Developing a Living History Character: The Missouri Pacific
Station Agent of the 1940s-1950s
Kent J. Goff, History 6223, Spring 1999
The three goals of my internship in public history were to design and apply a methodology to create a "living history" character; test ideas on the fusion of the use of traditional written sources and museum artifacts in history presentations; and to assist the Arkansas State University Museum process and interpret its railroad collection. The products of this internship would be the development of a living history program, data collected for the museum that would be useful in interpretation of their railroad collection, and assist in the processing of a number of new acquisitions to the museum. Therefore this paper will be divided into three parts, a discussion of living history and the data required to assemble a good impression, a summary of the primary and secondary research I conducted, and the process of researching and reproducing props for my living history impressions from museum resources.
Living history is sometimes an amorphous term, as Anderson defines by stating its "well known to lay historians and museum interpreters but seldom heard of in academia."(1) For this project, I will use the term to refer to a method or style of historical presentation that includes taking on the first person persona of an actual or composite historical figure, complete with authentic costume and props, to teach defined objectives. But it is more than the scholarly methods of the traditional historian as Anderson notes, "living history is related to other creative and symbolic forms, especially drama, ritual, pageantry, and play."(2) So an element of art, rather than pure rigorous research, is contained in living history. For this paper, the complete package of props, historical knowledge about the character portrayed, dramatic methods used, and the purpose (or teaching objectives) of the presentation is called the impression.
To expand on these ideas in reverse order, the "teaching objectives" or purposes of the living history program must be established first to guide research and also to guide the development of the persona and "story" of the living history character. Since the presentation closely takes the form of an oral essay on the topic chosen, the basic academic standard of a good essay should be followed. The final product should have a thesis, supporting evidence, and a conclusion. For my project at the ASU Museum, since the railroad collection will be primarily used to interpret the impact of the railroads on northeast Arkansas history; how the communities and economy of the area were shaped and impacted by the railroads, and specifically how the people of the railroads lived and worked as a part of the community. These broad objectives were provided by the museum's mission helped define the topic for the thesis of the living history presentation. The small town railroad depot in eastern Arkansas in the 1940s to 1950s served as the focal point of the community because of its importance in the trade, travel, and industry of the small town.
The dramatic element of the impression would have several constraints. Given the constraint that I was the only person who would be performing the impression, I tentatively selected either the character of a conductor or a station agent of the 1940s to 1950s for the Missouri Pacific railroad. I chose these potential characters for three reasons. First, the majority of the ASU collection came from donors who spent the majority of their working careers during this time period. Second, the station agents or conductors were the two primary persons the general public transacted business with when dealing with the railroad, and both individuals generally served as representatives of the railroad to the public in the performance of their duties. Third, I also considered future presentations outside of the museum. Further consideration was given to the fact that several depots of the time period still exist in Northeast Arkansas, such as Earle and Walnut Ridge. Since the conductor spent most of his working hours physically supervising or riding on the train, the character of the station agent seemed to be the most logical choice, given the resources at hand. The station agent character could be performed at either one of the existing stations or a simple set could be built. However, I also collected data on the conductor in parallel in case that impression would be more desirable in certain cases.
The style of the impression I chose would be similar to the one act one actor play. I would treat the audience as customers of the railroad who just entered the station, and I would teach them about the activities at the station by offering them the railroad's services for passengers and freight, telegraphy, express, and general gossip about the small town life of the period.
The methodology for living history I have developed over the years differs from many other living history performers in that I do not use a memorized script, but rather I try to immerse myself into the primary resources of the period, and become so familiar with the material that I feel comfortable talking at length about any branches and sequels of the subject of the program. To be fully interactive in an impression, and be able to answer audience questions in character, a wide knowledge base of the period profession, local and regional culture, social customs of the era, and then current events is essential. I have developed a shorthand form to guide research that also makes a useful outline to review before presenting a program, or to give to an interested scholar for more information about my sources for the impression. Please see Appendices A and B for my outlines of the character, props, and presentation. I then began my primary and secondary source research to fill in the outlines of required information.
The starting point for the knowledge base of the historical character I selected came from official railroad documents. The official Operating Rules in the museum's collection from 1901 to the 1940s specifically spelled out the duties of the station agent. Rule 1010 required the station agents to report to the superintendent, be familiar with the operating rules, mail handling instructions, handling of dangerous article shipments, and the American Association of American Railroad rules of loading cars.(3) Other rules required the station agent to be courteous to the public, and also to ensure the other employees at the station are present for duty.(4) The station agent was also required by the Rules to act as a political observer for the railroad by "reporting information of possible action by state, county, township, municipal, or other authority, corporation, or individual coming to their notice which will in any way affect the railroad."(5) An additional duty of station agents not listed in the Rules, but updated in a Circular dated June 15, 1952 required the agent to maintain a standard clock.(6) A copy of the Operating Rules was required to be in the possession of the station agent, so an excerpt facsimile will be carried by the living history character of the station agent.
Another source not usually used by the traditional essayist but often by the living historian is artwork, particularly folk art or commercial art. In the collection of the ASU museum is a caricature of a station agent circa 1930 that graphically depicts many of the official duties described in the Operations Rules in a humorous way. (See figure 1) The first impression I noted was that the station agent operated in an environment of chaos. The drawing emphasizes his official duties as ticket agent, mail handler, time keeper ("Yes, this dern clock is correct"), an express agent, and a freight agent in the posters, packages, signs, boxes, and papers scattered around the office. Most of these duties agree with the official duties spelled out in the Operating Rules. The rule requiring the station agent to become familiar with the business and political interests of the community is lampooned in the additional titles of justice of the peace, school superintendent, mayor, and other community duties. However, an interview with a former telegrapher and station agent of this period, L. T. Gipson, indicated the railroads discouraged outside employment.(7) While this cartoon obviously exaggerates the situation of the station agent, the spirit of the caricature clearly indicates the station agent was an important member of the small town community, and that the station was a center of community business. Mr. Gipson agreed with this interpretation in our interview.(8)
Secondary sources proved useful in additional information and interpretation of the Missouri Pacific during this era. The most important fact was that the MoPac was in receivership from 1933 to 1956.(9) In spite of the uncertainty of those years, apparently the employees of the Missouri Pacific retained a great deal of loyalty to the company, and the company had many long service and multi-generational families in its employ.(10) Therefore, part of the portrayal of the station agent must include the uncertainty of the receivership and the strong loyalty of the employees to their company. Additional information on signals, train markings, railroad terminology, and descriptions of pre-modern operations came from Model Railroader and discussions with rail enthusiasts during my visit to the Cotton Belt Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff.
With the background information of the station agent in hand and data on the artifacts typically used by the station agent available in the museum's collection, the next step is to produce reproduction props for use in the living history program. The historical facts and interpretations combined with the costume and props bring the impression to life.
Living History programs are very valuable for museums because they are so attractive to the public. Yet living history requires the use of objects in performing. Museums also exist for the purpose of preserving artifacts and using those artifacts in exhibits. This could become a conflict in the temptation to use original artifacts. Even the minimal use of an artifact, such as putting it on display, poses risks to the artifact from light damage, environmental agents, and other risks greater than in secure storage. At the extreme level of use, for example by demonstrating a historic tool in a living history program, the artifact is not only exposed to the wear and tear of its "normal" use, but additional risks from the increased handling and exposure to the environment. Continued use of the tool will result in its wearing out at the very minimum, and thus drastically reduce its value as an artifact for research. The traditional conservative ethic is to not use objects in a deliberately consumptive way.(11) But as Mann points out, this assumes "the only evidence in the artifact is of a material nature."(12) On the other hand, the demonstration of historic tools and machines is very popular with the public, and a complete understanding of an artifact may only be determined by testing the object. Schlebecker advocates that serious historians "if at all possible" must touch, handle or lift the artifacts of their study for a complete understanding.(13) So the living historian seeks to enhance his own understanding and to communicate to the public by using the artifacts.
This quandary may be solved in part through the use of good reproduction artifacts for use in living history programs, hands on exhibits, experimental archeology, and operating exhibits. Schlebecker believes that "a replica, if properly made, can sometimes substitute for the real thing."(14) Yet these reproduction artifacts must be produced or acquired in a manner as to enhance learning and ensure historical accuracy.
The station agent impression requires the use of reproduction 1940s business attire(15), green eyeshade, train message sticks, Operating Rules, passenger tickets, and other items. (Detailed in Appendix A.) The purpose of this section will be to recommend a methodology for producing and using these reproduction artifacts.
Traditional standards of curation and museum collections management should remain valid throughout this process. The decision making process of choosing an item for acquisition, its planned use in the living history program, and its proper documentation must be carried out with the same rigor as with traditional artifacts. Hawes terms this the "living collection" that includes the reproductions used to supplement the traditional "static" collection of artifacts.(16) The processes of making, using or demonstrating a historic artifact should also become part of the living historian's data base as these processes are recorded.(17)
Obviously, a reproduction would only be purchased if there was an identified need, and the station agent impression requires only a small number of objects for the planned performance. Thus, the first step was to determine what reproduction artifacts were required. I determined what I would need based upon the duties of the station agent and what artifacts would visually represent those duties.
The second step was to research the desired objects. Since my desire was to reproduce several artifacts that the ASU museum already held. Those objects were carefully studied to determine if the object has already been modified or repaired in some way. Carefully documented research will assist in the preparation of the exhibit or programs that the object will be used in as well. Ethically, the reproduction artifact must be as close to the original in form, construction, and materials as possible. Cost will be a real factor of consideration as well.
The third step would be to select an artisan or supplier to provide the object. Ideally, the artisan would have references for producing similar work or be in the business of supplying similar artifacts for historical programming. There are now many suppliers that use original molds, tools, gauges, etc. to produce reproduction items for the public market. An additional number of suppliers (Lehman's for example) provide "old-time" goods and reproductions for use by the Amish and other "simple living" communities. If ordering a standard item from a supplier versus having an object custom made or copied, the drawback is accepting differences from the original. And, as there are a limited number of reproduction suppliers, the reproductions used may not reflect the original regional and national variations of design.
If an artisan is selected to produce the artifact, several steps should be taken to determine if the artisan is qualified, has references for quality work, and is capable of producing the artifact from the information available. Many traditional craftsmen working today have an eclectic view of history and their craft, and may desire to impart their own interpretation in the production of the artifact. The artisan may request what changes in the construction methods he may use. For example, in my own work on 19th Century reproduction shoes, I use modern cement in the construction to substitute for tacks in the shoe assembly process. This allows my reproductions to be made more quickly and efficiently than the original method, and also makes the shoes stronger for wear. The glue is not visible in the completed reproduction, nor are the salient features of the construction details changed, only the method and the glue are not original. But, it may be desired for the most authenticity to require that not only the final form be indistinguishable from the original, but the process of reproduction as well.
The artisan may also be of great help in the study of the artifact as well. Most traditional craft workers study original examples of the work they replicate or interpret in their own design. Many details of construction and method can be learned. For example, a traditional chair maker explained to me how different species of wood were used in various parts of the chair to take best advantage of the differences in shrinkage, spring, hardness, etc. An artisan may add considerably to the information about the original by his study from a different perspective. In most traditional processes, the "signature" of the maker is found in small details of the how an object was made, an individualistic style much like that of an artist. Someone who is familiar with the production process will be able to note whether or not the object was made by a highly skilled craftsman or an unskilled apprentice.
The entire process should be documented so that if new information comes to the attention of the staff, how the reproduction was made, who made it, and based upon what specifications. It may be determined that the object is incorrect for the time and place it is being used to represent.
For this internship, and since no funding to purchase the items required was available, I would be the actual producer of the artifacts with the exception of the costume. My business partner, Tom Yancey, is a qualified reproducer of historical clothing. Mr. Yancey will reproduce the correct attire based upon my research. The other props are relatively simple to reproduce using ordinary home shop tools and a computer with scanner and a quality color printer. Examples of the reproduction tickets are attached as Figure 2.
Due to difficulties in completing all the reproduction objects in time to conduct an actual program before the end of the term, and a desire to maintain high standards of accuracy, I will not be able to actually perform the station agent impression. However, Mona Fielder, the museum's educator, and I have committed to scheduling a performance for later in May or with several summer school programs in June. This situation serves as an example of just how time consuming preparing a living history program can be, and that research, planning, and preparation of this impression could easily top two hundred hours. Just counting logged hours, I have more than 90 hours invested to date, and I expect that completing of the message stick, schedule board, and ephemera reproductions will take at least a week in the shop and at the computer for another 40 hours. Tom Yancey, an experienced costumer, estimates it will take him an additional twenty hours to reproduce the uniform and clothing typical of the period.
This internship and paper have demonstrated the multi disciplinary nature of living history and the wide variety of necessary sources. Starting from the traditional reliance on the good primary documents like the Operation Rules, to folk art forms like "The Old Depot," to the material culture of the museums collection of artifacts, and oral history interviews like Mr. Gipson's, the living history performer must have a facility with a wide range of historical inquiry skills. Part of the high payoff in audience satisfaction and educational impact comes from the large number of hours that are required to be spent developing a living history impression. Therefore one of the most important lessons learned is that preparing for a good impression will demand several hundred hours of time.
1. Jay Anderson, "Living History" in A Living History Reader; Volume 1 Museums ed. by Jay Anderson. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1991, 3.
2. Anderson, 3.
3. Missouri Pacific, The Uniform Code of Operating Rules, 147.
4. Ibid., 147.
5. Ibid., 149.
6. Missouri Pacific Circular No. 43-D, 3-4.
7. L. T. Gipson, Interview by Kent Goff, tape recording, 4 May 1999, Arkansas State University Museum, Jonesboro, AR.
8. L. T. Gipson.
9. H. Craig Miner, The Rebirth of the Missouri-Pacific, 1956-1983, 1.
10. Miner, 18-19.
11. Peter R. Mann, "Working Exhibits and the Destruction of Evidence in the Science Museum." in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 35-46. New York: Routledge, 1997, 36.
12. Mann, 36.
13. John Schlebecker, "The Use of Objects in Historical Research" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 107-113. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982, 109.
14. Schlebecker, 108.
15. L. T. Gipson stated in his interview that the use of uniforms by station agents employed by the railroads he was familiar with during his career did not wear uniforms, but typical business attire for a manager.
16. Edward L. Hawes, "The Living Historical Farm in North America." In A Living History Reader ed. Jay Anderson. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1991, 87.
17. Hawes, 87.
Anderson, Jay. A Living History Reader: Volume 1 Museums. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1991.
_________, "Immaterial Material Culture: The Implications of Experimental Research for Folklife Museums" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 306-315. Nashville, TN: American association for state and Local History Press, 1982.
Ascher, Robert. "Tin*Can Archaeology" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 325-337. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982.
Bradley, Susan M. "Do objects have a Finite Lifetime?" in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 51-59. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Craig, Tracey Linton. "Retreat into History" History News (June 1983):10-19.
Craig, Tracey Linton. "A Hard Row to Hoe" History News (January/February 1988):65-66.
Hawes, Edward L. "The Living Historical Farm in North America: New directions in Research and Interpretation." in A Living History Reader, Volume One: Museums, ed. Jay Anderson, 79-97. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1991.
Kalkbrenner, Mark. "Living History" M.A. paper, University of Arkansas, Little Rock, 1996.
Levstik, Linda S. "In My Opinion: Living History - Isn't" History News 37:5 (1983):28-29.
Mann, Peter R. "Working Exhibits and the Destruction of Evidence in the Science Museum." in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 35-46. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Richoux, Jeanette A., Jill Serota-Braden, and Nancy Demyttenaere. "A Policy for Collections Access" in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 179-186. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Schlebecker, John T. "The Use of Objects in Historical Research" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 107-113. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982.
Shaw, Thomas. "Feature Article" in ALHFAM Historic Clothing Committee News, Vol. 3 No. 4, Fall 1998 (Accessed 4/28/99); available from http://www.alhfam.org/his.clo.news/f98ahcc.html
Wexler, Henrietta. "Hands-on History" History News (January/February 1988):67-68.
Wexler, Henrietta. "The Way Things Really Were" History News (January/February 1988):62-63.
Gipson, L. T. Interview by Kent Goff, tape recording, 4 May 1999, Arkansas State University Museum, Jonesboro, AR.
Missouri Pacific Lines. This is MO-PAC: Handbook for Missouri Pacific Employees. Circa 1965 ASU Museum 1998-16-20.
Missouri Pacific Lines. The Uniform Code of Operating Rules effective November 1, 1940. ASU Museum 1998-16-18.
Missouri Pacific Lines. Circular No. 43-D Standard watches and maintenance of standard time, June 15, 1952. ASU Museum 1998-16-23.
Missouri Pacific Lines. Our Safety Plan: with 8 general rules and representative list of unsafe practices, also first aid instruction. Effective November 1, 1950. ASU Museum 1998-16-22.
Missouri Pacific Railway Co. Rules: For the Government of the Operating Department. Effective November 1st, 1901. St. Louis, MO: Con. P. Curran Printing Co. ASU Museum 1998-16-17.
Page, C.D. "Old Depot" caricature dated 1930 by the artist. Compliments of Union Switch and Signal Division of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. ASU Museum 1998-16-19.
Miner, H. Craig. The Rebirth of the Missouri Pacific 1956-1983, College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1983.
Wilson, Jeff. "Prototype Info" Model Railroader March 1999. 41-43.
Wilson, Jeff. "Prototype Info" Model Railroader April 1999. 40-41.
Wilson, Jeff. "Prototype Info" Model Railroader May 1999. 39-40.