Oral History of Forgottonia: Building a Public History Project in Rural Western Illinois

At the grocery store: “Your students did such a great job documenting our local history! Hey, will you have Cooper call me? He really needs to record an interview with my mom and dad. They were students when Smithfield’s Red Brick school closed, and he would enjoy their story.”

The gas station: “Hey Joe, I heard you had a student doing some research about local mines in our community. He might be interested to see some neat photos we have of our grandfather who was a miner. You wouldn’t believe the size of the machines he worked with.”

The coffee shop: “Hi, Mr. Brewer! We heard you guys on the radio yesterday! What’s the name of that young lady who did a history project about Dickson Mounds? I remember when I was a little girl, you could still go to the museum and see the Native American remains before the governor ordered the museum to cover them up.”

These are just a few interactions I’ve had since my students and I shared our public history project, “The Oral History of Forgottonia.” As part of the NCHE project, The Rural Experience in America, history club students at Cuba High School created a podcast about a local history topic of their choosing. Their research reflected a wide variety of topics such as mining, rural school closures, railroads, Native Americans, and the Forgottonia movement just to name a few (the 16 counties in Western Illinois are often referred to as Forgottonia, a tongue-in-cheek secessionist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s).

Since our projects were featured on the Western Illinois Museum’s Our Front Porch, folks in our community can’t stop talking about it. My students and I have been featured in local newspapers, radio spots, newsletters, and other regional podcasts. We can’t seem to go anywhere without someone bringing it up. I believe we are experiencing something experts call “Rural Paparazzi Phenomenon” or “RPP.” Ok, I guess that’s not a real thing, but maybe it should be since my students are starting to wear sunglasses and hoodies when they go out in public.

Don’t get me wrong, all the attention is certainly nice, but are you catching what makes the attention meaningful? These public interactions are more than just a tip of the hat for a job well done. Our community is not only connecting with the work my students are doing, but they are also identifying them as a key source to preserve local stories. Their projects began with simple curiosity, but now they are fielding constant requests to continue their work and consider expanding their topics. As Valencia Abbott mentioned in a previous History Matters newsletter, “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen” (Valencia is a fellow participant in the Rural Experience in America grant project). Our recent RPP experience demonstrates that this work is far less about getting recognition and more about our responsibility to preserve local history.

My participation in the NCHE Rural Experience in America project has helped me understand that local, rural history is often left to those local enthusiasts motivated by their own self-interest. If your community is like mine, it’s likely much of your town’s rural history hasn’t been preserved in a meaningful way. As a history teacher from a small community, you are the closest thing your community has to a professional historian. The work of preserving and sharing local history is monumentally important and perhaps the most significant work you can do with your students. If your community is also like mine, it’s common for you to hear young people express disdain or indifference about their community. According to the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, rural youth are the biggest demographic of people leaving our state. Several studies have also been done exploring the role rural schools play in contributing to this exodus throughout the nation (often referred to as rural brain drain or bright flight, etc.). Regardless of how this reality impacts your own classroom, building a public history project in your town is perhaps the best way to ensure that rural youth make meaningful connections to their community.

Perhaps there are some out there who might think public history is better left to local museums or genealogical societies alone. While these environments have their advantages, they are perhaps prone to merely spotlight historical celebrations and contributions from the town’s founding families (or other citizens deemed worth remembering). These are incredibly important environments, and their work should be supported by every community, but they aren’t likely to prioritize space for those difficult questions about local history that young people will almost certainly have. That’s where the role of a local history teacher comes in. When I allow my students to truly connect with their curiosity about our region, they don’t always feel connected to those stories that seem to be already preserved and championed in our town’s public memory.

This year, for instance, our county commemorated our 200th birthday by inviting a Lincoln impersonator to reenact a speech that Abe once gave in Lewistown, IL (our county seat). I envisioned a student selecting this as a topic for their public history project. Instead, my students were curious to know if there was anyone upset over Lincoln’s presence in our county. Upon research, they learned that our county was deeply divided over Lincoln and the Civil War (in fact federal troops would be called to our county just a few years after Abe’s speech to put down a draft riot). Our town’s recent celebration seemed to reinforce a public memory of our local history that my students were slow to accept. They wanted to know those more hidden, messy stories that aren’t always commemorated by a historical marker. And there is no person better equipped than a local history teacher to encourage and guide this form of inquiry. My students are asking some really tough questions that I don’t always know how to answer (hence see my last section about the importance of community partners).

In addition to this Lincoln investigation, my students wanted to explore our community’s sundown town heritage, an episode of Native American protests, unresolved episodes of violence and murder, postindustrial decline, and even a local witch trial that occurred in our region before the Civil War. Some might feel this line of questioning will further contribute to that rural youth exodus I previously mentioned. But I believe that by allowing students to follow their own curiosity about our local history--whether this means something good or something less flattering--I am allowing them a stake in the future development of our community. After all, it’s widely shared in history educator circles that a nation that does not know its past has no future.

Keeping in mind this great responsibility to document our local history, the most important component of building a public history project is to identify a community partner. And if you’re a rural teacher, it’s likely your social connections are so strong you won’t be able to have just one person. I can’t thank my main community partner, Sue Scott, enough. Sue really lightened my burden and helped me realize this vision to build a public history project was achievable. Sue is the executive director of the Western Illinois Museum in Macomb, IL. Sue is leading the museum through a meaningful time as they transition to a more community-hub vibe than a traditional museum. Sue helped teach my students and me that public history goes beyond preserving an artifact behind glass and posting a caption about it. She encouraged my students to think about ways we can gather our community and invite them to be more active participants in our work. During our public history project event at the museum (Our Front Porch), it was great to see citizens of every generation engage in conversation about the topics my students were curious about. In a sense, our audience was not a traditional audience but also community partners themselves. They invested in my students by showing up and sharing their own curiosity and knowledge of local history.

Sue Scott was kind enough to add the following to my post:

In the early summer of 2022, Joe contacted me at the Western Illinois Museum about his work with the Rural Experience in America program and asked if we could help as a community partner. I was familiar with his work with the Forgottonia Project at Cuba High School and was eager to help. At the Museum we work to bring multi-generations together to share our history and culture mostly through public programs. Both Joe and I thought having the students present their projects as a program at the Museum would show that their work could have a ripple effect, encouraging others to be curious about the history of the place we live.

In small communities like ours, local history often resides within the memory of residents. Joe’s choice of using oral history interviews is well-suited to capture this history. We discussed with the students that sharing their interviews would open an exchange of information about the topics they investigated as well as the potential to broaden the point of view on the subject.

My students also had access to professional archivists named Kathy Nichols and author historian John Hallwas. Dr. Hallwas started the archives at Western Illinois University decades ago, and he’s been collecting and preserving thousands of materials since. He has also written more than 30 books about our region to further reinforce to my students what a unique area they are from. It was incredible that my students had access to such quality professionals! Any questions my students have, it’s likely Kathy and John know where to find the answers.

Simply put, I can’t encourage teachers enough to work with your students to build a public history project in your own community. In fact, I would say that you can’t afford not to!

If you are anyone you know building a public history project in their community suffers from Rural Paparazzi Phenomenon, known as RPP, please reach out to me and perhaps we can build our own support network.