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State of New York State History

Teaching Local History by Walking Around: 3 Case Studies

Rhinebeck Post Office Murals (Olin Dows)

Three case studies involving teaching local history by walking around were presented at the annual Teaching Hudson Valley Conference (THV), July 25-27, at the Henry Wallace Visitor and Education Center at the FDR Home and Presidential Library. Ironically given my recent series on Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, here we have an example of an original and perhaps unique history initiative by an NPS site.

At this point in the conferences 16-year history, many of the sessions were not about the history of the Hudson Valley but the ecology of the Hudson Valley or generic education sessions which just as easily could have been presented in the Mohawk Valley, the Champlain Valley, the Finger Lakes region or anywhere there are public schools.

In this post, I want to focus on the two sessions and one field trip related to the longstanding theme of the THV conference: a sense of place. This sense of place, sense of belonging, sense of community has been an important concept in my own posts. It concerns the place of civics in American life, a practice sorely lacking as recent national news tragically demonstrates. It also refers to what I have characterized as the Representative Tonko perspective on the role of local history versus the Governor Cuomo approach.

In order of occurrence, the first teaching local history by walking was the session

Walking Rhinebeck

“I had no idea that happened here:” Strategies for Exploring Your Amazing Hometown by Pat Sexton and Peter Muste, Education Network for Teachers. The town was Rhinebeck in Dutchess County.

Part of the reason the title leaped out at me was from my own experiences running Teacherhostels/Historyhostels including in the Hudson Valley and Dutchess County, although not in Rhinebeck. Despite some attempts and even meetings there in 2012, I was never able to put together a program. There are three comments made by teachers in the programs I did run that called to mind this session title.

1. “I drove by that site a thousand times and never stopped there.”
2. “I never even knew that site was there.”
3. “I haven’t been there since our 4th grade field trip.”

The History Walking Tour of Rhinebeck has been done for five years with the 7th grade at the local middle school. The tour was confined to the center of the village so excluded Wilderstein which would have necessitated a bus. No busing is required in this program.

Putting the program together required working with the local history community. Besides reaching out to history sites, the organizers also connected them to the curriculum. Typically, the 7th grade ends with or around the Civil War. The tour made a point to include the sites that were integral to the history of the village. Besides the traditional spots these sites included the local Methodist Church, the firehouse, and the post office with murals. In a comparatively small community, these locations very much have been and are part of the fabric of the village.

Logistically, the 7th graders are divided into four groups. The program runs from 8:00 to 2:35, the normal school day. All four groups are together at the beginning and the end. They do not have lunch together.  The day is an interactive one with re-enactors, Living History, spinning and making butter among other things. At the Post Office, there is a mural hunt (I have the list). Parents have been known to say that whenever they go to the Post Office with a child who has been through the program, the child still points out different images on the walls.

Muste and Sexton take the position that every community has stories to tell. So find out what they are in your community. Stories can be connected to places in the community. Stories can be connected to the curriculum. Writing is involved.

I asked if the Day in Rhinebeck (as I called it in 2012) had ever been offered to teachers for professional development or done as part of the Ramble, the weekend program in September where organizations in the Hudson Valley are invited to offer programs to the public. The answers were “No.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Rhinebeck is the only community teaching local history by walking around the village; it’s just the one I happen to see at a conference. It would be interesting to know if other communities are doing something similar.

In Washington’s Shadow

Out of Washington’s Shadow: Creating and African-American Tour of Newburgh by Professor Colin Morris, Manhattanville College history professor, and Tashae Smith, graduate Manhattaville College

Tashae Smith grew up in Newburgh and was a student of Colin Morris at Manhattanville. For a class project, she created a walking tour in Newburgh focusing on the African-American experience. The tour begins literally across the street from Washington’s Headquarters, a site we visited the following day as part of the field trip I took. I used the lunch break on the field trip to walk part of the tour Smith spoke about but there was insufficient time to complete it.

The tour focuses on sites typically overlooked. In the past I have written blogs about how New York State tends to ignore both the slavery experience here (although less so than in the past) and July 4, 1827 (there’s more emphasis on Juneteenth in Texas than July 4, 1827 in New York). The next post in that blog sequence which I haven’t yet written is the time after 1827 and before the Great Migration made Harlem the cultural capital. This was the time of free blacks in New York that is ignored except for the Underground Railroad and “12 Years a Slave.” Think of how much time in the movie is about life in New York versus how much is about slavery in the South. One result is that the life of free blacks in New York post-1827 ends up being ignored just as slave black life in New York pre-1827 has been. This walking tour addresses that gap whether by chance or design.

Smith researched the locations and arranged for signs to be put up. In one case a house had been replaced by a liquor store that was not exactly friendly to the idea. Two locations are now part of a park. Newburgh desegregated its Colored School back in the 19th century which, all things considered, is really quite early. An app has been created for the tour so it can be self-guided. One of the unexpected challenges was writing a script for each stop meaning continually abbreviating it to match our limited attention spans (not her terms!).

Smith has given the tour and the project has been prominently featured in the Manhattanville College publications. In fact, one contact through a college alum helped arrange an interview for Smith for graduate school in Cooperstown as she hopes to pursue museum studies. Her interview was the day after the session at THV during the Newburgh field trip.

Prof. Morris added that he sees the next step as the development of curriculum materials related to the site. That quest was part of the reason for being at the conference.

Great Newburgh History Adventure: A How-to- Field Experience

The field trip was organized and led by Ginny McCurdy, a high-school English teacher in Newburgh. The school district encompasses multiple municipalities. Sites in Newburgh can be connected to the English curriculum and she works with a social studies teacher. I don’t recall if the tour in the sequence we took it is the exact one she does with the students but if not it was close enough.

The tour was on land and water. We began with a cruise using the Newburgh-Beacon ferry after rush hour when it was available for rental. I can say with Teacherhostels/Historyhostels in the Hudson Valley, the Champlain Valley, and the Mohawk Valley, it is always good to include time on the water. It is also important to note how many Newburgh students may never have seen the city from the water and/or been on the water. Student experiences outside the classroom really do vary and what may be ho hum to one might be first time to another.

As part of the tour McCurdy was able to draw on her contacts in the arts and cultural community. Writing is an important part of her tour. She draws on the expertise and writings of the Newburgh City Historian Mary McTamaney. Not all teachers know that there is supposed to be a municipal historian in every municipality and not all municipal historians are as active as McTamaney. Her columns in the local newspaper provided source documents for the students. McCurdy also asks her students to write about their community both positively and negatively as if they were writing for someone who has never been there. Finally she has a list of seven questions for the students to ask friends, family, and residents along the lines of “did you know that,” very similar to what is done in the Rhinebeck program.

One general comment about both tours in Newburgh: I felt there was too much walking between locations where nothing is happening. Perhaps I missed some of the architectural and local lore as some of us lagged behind our tour leader. On the other hand, we enjoyed some of the local flavor as one of the locals called out “Hillary, Hillary” to one of the teachers walking by possibly meaning the Democratic candidate in 2016 for president while one of the librarians was embraced by one of her students. Speaking from experience, I can say that it is a likely occurrence when doing a Teacherhostel in a community with teachers from the community – they tend to see a lot of people they know.

One caveat is the usual area overlooked in history tours. I am referring to the more recently developed area along Route 300. It is a typically ugly area of malls and chain stores not in the old downtown and with lots of parking. These second-half 20th century developments whether Route 300 in Newburgh or Route 30 are part of the history of a community just as the colonial era is. And with the abandonment of mall shopping for online shopping now sweeping the nation, many of the malls are dead or dying. All this is part of the history of the community.

Teaching local history by walking around should be part of the curriculum as a matter of course and not just because some people think it is appropriate. It is a great way to bring together the local history community including teachers, librarians, historical societies, municipal historians, and other civic organizations in planning the program and it is a great way to connect students to their own community in a way they probably didn’t know before. We are a storytelling species so let’s include the stories of the places where we live as part of the educational experience.

5 thoughts on “Teaching Local History by Walking Around: 3 Case Studies

  1. Thank you, Peter, for including ENTA’s Walking Tour of Rhinebeck in your post. We hope what we shared about our experience in developing and delivering this program with our school and community partners was valuable to the educators at the conference. Your suggestions for bringing this tour to a wider public audience are certainly food for thought. We hope we can talk further with you about how that might happen.

    Enjoyed sharing the Teaching the Hudson Valley conference with you.

    With best regards,
    Pat Sexton & Peter Muste

    1. Your welcome. It was an informative session about what every community should do, especially the non-NYC towns and villages where such walking tours are more accessible. I first communicated with Nancy Kelley and the Rhinebeck history community back in 2010 to discuss creating a Day in Rhinebeck. By adding Wilderstein and a few speakers it probably would be possible to create a weekend program.


  2. Great idea …Interesting to note how interpretation will change if statues are removed from public places?

    1. We live in interesting times. Interpretations can change even when statues remain in public places as well as when they are removed. I am wrestling with this topic and whether it is appropriate for a blog about the state of New York State history.


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