In the work of William Faulkner—in its resonances of history, place, and memory—I have found much to help me understand my own relation to history and place. In the hope that it will be of interest to those involved in historic preservation, I offer this reflection.
My Own Little Postage Stamp of Native Soil
And as he talked about those old times and those dead and vanished men of another race from either that the boy knew, gradually to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy’s present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not quitted.
William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
I have lived most of my life at Palo Alto, a long dead town located in the prairie in western Clay County. To reach my home you drive out Hwy 50 then Hwy 47 from West Point and turn off at our family store. Then follow my driveway along an old road bed through a pasture and onto a low rolling hill to an antebellum cottage that is home for me and my family. From my front door I have a clear view across the abandoned town site and beyond.
Some have probably wondered why I live at Palo Alto. In part it has to do with my own resistance to being swallowed up in the suburban sprawl which many have chosen for the sake of a higher salary. But it is also, perhaps primarily, due to the fact that Palo Alto has served as a source of inspiration that has led to a deeper understanding of history. It is “my own little postage stamp of native soil,” a phrase that Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner used in reference to his own native Lafayette County, Mississippi, the inspiration for his fiction. Rather than move to a more cosmopolitan setting as did many writers, he chose to live in his hometown, Oxford, the county seat of Lafayette County. Like me he also lived in an antebellum home, Rowan Oak, whose memories recalled the history of the land.
Today we often think of history as merely “facts,” as though it is nothing more than dry information dutifully collected and stored for what reason we know not. However, it is through the study of local history in and around my home that I came to see that it is much, much more.
From childhood my encounters with unearthed relics and oral history intimated that my everyday environs — home, family, and surrounding lands — were part of a long and ongoing continuum that opened onto vast vistas of time. When our garden was plowed, artifacts were exposed in the earth: broken pottery and glass, nails, and even a small iron, probably a toy once used by a small girl. Wondering where these came from, my parents related that the land where we lived and pastured our cows had once been a town known as Palo Alto and that my family had lived there since the town’s beginning in 1846. In that year my great-great-grandfather Daniel B. Hill moved his family there probably by covered wagon and constructed a log dogtrot house and opened the first store and post office. He named the new settlement after one of the early battles of the Mexican War, the Battle of Palo Alto. As I became aware of the associated history, the place was transformed; I saw it through different eyes.
In 1973 I began in earnest to research the history of Palo Alto digging through deed records in the Clay County Courthouse and querying neighbors and relatives about their recollections. As the result of my findings what I had seen as otherwise unnotable yards and pastures were transformed in my mind’s eye; here, for example, stood the carriage factory, or Charles Gates’s store, or the Palo Alto Inn, the social center of the town, whose owner John Armstead was shot dead by his nephew in 1872. I eventually expanded my investigation to other parts of the county, including West Point, the county seat; the mysterious Tombigbee River where I had canoed as a youth and partied as a teenager; and the nearby Kilgore Hills that were settled by Dr. Benjamin Kilgore of South Carolina in the 1830s but by the 1970s were occupied by only legends. While I was discovering local history I was also discovering genealogy. My own family tree branched out and intertwined through the history and places that I was discovering like a vine through a trellis. I began to understand what genealogists feel as they uncover personal linkages to the past and the larger community of family and humanity.
I was especially fascinated by what had been the old Palo Alto livery stable cistern. Cisterns were large holes excavated in the ground to catch and store rainwater from rooftops. While their necks were only about three feet in diameter, underground the cisterns were much wider. Most had been filled in with dirt long before my time to prevent animals and humans from falling in; during my childhood only the livery stable cistern remained open, and it had become something of a local legend. According to the stories, the cistern was so large that before it was filled with water, residents climbed down into it to hold a dance. On several occasions I climbed over a fence and struggled through the grass and brambles to reach the lonely cistern, where I would stare down to the surface of the dark water below. In the quiet, I could almost hear the sound of fiddles and dancing feet from some long gone Palo Alto evening. The dance could well have happened, but then it may not. I frankly find it difficult to believe that anyone would climb down into a hole in the ground to hold a square dance. Regardless, my mental images of this event took on a mythical quality in which the image of the cistern pointed beyond itself to something mysterious that could not be verbalized.
Despite my intuition that there is more to our experience of history and place, I found little in my academic studies to help me understand my intuitions. From this perspective archaeology and history were the domain of objective study—of facts and statistics and theories. Realms of value and mystery are not even alluded to; they slip through objective methods like water through a dip net.
It was through reading the works of William Faulkner that I began to see that there is more to history and place than meets the eye.
To be concluded in part two.
Categories: Historic Preservation