“The past cannot be destroyed, but it can be neglected or covered over. When we don’t know what is in the past, we cannot use it, and we cannot release its power.”
These words from former Penn State trustee Ben Novak help capture the spirit and merit to intentionally encountering the stories and history of your home. Knowing your story not only enriches your experience as a participant in an unfolding narrative, it also forges a more durable identity and can drastically improve decision-making.
Focusing on that final point, it is perhaps unavoidable for a college town, a place that turns over nearly a quarter of its population annually, to forget much of its past. Even here, in a place where we claim to honor, even venerate, tradition, the mists of time quickly obscure, and sometimes totally consume, the dreams, triumphs, and failures of our predecessors. We should seek to continuously unearth this information and refresh it for modern sensibilities, driven by a sense of service and affection for the place. In doing so, we can equip ourselves with the tools to better understand and navigate our present.
A concrete example of this comes from a project I am wrapping up with the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County (CBICC). For the last year, I have been helping catalog the chamber’s historical archives—an extensive collection of newsclippings, photographs, and documents dating back to the organization’s earliest days as the State College Chamber of Commerce in the 1920s. We have had great experiences working with the College of the Liberal Arts to obtain smart, capable undergraduate interns and the University Libraries for guidance on archiving procedures.
In 2013, CBICC staff members had recently found the group’s archives boxed up in storage. Most of the material was preserved in scrapbooks, some with striking, handcrafted wooden covers that are a kind of artifact unto themselves. It represents the efforts of numerous people over nearly 80 years. Simply what they chose to document—the birth of Arts Fest, the construction of Welch Pool, the planning of I-99—speaks to the aspirations the people of the community had for their home throughout the American Century. This is information from the past that had become “covered over,” and now we are working to “release its power.”
The collection is fascinating, and once we are through taking stock of it, a task that is nearly complete now, I hope to arrange some sort of public exhibition of the most compelling material. Some highlights from the work so far, beginning with the century-long vision of an Allen Street Pedestrian Mall:
- A little over 10 years ago, the State College Borough Planning Commission batted around a proposal to permanently close Allen Street between College and Beaver to install a pedestrian mall. The innovative proposal generated some excitement and appeared to be gaining the sort of momentum that might yield results within a decade or so. We’re still waiting, of course, but just how long has that wait actually been? Thanks to an encounter with the CBICC archives, one can learn that the concept actually reached a pretty serious planning stage in 1965 (models were built), and had been discussed as early as the mid-20s. Even 50 years ago, local writers covering the story joked about long-running efforts to repurpose the 100 block of Allen. If an Allen Street pedestrian mall ever does materialize, it will have been more than a century in the making.
- Newspaper articles dating back to the 1960s foreshadow the inefficiencies and financial costs of maintaining multiple municipal governments within the boundaries of “State College.” Today, the six municipalities that make up the community (SC Borough and College, Ferguson, Halfmoon, Harris, and Patton townships) each enjoy their unique character and relative autonomy, but consistently struggle to reconcile regional issues such as infrastructure, transportation, and the costs of police/fire services. It is unlikely that many of us, who live and work throughout the Centre Region and who may recall at least one failed vote on “municipal consolidation,” appreciate how long this arrangement has been a matter of debate.
- Especially enjoyable is a CDT editorial from 1985 lamenting the Phi Psi 500 as a raucous, manufactured “drinking holiday,” and arguing for its extinction. The similarity to modern jeremiads against State Patty’s Day, right down to the exact language, are striking and amusing, and we now know they were ultimately successful (younger readers will need to click the link to even understand the reference). It sheds valuable light on the “drinking holiday” as hardly a new or novel occurrence at Penn State. If those Reagan-era critics of the 500 could have envisioned its eventual successor, one wonders whether they might have just left well enough alone.
These represent only a sampling of the disappearing or forgotten knowledge preserved by preceding generations that is contained in the collection. Taken as a whole, the CBICC’s historical archive forms a remarkably comprehensive history of the growth of State College and Penn State in the twentieth century.
Discovering this sort of information is fun, of course, but it also offers valuable perspective that can help us have more honest conversations and make smarter choices. The real challenge comes in bringing these stories to life in a way that captures the imagination, allowing that beneficial knowledge to sink in. We’re working on it.