Two SUNY Cortland history professors have won a large, competitive grant to introduce schoolteachers from across the country to late 19th and early 20th century American history from the unique perspective of the wilderness.
Thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant worth nearly $180,000, they’ll also share the majestic beauty of the Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education at Raquette Lake, the College’s unique learning space in the Adirondack Mountains.
Kevin Sheets and Randi Storch were awarded for their grant proposal titled “Forever Wild: The Adirondacks in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.” They will use Camp Huntington, the only national historic landmark in the State University of New York system, to show two groups of 40 teachers how the natural world shaped American history during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, a time period that stretches roughly from the 1870s to the early 1920s.
In most classrooms, the time period is defined by the rise of the city; New York City’s population, for instance, mushroomed by 500 percent between 1870 and 1910.
“When you think about the Gilded Age, your mind automatically goes to the city,” said Sheets, an associate professor at the College. “You think of industrialization. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just how people teach it: the rise of the industrial city.
“But the wilderness was integral to industrialization. You couldn’t have the Gilded Age cities without these outlying regions.”
The Adirondacks proved vital to the cultural expression and economic livelihood in ways that are sometimes skimmed over by history textbooks, Sheets said. Natural resources were abundant in the wilderness, where timber mills provided the lumber for urban expansion and wire manufactured from iron ore helped build the Brooklyn Bridge. Artists derived a sense of spirituality in the forests while wealthy industrialists discovered the perfect location for their Great Camps, resort-like retreats that embodied their wealth.
In the 1870s, William West Durant built what today is Camp Huntington, the first Great Camp in the Adirondacks and one of three that “Forever Wild” participants will visit.
“The Great Camps are these stunning achievements where you’re in the middle of what seems like nowhere yet there are all of these amenities,” Storch said. “Here these wealthy people are roughing it, and I say that in big giant air quotes, with all of these beautiful amenities: giant mezzanine halls, bowling alleys, a cabin for the mistress.
“It’s all very comfortable.”
Two one-week workshops spent mostly in the Adirondacks will introduce schoolteachers to an important period of American history. Significant as the era is, however, some rather dry issues can make teaching it difficult.
“Politically, there’s a lot going on but this is the age of those anonymous presidents, the ones with beards that no one can remember,” Sheets said. “It’s sometimes hard to make that period exciting for students.
“I have trouble doing it and I suspect other teachers do as well. So one of the appealing things about our project is this really cool way to teach about the Gilded Age.”
That’s why the workshop will transplant its participants to the Adirondacks: to examine the central issue of what the wilderness meant to Americans during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Participants will spend the first day of the program in Cortland, studying at the 1890 House Museum and walking the neighborhood that once included the Wickwire Brothers wire drawing mill. This introduction will give the teachers a framework for Gilded Age city life before they consider its connections to the wilderness, Storch said.
“We are such the archetypal industrial community,” she said. “Imagine immigrants coming from Europe, factories belching smoke and a concrete urban environment. That was Cortland.”
The teachers then will be transported to SUNY Cortland’s outdoor education facility at Raquette Lake, a place where thousands of the College’s students and alumni have spotted the Milky Way’s stars at night. Rebecca Edwards, a history professor at Vassar College, will speak to participants during their time in wilderness. They also will visit the Adirondack Museum, which houses exhibits of artifacts related to the industrial era.
“What struck Randi and me and what we really want to explore with the teachers is this juxtaposition of the idea of wilderness — uncivilized, harsh, taxing stuff — with the camps, which are these carved beautiful spaces set there for a retreat,” Sheets said.
Teachers from all grade levels will put together an individual project that takes the form of a classroom lesson plan and a group project that involves creating a short digital documentary. Most of the grant’s funds will go to workshop participants for fixed costs such as transportation and lodging. Funding also will be used to cover bus transportation for the group to and from the Adirondacks, iPads to film the group documentaries and operation fees that the College incurs.
The grant writers even budgeted for a seaplane tour of the Adirondacks.
“You can describe the views to someone but if you put them up there in the sky, then suddenly — boom, they get it,” Sheets said. “That’s the excitement we want teachers to have.”
The grant-writing process produced a 19-page application and involved several drafts from Sheets and Storch, both of whom have won major awards for their proposals in the past. They started their work in the fall, poured countless hours into their abstract and relied on vital input from faculty and staff members, notably Amy Henderson-Harr, the College’s assistant vice president for research and sponsored programs, and a review team of Craig Little, a SUNY distinguished service professor of sociology/anthropology; Joy Mosher, an associate professor of childhood/early childhood education; and David Neal, an associate professor of performing arts.
“Forever Wild” will be part of the NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops for School Teachers Education Program, a highly prestigious group that this year included seminars on the American Revolution in Concord, Mass., and Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill.
Although Raquette Lake might not have the same name value as those iconic places, Sheets is hopeful it will attract a unique type of educator in the summer of 2013.
“It’s the wilderness, so it’s going to attract a certain type of person, I think, who is predisposed to being comfortable in that wilderness environment,” he said. “But I hope it will also bring in teachers for whom this wouldn’t be an instinctive choice.”
Bottom line, Storch said, the weeklong workshop has the potential to magnify an important component of late 19th and early 20th century American life that’s often passed over.
“The way that the wilderness shows up when you're talking about this period, a lot of times, is just this minor distraction,” she said. “What we hope we’re going to get teachers to see is how central it was and how fundamentally connected it is to both the urban and American stories.”