in their life and what they had to say.”