Category Archives: Summer 2011

Summer Newsletter: Table of Contents

President’s Message

Mark Foutch

Preserving the Family Bible

Max Marbles

Lanny’s and Deb’s Excellent Adventures in Tacoma

Deb Ross

Meet a Family: Yantises and Blankenships

Ralph Blankenship

The myth of connection between Wilder and White and Capitol Lake

Emmett O’Connell

Mark Derricott

Lacey Historical Society

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President’s Message Summer 2011

Mark Foutch, President

It’s been a busy Spring for your Olympia Historical Society.  At our April 30, board meeting, we approved the purchase of a banner to identify our displays at local history events. Thanks to Karen Bowen for managing that “short fuse” project—the banner came just in time for Ralph Blankenship and Deb Ross to use it in Tenino at the first “Thurston County Through The Decades” event of the year.  It really looks great!

Early in June we supported the City of Olympia in a downtown event marking and interpreting the city’s historic shoreline, which has been much altered by dredge and fill operations over the past century or so.  Our members were busy: Karen Bowen staffed our information table; Shanna Stevensen, Ed Echtle, and Drew Crooks conducted tours; while our ever vigilent treasurer, Ralph Blankenship affixed ribbons on parking meters that marked the historic shoreline.  

Stay tuned to your OHS bulletins and the website for announcements about upcoming events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wilder and White Capital Campus design and the ongoing shoreline walks sponsored by the city of Olympia, as well as the upcoming Lacey Historical Society annual meeting. The Society has no officially sponsored activities until fall, when we’ve been invited to participate in a second “Thurston County Through The Decades” event, this one October 2 in Tumwater covering 1875-1900.  Many of those years’ notable events happened right here in Olympia so there’s plenty for us to work with.  And on Sunday October 16 we’ll have our second General Membership Meeting, this one at the Bigelow House Museum, which will be reopening after repairs and general sprucing up.

Because it’s been operating at a low ebb for so long, the Bigelow House Museum needs to rebuild its staff of volunteer docents.  This is a great opportunity to learn and share some vital local history.  Contact Karen Bowen to sign up!

Back in January I mentioned my concern that there’s still no “go to” location here in Olympia for residents and visitors to learn our local history, and to store irreplaceable documents, artifacts, photographs, films and recordings securely and safely.  Others have expressed a similar frustration, and we’re wondering whether our membership would support the Society’s exploring the issue further.  We’ll need your ideas on what’s needed and how to proceed—and then your solid, committed support to go forward if that’s our choice.  Let the Board know what you think and we’ll discuss it at our September 17 meeting:

Meanwhile, kick back and enjoy your OHS Summer Newsletter.  Ralph Blankenship leads off a new series on notable local families with a tale of his pioneer Yantis and Blankenship forebears.  Then Deb Ross and Lanny Weaver tell more of what they’re discovering in their work at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, where a lot of Olympia and Thurston County historical resources have been stored.

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Preserving the Family Bible

Max Marbles, Bookbinder
Cherish your human connections. A family Bible is a valued volume handed down through a family, in which each successive generation records information about the family history, births, marriages and deaths.

Family Bibles, like everything else, suffer the passage of time. Many family heirloom Bibles and books are in extremely poor condition. The biggest threats to a Bible are heat, humidity and light. There are usually many other forensic signs of usage such as: food and debris in the gutters; ragged ear-marked pages from heavy use; hair braids to corsages stuffed between pages; pencil and pen notes in the margins; torn and bumped covers; papers and photographs spreading the pages; and the general rubs and abrasions. Some of these venerable giants have simply been worn-out by loving prolonged use.

Generally, family Bibles were bound with calfskin leather. Due to radical changes in book production techniques, earlier Bibles tend to have the longer-lasting leather, while later versions bound in more caustic and acidic leather can become powdery and tattered. Additionally, there are examples in the late Victorian era of cloth bindings with cheaper paper for Bibles purchased as a poor families’ option.

The typical family Bible published between 1840 and 1900 was 12 x10 by 4 inches. In the early period, the family Bible covers were flat with little, if any, embossment. Family Bibles produced from 1870 are often deeply embossed and have panels stamped in gold.

Papers in earlier Bibles are made of cotton, linen or a mix of the two. These type fibers are very long lived. For example, a pure linen paper can last over 500 years. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, paper used for pages was mass-produced from pulps using tree fibers and harsh chemicals. That is why the quality of materials tends to preserve older paper in better condition and make later Bibles’ paper more brittle.

Nineteenth century Bibles often use several different types of papers; such as one kind for illustrations and another for text. For example, the illustrations, the title page and interleafing tissue, text paper, family record pages, and the back, heavy paper lined board where photographs were inserted may all be different sorts of papers. Mid-1800’s Bibles tend to be single columned content where the later Victorian volumes are double columned. Turn of the century Bibles often have glossaries, maps and illustrated sections in the front of the book.

Linen thread and hide glue were used to bind the Bibles. Hide glue is acidic and only good for about a hundred years before it becomes brittle. It is common to see the spine of an older Bible parting as the glue shrinks and separates from the paper. A leather cover, paper and glue materials bound together properly can last for centuries; however, if one element fails, the whole Bible will fall apart under the shear weight of itself.

With the ingredients of leather, cotton, hide glue and linen in its composition, the Bible is an interconnected organic system. The great enemies, heat, humidity and light, do more to age and breakdown the substances in Bibles than most anything else. However, there are ways to preserve and protect your family Bible.

How can one save and prolong the life of a precious heirloom Bible?

Put a Bible in the basement, garage or attic
Set a Bible upright without lateral support
Leave a Bible opened for prolonged periods
Let sunlight or harsh lighting contact the Bible
Keep a Bible in either a humid or dry environment
Expose a Bible in an extreme temperatures

Keep a Bible at room temperature 68 to 72 degrees
Store a Bible flat, but kept so that its form is not canted
Maintain humidity as close to 50 percent as possible
Preserve the Bible in an archival box
Store the Bible in the center of the closet (not the floor in case of flood and not on top in case of fire).
Keep the Bible family records updated with a note inside the front cover with recognizable names

Choose a responsible guardian to transfer the Bible to when you are ready
Invest in restoration and preservation by a professional bookbinder

Nothing lasts forever, at least in a physical form. Family Bibles, after 100 years, almost always need the preservative services of a professional bookbinder. With the proper restoration and conservation, this heirloom can reasonably last another 100 years. Select a good conservator and your family will enjoy and treasure your family Bible for many more generations.

Max Marbles

Max Marbles/Bookbinder
1313 Mill St. SE
Salem, OR 97301
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Lanny’s and Deb’s Excellent Adventures in Tacoma

Deb Ross

On a weekly basis, Members Lanny Weaver and Deb Ross catalogue the State Capital Museum collection now housed at the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) in Tacoma. This project is made possible through a collaboration between the Olympia Historical Society and WSHS, and Deb and Lanny are grateful for the time and cooperation of the WSHS and Research Center staff in making this possible. This new and regular column will inform you about their work.

In the past several months, Lanny has focused on organizing the personal papers of Del McBride, Olympia-area historian and artist. She will be developing a finding aid to make this collection more readily accessible. Tim Ransom, Nisqually-area historian, observes that Lanny’s work will be an important asset to researchers and others who are interested in Native American history; the Nisqually delta; Del McBride and his collaborators at artist collective Klee Wyck; and Olympia-area history.


MusgroveMillineryDeb has continued cataloguing photos from  the State Capital Museum collection. To date, she has catalogued over 3,000 photographs. An interesting recent project involved a collection of glass negatives taken by pioneer, politician and historian Robert Esterly in late 1914. Mr. Esterly took photographs of local Olympia businesspeople standing in front of their establishments. This collection paints a fascinating and thorough picture of what downtown Olympia looked like around the time of the Carlyon fill. Although much of the fill was complete by then, it is interesting to note how many storefronts and other businesses backed up to waterfront. Also noteworthy is the ethnic and gender diversity of local businesses. These photographs have all been scanned, and are viewable on line. Clicking on this link and entering the keyword “esterly” (without quotes) will take you to a catalogue listing and thumbnail photographs which can be clicked to view images in greater detail.

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Meet a Family: Yantises and Blankenships

Ralph Blankenship

In October of 1852 Sarah Y Yantis rode into Olympia with her father B.F. Yantis and 7 brothers and sisters in their covered wagon.  They left from Saline County, Missouri where  B.F. had been a superior court judge.  Sadly B.F.s wife died during the difficult journey to Olympia.  B.F. and family homesteaded on Bush Prairie, ran an early stage line to Cowlitz Landing, and was a legislator, among other things.

To add confusion to our early family history A.S. Yantis, B.F.s brother, arrived in Olympia about the same time.  He also had a daughter named Sarah who in turn had her own daughter named Sarah.  They settled in the Skookumchuck Valley near Bucoda.

sarah_y_blankenship_smallSarah Y married 28 year old Abram Benton Moses on April 11, 1855 at 20 years of age.  This was during the Indian War of 1855/1856.  AB Moses, a militia volunteer and former Thurston County Sheriff, was shot and killed on October 31, 1855 during surprise attack on his patrol near Bonney Lake.  It was for this killing that Leschi was arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged.  To this day this trial and conviction are controversial from many points of view.

george_c_blankenshipsmallThe widow Sarah Y Moses subsequently married George C Blankenship on May 22, 1857.  George C our great grandfather arrived in Olympia, a single man, in July of 1853.  He also served in the militia and followed AB Moses steps to become the Thurston County Sheriff in the late 1850s.  It is said that while he held Yelm Jim in custody that he had this gentle man babysit for his first son with Sarah, our great uncle, George E Blankenship.

George E was followed by Frank Y Blankenship (died at 6), and then Robert L Blankenship our grandfather.  George E was a newspaper reporter and book author.  His wife Georgianna also was a book author (Tillicum Tales later republished as Early History of Thurston County) and suffragist as well.

 [Robert Blankenship with bicycle] Robert L married Elizabeth Savage to carry on our family.  Robert L had three children, Betty (had son Bobby), Robert (died at 9), and Nathaniel (our dad).  Robert L and Ed Winstanly formed “Winstanly & Blankenship” a partnership that continued through two generations and around 90 years.  It ran the Smokeshop that was located on Capitol Way between 4th and 5th (now Olympia Federal Savings).  Robert L also was an early Commodore of the Olympia Yacht Club.

This is the first of a continuing newsletter series that will help you become acquainted with some of the families whose names you see in our local history, neighborhoods, and street signs. Their intentional brevity will hopefully pique your curiosity and consequent research. We welcome contributions from our members and friends. For additional links to the members of the Yantis and Blankenship families, as well as other Olympia area families, check out the Names section of the website. 

Photos of George C and Sarah Y Blankenship provided by Ralph Blankenship, photos of Robert Blankenship and Georgiana by special arrangement with Washington State Historical Society. 

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August 23, 2011. Lacey Community Center

The 2011 “Lacey School Reunion” is being held on August 23rd at the Lacey Community Center from 5 to 8 PM.  The Lacey Historical Society will have on display Lacey Grade School “Keepsake Pages” that record 8th grade graduating classes from the 1920s to the final class of 1961.  The Lacey Historical Society invites “One and All” to come and view the photographs of former classmates and teachers from the decades of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

Expect an evening of: Memories, Renewing friendships, Summertime Visiting, and Eating

Save the Date: August 31, 2011
Long-time Lacey resident William Ehlers will be celebrating his 90th birthday on August 31st. Dr. Ehlers was the first physician in Lacey and has many community connections. Please help the Lacey Historical Society celebrate his birthday by planning to attend his birthday celebration at Panorama City. Details will be provided later in the summer, or you may contact the Lacey Historical Society via Shirley Dziedzic at, or writing the Lacey Historical Society at PO Box 3324, Lacey, WA 98507.
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The myth of connection between Wilder and White and Capitol Lake

Emmett O’Connell

This article originally appeared on the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Natural Resource Department Weblog and was reprinted here as another view of the history of the development of Capitol Lake. The Olympia Historical Society takes no positions on the analysis or conclusions of the authors who submit articles for consideration in our newsletters.


The creation of what we now know as Capitol Lake was not the natural outgrowth of a landscaping plan for the Capitol Campus. Rather, it was the result of a decades-long lobbying effort by local businessmen, politicians and city-fathers to create an appealing water feature and “scrape the moss off” Olympia.

Recently, lake defenders have distorted the origin story of Capitol Lake for use as a cloak of legacy. The defenders of the lake present the argument that the Wilder and White plan for the campus was the origin of the lake idea. This position is wrong. They claim that restoring the estuary would disparage our own history. The true origins of Capitol Lake inform not only our misunderstanding of local history, but also how we move forward with the future of the lake and the Deschutes River estuary.

The initial campus plan called for a modest reflecting pool, but it was a group of prominent Olympia citizens that suggested creating a much larger lake by impounding the Deschutes River with a dam running east-to-west. This more drastic proposal was not embraced by the State Capitol Commission and was immediately rejected.

The first suggestion of a dam at the mouth of the Deschutes actually pre-dates Wilder and White by more than a decade. Ironically, Leopold Schmidt, the founder of the Olympia Brewing Company, proposed damming the river with a set of locks in 1895 to facilitate shipping to his planned brewery. Later opposition by Tumwater and the Olympia Brewing Company would prove to be the largest impediment to the damming of the river for decades to follow.

Capitol Planners Called For Free Flowing Deschutes River

During the early days of drafting a capitol campus plan, Wilder and White worked with the large and renowned Olmsted Brother firm to develop a larger landscape plan for the campus. Based on Wilder and White’s rough drawings that included some sort of reflecting pool, the Olmsted firm added more detail to the plans.

There are numerous representations by Wilder and White about what shape the campus could eventually take. This image below in particular has been used by current lake defenders as the best representation of what their vision for the lake was.


This is actually a draft that was meant to show the arrangement of the buildings in the capitol group, not to show any details of any proposed water feature. While you could read into the picture a proposal similar to the current lake, it included no actual detail of how that would be accomplished. It simply presented the idea of a pond.

When the planners started putting details down on paper, John Olmsted wrote about a reflecting pool that changed with the tides. From a Jan. 19, 1912 letter to the State Capitol Commission:

…extend a dike with a driveway upon it along the east side of the channel from Capitol Park to 6th Street (Legion Way) and to acquire all the flats between the river and the proposed Capitol Avenue, this area to be mainly devoted to a salt water pond which would be kept nearly up to high water level, merely fluctuating a foot or two at every tide so as to ensure a change of water.

(Epstein, 66).

Here is the more detailed plan for the Wilder/White and Olmsted saltwater pond laid over a more current aerial photo of Capitol Lake:


This reflecting pool would have had a much smaller footprint than the current version. Olmsted, along with architects Walter Wilder and Harry White never intended to block the Deschutes River or block the incoming tide to create a reflecting pool.

Actually, the entire idea behind the originally proposed reflecting pool was to take advantage of the tides. The pool itself would be filled by salt water and refreshed by the tides. A sill would keep the pond filled and ensure mudflats weren’t exposed, but the tide would not be totally blocked.

As late as 1927, when construction of the domed legislative building was in full swing, the designers of the campus continued to pursue the modest saltwater tidal pond rather than an aggressively dammed estuary (Epstein, 67).

Carlyon’s Lake becomes Capitol Lake

Today’s Capitol Lake strongly resembles a plan drawn up by former Olympia mayor and state legislator P.H. Carlyon. His 1916 plan would have included a dam at 4th Avenue (just north of the current dam), replacing the wooden bridge that at the time spanned the mouth of the Deschutes River.

While the Carlyon lake plan was likely popular locally, it lacked any further support:

Vigorously oppose closing waterway

City’s proposal is fought at hearing before state commissioner.

…State Lands Commissioner Clark V. Salvidge has taken under advisement the petition presented by the city of Olympia and by Senator P.H. Carlyon in a hearing before him last Tuesday, for the vacation of the Des Chutes waterway, the construction of a dam in the river at Fourth street and the creation of a lake south of that street…

The city officials and Dr. Carlyon are practically alone in their advocacy of the change…

(Olympia News, 1916)

Carlyon’s lake was impossible at the time for two reasons:

  • The so-called Des Chutes Waterway was privately owned. The state-owned Capitol Campus at the time was limited to the bluff at Capitol Point and didn’t include any lowlands. It wouldn’t be until 1937 that the state started a serious effort to purchase property that would be inundated by a dam.
  • Closing the Deschutes by an east-to-west running dam would stop water traffic from reaching Tumwater and possibly ruin power generation at the Deschutes falls. In the early 1900s, Tumwater’s downtown businesses still depended on water traffic.

Carlyon’s lake proposal was not his first effort in municipal terraforming. During his time as mayor of Olympia, he made significant efforts to complete the Carlyon fill, which created dozens of city blocks on the east side of downtown. This fill coincidentally also obliterated acres of the Moxlie and Indian creek estuaries. (Newell, 242)

Carlyon’s interest in the construction of the eventual permanent capitol campus (and lake) was primarily to put Olympia in its proper place among northwest cities.

This episode took place soon after the initial approval of the Wilder and White plan in 1911 (Newell 246):

Olympians were delighted when the plan for a complete capitol group was complete… (but) Everett boosters had been engaged in a last minute plot to steal the capital for their city and a bill had been introduced to move the supreme court and library to Seattle.

…Representative H.E. Foster of King county led the opposition with the traditional charge that Olympia was a sleepy village inhabited by mossbacks. “What has Olympia ever done for the state?” he wanted to know. “Although it’s been the seat of government for 50 years it has been at a standstill, progressing very little. Olympia is asleep and does not deserve any consideration from us.”

Dr. Carlyon, representative from Thurston County, having just put together the great downtown dredge and fill project, was speechless with indignation. William Ray, also of King County, added his voice to the defenders of the capital city, explaining that “the reason Olympia hasn’t been going ahead with other cities in the Northwest is simply this: every legislative session, some cranks come down here with some idea of moving the capital and agitate the question during the session. No business man or eastern capital is going to invest here until the question is settled once and for all…”

Even though it was rejected soundly in 1916, the Carlyon’s Deschutes Waterway project did not go away.

In 1937 the state Legislature allowed the use of bond revenue from state trust land to start buying property along the Deschutes waterway, the first step in the process to complete the aggressive lake plan.   A 1941 ad for a mayoral candidate listed “develop the Deschutes Waterway” as a campaign goal (Olympia News-Graphic, 1940).

In early 1941, with the land in the waterway being bought up by the state (Olympia News, March 1941), a delegation of state capitol campus commissioners and “prominent Olympians” visited a Tumwater town meeting to persuade their neighbors to drop their objections to the larger lake plan. And, by a 29-3 vote, the Tumwater residents agreed. (Olympia News, June 1941). Among the reasons for Tumwater’s acquiescence was a new overland rail line that made shipping by water unnecessary.

Olympia’s final push for Capitol Lake

The final 1947 debate on whether to fund closing the Deschutes waterway was certainly a debate between Thurston County and the rest of the state. The proposal to issue $1 million in bonds for the project actually received a negative vote in a House committee due to its proposed funding mechanism.

Rep. Ella Wintler (R-Vancouver), chair of the committee that gave the negative vote, was quoted as opposing the bill because it took the state’s priority away from constructing buildings. She added that the only reason it advanced to the House floor after receiving a poor committee report was because of consideration for Olympia’s Rep. George Yantis. (Daily Olympian, February 1947)

Rep. George Kinnear (R-King County) added:

It is high time the Legislature settled down and realized we are in big business. Miss Wintler’s thoughts are so sound they are irrefutable. There are serious responsibilities we have begun to overlook the business for which we are here – conducting the business of the state.

After passing the House, it was only because of an extraordinary effort by another Olympia state senator, that the bill got any consideration in the Senate. State Sen. Carl Mohler (Thurston County) worked out a deal with a Senate committee chair to give the committee extra time to consider the bill. Mohler’s arguments put a strong emphasis on the project’s funding; the funds would come from a trust, not directly from the pockets of taxpayers. (Daily Olympian, March 1947).

The lake bill passed by a 70-20 vote in the House and a 29-4 vote in the Senate, but only because state Legislators from Olympia pushed hard for it. The lake bill was not considered a high priority otherwise.

An editorial in the Olympian (and reprinted in the Tacoma News-Tribune) as construction on the lake was about to begin in 1948 gives credit where credit is due (Tacoma News-Tribune, 1948):

Campaigning for the basin was a discouraging task at times but city officials, the chamber of commerce, various civic and fraternal organizations, real estate groups and numerous individuals kept plugging away until their perseverance was rewarded last week by the assurance that a long-fondled hope at least will be translated into reality.

News that the much-needed improvement will be started as soon as is feasible was received with immense satisfaction by the residents of Olympia and suburban areas… (Capitol Lake) will be a source of much pleasure to the people who already are established here, but also will convince visitors that Olympia is a mighty pleasant place in which to live and work.

The advocacy, funding and creation of Capitol Lake goes well beyond the intention of the capitol campus designers. Their intention was for a modest reflecting pool as part of the landscape of campus in balance with the built environment of the campus and the surrounding landscape. It was not unreasonable for the designers of the campus to consider a reflecting pool, but what ended up being built was an obese exaggeration.

When you view the Wilder, White and Olmsted tidal pond in the true historic context, it is only one mention in decades of discussion, certainly not the original vision.

Works Cited

“Capitol Lake Plan Sent to State Senate” Daily Olympian, March 4, 1947.

“Des Chutes Basin Plan to be Aired at Meet Tuesday” Olympia News, June 12, 1941.

“Deschutes Basin Improvement Gets Unfavorable Report to Legislature” Daily Olympian, February 26, 1947.

“Details on Basin Project Wanted” Olympia News, March 7, 1941.

Epstein, Mark B. “A history of the Washington state capitol landscape.” 1992

“Improvement at Olympia” Tacoma News Tribune, July 21, 1948.

Lane, Horrace M. “Letter to the Citizens of Olympia” Olympia News-Graphic, November 21, 1940.

“Last Objection to Improvement Withdrawn” Olympia News, June 19, 1941.

“Leopold Schmidt Announces Plans to Build Brewery” The Daily Olympian, September 18, 1895.

Newell, Gordon. “Rogues, Buffoons and Statesmen.” 1975

“Senate Approves Lake Project” Daily Olympian, March 10, 1947.

“Vigorously Oppose Closing Waterway” Olympian News, Friday, May 26, 1916.

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Applied Historiography: Olympia’s Capitol Lake

Mark Derricott*

The excellent recent piece about Capitol Lake by Mr. Allen Miller and a formidable rejoinder in this quarter’s newsletter by Mr. Emmett O’Connell reveals a rich dialogue about our local history. Mr. O’Connell’s appeal to “true historical context” counters Mr. Miller’s exhortation to perfect the Wilder and White plan on its 100th birthday. These authors evidently disagree on the true intention of the designers of our Capitol Campus. Who is correct and how do we decide? And what does it matter? These are not simple questions and a sincere desire to answer them require examining and thinking about methodology in the the study of history, and the implications for us as producers and consumers of history.

If the truth of our history is worth discovering, the path its seekers must follow begins with considering what knowledge of the truth about anything that no longer exists might possibly mean. Before clarifying the object of history, however, we should weigh the value of that object. Why do White and Wilder’s intentions 100 years ago make any difference to us in deciding what we should do now? Is there something in their actions that should go beyond mere historical curiosity for us today? The answer for both Miller and O’Connell seems to be an emphatic “Yes!” What could some of their reasons be? There is often a strong, even sentimental, attachment to the past captured in such objects as the family bible or other heirlooms. These instill in us a sense of belonging to our particular place in time—a personal link to the past. This can be a grounding force in an often turbulent world.  Often, history can be a rhetorical device that congeals a point of view in some time or place which may perhaps say more about now than then. People often view history as a guide to how events in our lifetimes follow causal laws, and through its study we can understand the present or predict the future, or avoid repeating mistakes. Historical share prices certainly aid the trader in this view. For many others, history is simply an inexplicable curiosity that drives research and consumption of books, media documentaries, side of the road historical markers, and bedtime stories. If nothing else, studying history provides some context for us, but some have believed its function is much broader than that. In fact, in some accounts, history is the only expression of our collective being that there ever could be and it is only by uncovering the past which bore us, can we look at and really understand ourselves.

One perplexing but beautiful aspect of the study of history is the subject-object problem first articulated by Georg Friedrich Hegel. The objects of history are the vanished events that make up the past which historians now study. These historians are the subjects in Hegel’s dichotomy; there is history (object), but also the historians (subject) who study history (object). Together, these asymmetrical components comprise Hegel’s Totality. The issue of whether they can be wrested from each other, even for the sake of conversation, provides a glimpse of the problems touched upon by both Miller and O’Connell.

Hegel spent his life meditating on the collective consciousness of humanity. There, he believed he discovered what in German is known as Geist or Spirit. The Spirit of ’76 is perhaps America’s most prominent use of the term. Hegel argued that we are unable to view history except in terms of this Geist: our subjective view of those vanished objects, events, places and everything else that comprise time now departed. Only by attempting to comprehend the organic development of Spirit can we approach something as intangible as the past, even in terms specific events. Over time, our views change and are changed, understanding develops through dialogues like the one between Miller and O’Connell—a view is put forward, it is criticized and/or corrected, expounded upon, or otherwise developed, then replaced again by a new idea, which is in turn criticized, or so Hegel believed continuing the process.

In our example of Capitol Lake, there is a point of departure, for the sake of convenience only. In reality, there are none and the development of concepts and ideas is perpetual. This constant negation giving rise to creation, like green shoots in a forest fire or a decimated economy, is not the slow uncovering of a fixed object, but the same story told from different, various, angles.[1] After all, we as the subject and history as the object are eternally alienated by the passage of time. No matter how much we study, it’s still only through the interaction of the subject and object that we can come to comprehend it. Through Hegel’s lens, one might consider the question of whether there is actually any true history. It is a profound question!

That back and forth, negation-creation, occurs also in the thought surrounding the study of history. Hegel was not the first philosopher to engage in historiography, but he raised the questions have occupied the study of history since. Hegel’s critics believed there was an easier, more tangible path to its discovery. Leopold von Ranke rebelled against the subject-object framework offering instead that history can and should be reconstructed. He believed that a scientific, positivist approach to the study of history was possible and necessary. His formulation of this is one all students of historiography know well: wie es eigentlich gewesen (“how things actually were”). In the Preface to his History of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514, Ranke wrote:

The book attempts to see these histories and the other, related histories of the Latin and Germanic nations in their unity. To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instruction the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: It wants only to show what happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen).[2]

In this view, historians are like nineteenth century scientists, weighing and measuring objects and gathering data about facts. At first blush, this is an intuitive and attainable goal. With relentless objectivity any historian should be able to reconstruct the past through rigorous research, patient study, and accurate communication. On this view, our question about the process of designing Capital Lake should be easily answered. Mr. O’Connell’s appeal to the source materials follows the von Rankian tradition and his journalistic scrutiny, admirably applied, may well leave the reader satisfied that his facts comprise the truth. Did this mean that Hegel’s subject could be converted into a completely accurate instrument conveying the object as it was to us in an unaltered form? As one might imagine, this orientation to the practice gave other historians of the time pause. And it did not take long.

Johan Gustav Droysen, was a historian, politician, and critic of Ranke’s methodology. His Outline of the Principles of History, which was published in 1868, offers an Hegelian counterpoint to the von Rankian tradition. Droysen’s passage seems to delight in the difficult problem of the often sparse collection of materials which historians have for evidence, and how little contact we have with the objects of our studies. “They are remnants of that which happened […] which still lie directly before our eyes.”[3] He wrote.  Droysen might embrace the power of history as a legitimizing authority to rhetorical maneuvers. Droysen quickly returned to Hegel’s subject as the more important problem for the modern historian: “We thus look at them in a quite different way from that in which they occurred, and which they had in the wishes and deeds of those who enacted them.[4]” Droysen was a Prussian nationalist, and strong supporter of German unification, under Prussia’s leadership. His work in German history can be said to employ a persuasive tendency toward unification or even perhaps his idea that Germany’s history is moving toward an inexorable unification as its conclusion. Droysen provides insight into the role and power of history in one’s own time and is a fascinating example of the use of rhetorical devices, and a powerful example in the value in the study of history. If we are unable to uncover the object of study to such an extent that we can reveal the past as it actually was, when is the historian’s work finished and is it futile to engage in it in the first place? Droysen would seem to argue that even though time alienates our object more with each day, that doesn’t mean the practice is without value. More important than the reason for study is Droysen’s recognition and strong arguments for ensuring that students of history understand that the subject in Hegel’s dichotomy should not attempt to alienate themselves from their object. Finally, both then and today, we see the subjective in the study of history, and its potential problems, which allow us to bear in mind the necessity of radical criticism in its production and consumption.

Clearly one’s conception of the past influences one’s view of the present. In both Miller and O’Connell’s work, we see an appeal to history that should lead us into a conception of our future. This is a common occurrence. Except in family history many individuals in our country consider history only terms of how it should shape the future, a legitimizing force for a point of view. (Without that personal connection, history is often tragically banished to true/false tests full of birth and death dates.) We need not elaborate the role historical appeals to versions of national history have played in the history of the modern world. As any observant individual in post-modern America is well aware, history has become a moving object, a victim of relentless rhetorical devices, visible across the entire political spectrum. On the other hand, it does not mean that the work of historians, and that which Miller and O’Connell contribute to it loses any value because it may be used to persuade. It does however shed new light on how history might fit into the Hegelian formulation of consciousness.

Droysen’s student, Friedrich Meinecke was one of the most well-known historians of the 20th century.  He attempted to synthesize the work of his forbearers, including both von Ranke and Droysen. In his view, elements of art, positivism, and the subjective scholarly curiosity are beneficial if not critical ingredients in the output of the historian. In 1928, Meinecke published his essay “Values and Causalities in History” offering elucidation of his beliefs. At this stage in our conversation, the subject rather than separated from from the object—as would have seemed desirable to von Ranke and his followers—instead have fused together within a swirling mass, giving rise to the question of whether historians could ever find a compelling reason to separate them.

And although [art] too, can never fully reveal these depths, it can give us an intuitive understanding of them, can give us a sympathetic sense of them through unmediated seeing. Only a path no longer purely scientific, this is, no longer purely causal can lead us a step further into the depths of reality. Where science fails to, it is wiser for history use these supra-scientific means than to apply scientific means where their application must lead inevitably to false results.[5]

Here, Meinecke has hit upon a fascinating argument: our ability to uncover the object is stronger when we don’t try to alienate that object from the subject. It is overly simplistic to get lost in the debate of whether history is an art or science, but that can clarify the problem for further analysis, debate, and development. In Hegel’s terms the subject and object don’t correspond to, but rather transcend, the art and science dichotomy. Can the science and art of journalism applied to historical scholarship take us back to the formulations of Wilder and White’s intentions? Where science is lacking can art fill in the gaps? Or vice versa? Of course, in scientific inquiry, it is sometimes impossible to replicate the conditions one is attempting to study. We cannot put ourselves back into the work chambers of our famous designers. Even if we could, would Mr. Miller’s cross examination or Mr. O’Connell’s exclusive interview uncover Wilder and White’s artistic inclinations as they are captured in the plans they produce?

An empowering resolution of these questions can be found in Charles Beard’s work. He was a dominant influence on 20th Century American historiography. Like Miller and O’Connell today, Beard was concerned with the relation between our past and our future environment and his own community’s social issues. As pragmatism was giving way to analytical philosophy, the debate within history faculties raged over the questions of whether history can be a science, and whether that study can or should be conducted according to scientific constraints. Beard offered an answer on how we might hold historiography to the positivist promise to which some of its practitioners aspire. Beard’s essay “That Noble Dream” reveals some of his conclusions: “Seekers after truth in particular and general have less reason to fear a [positivist methodology] than they have to fear any history that comes under the guise of the Ranke formula or historicism.[6]” Beard in the speech finally embraced the position that history as an object cannot be removed from the totality it forms with its subject.

Still more pressing, because so generally neglected, is the task of exploring the assumptions upon which the selection and organization of historical facts proceed. In the nature of things they proceed upon some assumptions concerning the substance of history as actuality. We do not acquire the colorless, neutral mind by declaring our intention to do so. Rather do we clarify the mind by admitting its cultural interest and patterns—interests and patterns that will control, or intrude upon the selection and organization of historical materials.[7]

Rather than discounting the subjective like von Ranke, or embracing it like Droysen, Beard made the inclusion of it and the explicit criticism of it part of the content of historical “truth”. Of course, Beard did not discover the end of history and his work did not resolve these questions, but he finally did seem to embrace that the dialectic process is perpetual and the historian is a necessary ingredient in it. And this perpetual conversation can shed light on one’s approach to the study of the events in question.

The waterway or body now known Capitol Lake is a much loved landmark and the more we study its history, the more we can approach an appreciation of our community. We also learn, thanks to the work of Miller and O’Connell, more about the sentimental attachment each of us have for our community, in its current form. On the other hand, if someone were to discover that lost plans actually proposed a radically different lake or estuary other than our current options, would that limit or change our views of what we believe the future should be? To read our subjective view by present aspirations back into it as O’Connell implicitly believes Miller does, we also unfairly confine the study of the past to unnecessary rigidness even if the work is defensible by scientific standards. The desire or necessity to see primarily ourselves in history as subjective, is always lurking. At times that subjective view certainly can cloud the object of study itself, but can a historian ever remove her fingerprints from her work? Inadequate and useless remnants, evidence, source materials, perjuring witnesses, falsified affidavits, need not thwart the work. The inability to resolve the truth of our past—if only because we didn’t live then—need not be a cause of remorse, nor should it become a reason to believe studying history is a futile act.

Beard said in the first line of his famous two volume work, The Rise of American Civilization, “the history of a civilization, if intelligently conceived, may be an instrument of civilization.” As we have seen that civilizing agent is not a static moment, but a dynamic process whose end is not the discovery of the truth of the past (even if that were possible). The civilizing arises through relentless action itself and this includes the study, production, consumption, and perhaps most of all, criticism of history. The fusion of these threads of thought is the driving spirit behind the study of history and as long as that criticism, back and forth, and perpetual development continues, subjects like Beard, Droysen, Meinecke and probably von Ranke too as well as their objects, will civilize us. As Hegel wrote: “Geist is the spirit of self-activity itself.” The phrase may well have particular poignancy for the historian in all of us. As we experience and delight in Miller and O’Connell’s work (like others who are as deeply committed) it becomes easier to conclude that the action or work should never end, but should continuously push us to further action: “Criterion of Spirit is its action, its active essence.  It makes itself what it essentially is.”[8] That action occurs with the study of the history of Capitol Lake, as much as it does with our action to any future form it may or may not take.

*Many thanks to Thad Curtz for his frequent reading recommendations and his patience in discussing the questions they provoke.

[1] Bernstein, Richard: Praxis and Action, University of Pennsylvania Press (October 1, 1971), 22

[2] Stern, Fritz (1971). The Ideal of Universal History. In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, 57

[3] Stern, Fritz (1971). Positivistic History and its Critics In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, 141-142

[4] 141-142

[5] Stern, Fritz (1971). Historicism and its Problems In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, 270

[6] Stern, Fritz (1971). That Noble Dream In Varieties of History (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage, at 328

[7] Ibid. at 328

[8] Bernstein at 21

Posted in Summer 2011 | Comments Off on Applied Historiography: Olympia’s Capitol Lake