Why Every Curator Should Enter a Plowing Match

The plowing match is one of my favorite events at ALHFAM annual meetings/conferences. I wrote the following after a particularly rewarding experience:

The Chrisman sisters, near Goheen Settlement on LIeban Creek, Custer County, Nebraska, 1886. Courtesy: Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1053

The Chrisman sisters, near Goheen Settlement on Lieban Creek, Custer County, Nebraska, 1886. Courtesy: Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1053

This summer at the ALHFAM annual meeting I plowed. Granted it was only two furrows in the horse-drawn plowing match, but in my mind, I plowed.

I was nervous, as there were lots of things to remember and much that could go wrong. I was in the novice class and had an expert “mentor” standing beside me, ready to take over if things went awry. This was both a comfort and a motivator. My goal was to make it down the field with only my hands guiding the plow. I did it and felt inordinately proud of myself. I spent the rest of the match cheering and strategizing and examining rocks with plow scars with the other participants. Not surprisingly, it was fun. Surprisingly, it also had me thinking about how I relate to the objects I’ve been tasked to care for at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

I have lived primarily in urban areas and my personal experience with farming is limited. As a curator, I’ve walked past and looked at photographs of plows several times a day. By and large, the artifacts in our collection are preserved and not used. I’ve been trained to take care of plows, exhibit them, research them, and make them available to the public, but I’ve never been trained to use them.

Using a plow was by far the most complex interaction I’ve had with an artifact. During the match I plowed in two different locations. The experts warned that the soil in the second section was difficult, and they were right. It was harder to keep the plow bottom in the soil. Though I saw no rocks, I hit bumps I didn’t encounter in the first field. I needed helping keeping the plow straight.

This was fascinating. Why did the soil differ so much in such a small area? If I didn’t see rocks, why was it so bumpy? Was it my technique or the quality of the soil that made my second run less successful than my first? How much experience would a person need to be able to handle all types of terrain? I was full of questions and found myself thinking of the plows in our collection and what it would be like to use them. These thoughts had never crossed my mind before.

I have attended a number of professional meetings throughout my career to learn about caring for and sharing the artifacts of our past. What I appreciated about the plow match at ALHFAM, and other hands-on offerings there, was that they helped me understand how objects work and what it feels like to use them. This helps me relate to the people of our past in a way that would never happen by just passing a plow in storage or on exhibit day after day.

This experience also had me thinking about a photograph in our collection. It shows the Chrisman sisters, some of the few women that came to Nebraska to claim their own homesteads. I’ve seen their faces hundreds of times, but I began to wonder about them as people. Did they learn to plow before they came to Nebraska? How did they manage their first time? Were they mildly elated like the rest of the novices in our match? Did they feel a sense of accomplishment, or did they feel discouraged that only one furrow was turned and so many were left to go? I was relating to these women differently now because we had a shared experience: we all stood behind a plow.

What about you: have you ever had an ALHFAM experience that changed your perspective?

–Deb Arenz


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Touching the past

I’ve been doing the museum thing for some time now; just about mid-way through my 3rd decade in the museum world.   That being said, it’s really nice to get a reminder every now and then of just what got me started in this field well over 20 years ago.

Here at the Historical Park, we’ve been working on digitizing some primary source documents that are extremely important to our site – two journals (one from the 1870s the other from the 1880s) and a family bible from  Dr. Samuel Gilbert.  Gilbert’s house is the cornerstone of our park, and was built in 1856; Gilbert lived in it until his death in 1890.

Looking through the images taken during the process, I was struck by this one:


I couldn’t help but notice what appears to be a fingerprint near the left margin.  Could this fingerprint belong to Dr. Gilbert himself?  Did he spill some ink and inadvertently leave behind his fingerprint for us to find well over 100 years later?  Casual inspection tells me that the fingerprint and the text are using the same color ink – So what are the odds that we have found yet another trace of Dr. Gilbert in the journal outside of his daily accounting?  It’s a small thing indeed but it’s enough to remind me of the curiosity of our past that got me interested in history as a young child; literally it’s enough of a mystery that it will have my brain churning for some time.

Upon perusing the family Bible, we came upon another discovery – that of a baby boy “borned” to the Gilberts prior to their arrival here in Farmers Branch.  No one was aware of this fact until we opened up the Bible (a new donation) and saw this:


Other than this brief mention of the Gilbert’s son, there has been no other record that we were aware of and this brief, one sentence of the life and death of a baby boy is a stark reminder of the fragile nature of life in the mid 19th century.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day reality of making a modern museum work. Budget, meetings, memos, broken irrigation, maintenance issues, etc that can make you forget just why you chose this job over doing something else.  Discoveries like this, however, help keep me motivated and excited to come to work and remind me what a privilege it is to be a caretaker of our past.

How about you??  What keeps you going at your site? Why did you get involved in the museum world and living history?


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Hidden Treasures

For those of you who attended the 2012 Annual Meeting at Farmers Branch, Texas – you might recall the cornerstone of our park, the 1856 Gilbert House.  Over time, our staff has been noticing some potential issues with the foundation of the house and to ensure that the Gilbert House makes it through another 160 years, we’ve started investigating.

As part of the investigation, we pulled up some floorboards and the sub-floor inside the dog run.  As is usual with this kind of thing we now have more questions than answers!  We have some documentation that suggests that at one time, the dog run was a dirt floor, and not framed and floored as it is today.  There was some verification of this assumption – as on the north doorway in the dog run there appears to be a stone step that’s been hidden under the wooden floor.  Also of note, our staff uncovered several hidden treasurers that have been below the floor for quite some time!

The house has been lived in nearly continuously since it was built in 1856 and there have been several families that have called the Gilbert House home.  Unless we can date something specifically to a particular time, there’s no way for us to know who these treasures belonged to (or could have belonged to) or how they found their way under the floors but we now have some more things to think about as we further interpret the story of this house and the people who lived in it.

I had assumed (incorrectly!) that since the Gilbert House had undergone a major restoration in the early 1980s that the area under the floors would have been more or less scoured clean of artifacts like the ones we discovered.

What treasures can be found at your own site, hidden away somewhere that no one has thought to look in a while?

-Derrick Birdsall



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Farm-Based Education Network

FarmBasedEducationNetworkMastheadLogoALHFAM member Blake Hayes brought this wonderful resource to our attention on the ALHFAM-L a few weeks back. I’ve checked out their website and it’s chock full of great stuff including jobs, event calendars, resources, newsletters, social media and in-person networking opportunities, and even a map of farm-based education programs. It’s administered by Shelburne Farms and is a free member network.

If your programming is farm-based I strongly suggest you check this out (if you haven’t already): The Farm-Based Education Network

I’ve also included a link to their website on the ALHFAM Historic Agriculture Resource Map.

–Deb Arenz, Vice-President


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The Forums are Open

This beautiful photo of the Roman Forum was found on history.com. Our forums may not be as picturesque but certainly will be of value to those interested in history.

This beautiful photo of the Roman Forum was found on history.com. While not as picturesque, ALHFAM forums will also be places for public conversation and have historic value.

An interesting feature on the improved ALHFAM website are the forums. Forums are set up for all of the Professional Interest Groups (PIGs), for the membership at large, and for the MidAtlantic region (regional forums need to be initiated by your regional rep–if your region doesn’t have one yet, contact your rep and tell them to get on it).

Forum content consists of topics (threads) and messages and replies to that topic. Unlike the ALHFAM-L, you will only receive emails notifying you that someone has posted to a Forum to which you’ve subscribed and a link so you can read/respond. You can also go to the forum section of the website anytime to see what topics are being, or have been, discussed and add your voice if you choose.

Detailed information on how the forums work and how you can participate can be found in Information Sheet #3.

–Deb Arenz, ALHFAM Vice-President

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Consider ALHFAM



As the year draws to a close I ‘d like to encourage you, once again, to consider ALHFAM in your year-end giving. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made easily on our website: Give to ALHFAM

As of this writing we have almost met the modest goal set by our President, Tom Kelleher, but I would personally love to see us surpass it.

Your financial support allows us to provide scholarships, launch new websites, and pursue initiatives like the ALHFAM Skill and Knowledge base (A.S.K.).

Thank you for supporting ALHFAM however you can.

Happy New Year. Hope to see many of you in Louisiana in June!

–Deb Arenz, ALHFAM Vice-President


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ALHFAM member Martha Katz-Hyman brought an article about marketing gift memberships during the holidays to my attention. The article from The History List gives helpful tips on how to make museum memberships attractive as gifts. It also suggests that  Monday of Christmas week be branded as #MembershipMonday

I like the ideas the article promotes and think you will too: http://www.thehistorylist.com/resources/marketing-gift-memberships-at-the-holidays-with-membershipmonday

If you have any additional suggestions to share, please do. We learn so much when we listen to each other.

Here’s to making your holiday historic!

–Deb Arenz, ALHFAM Vice President


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