By Merle Massie
“My tap dancing just isn’t good enough,” she wrote. She: my daughter’s high school English teacher. Tap dancing: teaching (to pubescent, smartmouth, intelligent, tired kids at the end of June in rural Saskatchewan). “I remember a staff meeting conversation from some point where you were willing to come in and talk with students.” What’s the topic, Mrs. J? Reconstructing Past Lives.
Excellent. That is EXACTLY what historians do, right? So I set off to find out if I could tap dance for teenagers. Just for a couple of hours. After all, I tap dance for University students on a regular basis. How hard can it be?
Amid recent media controversy about the conservative federal government looking to choreograph the tap dancing of Canadian history (see here and here), I was curious to find out just what a typical Canadian grade seven student already knew.
We decided to focus on source hunting for the first hour. Here’s the question: if you’re writing a movie, let’s say, set in 1931, what do you already know? Great Depression! And we’re off and running. Where do you look for more information? Google (of course. Duh.). Grandparents. Books. My daughter said ‘archives’ but then had to explain what they were, and what kind of stuff is kept in there. She sounded bored and resigned, smart and engaged, all at the same time.
Then it was time to get personal. What was going on in our town, Biggar, in 1931? How do you find that out? Was there a newspaper, Mrs. Massie? Yes. Same newspaper we have today, the Biggar Independent. I had borrowed a microfilm copy from the local museum, and brought it in, along with a microfiche reader (which are small, light, and more portable than a microfilm reader, even if you can’t see as much). Is that a television, Mrs. Massie? A really old computer? So I took it apart, and let them look inside. COOL! It’s nothing but a mirror and a light!
Really, I felt like a magician. Ta DAH!! Old newspaper, on the wall of the darkened classroom for all to see. I had scanned and digitized it properly, so we put that on the smartboard. And I’d made paper copies. Triple the technology – but the students liked the micro just as well.
Front page news: MURDER near Biggar. Really, I hadn’t planned that part. I chose 1931 at random. I chose a date as close to my classroom visit as possible – June 11, 1931. Serendipity pulled us along.
Not only was it a murder (manslaughter, actually), but the murderer was none other than Louis Forchetner. He’s not famous. You’ve never heard of him. But I had – because my husband’s grandfather was there when the murder happened, and bought our farm from the murderer. Family lore knew the story, albeit slightly corrupted by the years. At a Farmer’s Unity League meeting (we thought it was a dance), a fight broke out. Forchetner stabbed Reid Hayes, who died in hospital after giving a deathbed statement. The enraged stabber went to jail for five years, in the depth of the Great Depression.
COOL! Murders (think CSI Biggar – you think we can franchise that?) pop kids eyes open. But there were other neat stories and advertisements in the paper. “What are piles, Mrs. Massie? Where’s your dictionary? [three minute wait…] OH GROSS!!!!” Did you know that Ogopogo was dead? And that some scientists added green and purple serum to fertilized eggs and came up with green and purple chickens? Grey Owl had moved to Manitoba, and Queen Mary was in her 60s. There were no speed limits on cars in Saskatchewan, but you had to slow down when passing horses, and pull off to the side of the road for hearses.Glaciers were melting. Attendance was down severely at the year-end fairs and picnics. A sense of despair exuded from the paper, but a Mickey Mouse cartoon was at the theatre.
“Mrs. Massie, why were newspapers so much more interesting back then?”
Well, why do you think? (Imagine the 13 year old collective BORG scrunching their eyebrows in thought). Answer: there was no TV or internet back then. I nodded my head proudly.
Mr. Harper, they’re doing fine.
Merle Massie is a writer and historian, and a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Ottawa. Find her blog at: http://merlemassie.wordpress.