local history

Telling Stories of Storms

A little over a year before I was born, a tremendously strong tornado barreled its way across my home county in Ohio. It did not touch my family, except that they, like so many others across the county, remembered heading down to the basement with a battery-powered radio and keeping their fingers crossed that nothing worse than rain would befall them. Nearly every summer as I was growing up, tornadoes would threaten northeast Ohio, and my parents would retell the story of that particular tornado. It stuck in their memories even though they had both been relatively safe and out of harm’s reach. That May 31, 1985 tornado was both something to fear and a source of wonder, of devastation and merciful coincidences.

Here is the story my parents told over and over again, about an event that happened seven miles from the house where I grew up.  On the night the tornado hit, at a roller rink on a busy corner of Route 422 in Niles, Ohio, the local schools were scheduled to hold a skating party.  When the tornado hit, just before 7pm, less than an hour remained before the party would start. The skating rink, along with the plaza nearby, suffered complete destruction--if the tornado had touched down even an hour later, that building could have been filled with children and teenagers skating the bunny hop and hokey pokey and oblivious to the winds brewing outside. That near-miss proved to be just one serendipitous story, but it loomed large for my parents and for me. The roller rink in my town, probably about 20 minutes from the one the tornado destroyed, would be a consistent point of reference for my entire youth from my school skating parties, to birthday parties for friends, to teenage years where they played edgier alt-rock on Friday nights and we debated whether or not to smoke in the bathrooms.

“Top O' the Strip and State Route 422, Niles, Ohio.,”  Trumbull Memory Project , accessed June 2, 2019,  http://trumbullmemory.org/items/show/87.  This image of the destroyed skating rink is, specifically, part of the Tornado Memory Project undertaken by the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library.

“Top O' the Strip and State Route 422, Niles, Ohio.,” Trumbull Memory Project, accessed June 2, 2019, http://trumbullmemory.org/items/show/87. This image of the destroyed skating rink is, specifically, part of the Tornado Memory Project undertaken by the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library.

It occurs to me now that I never bothered to look up any more about the tornado. I did not know, as I do now, that it was a rare F5 tornado with winds ranging above 300 miles per hour. It was supposedly the largest tornado in the world in 1985. I did not know, as I do from reading remembrances and looking at photos, that Niles was not the only community that was hit so hard.  One news article told a similar story of luck in Newton Falls, a small city that the tornado hit first.  A veteran storm-spotter and reserve police officer had been watching the skies from the roof of the City Hall and sounded the tornado sirens in time to give everyone full minutes to take cover. And no one died in Newton Falls, despite the fact that “seemingly half of Newton Falls was simply swept away by the storm.”

Perhaps because my parents had already seen the worst a tornado could bring, I never really grew up fearing tornadoes.  When I was little and the weathermen issued a warning, my parents would help me gather my critical things--preferred stuffed animal, blankie, books--and we’d head for our cinderblock basement, where it seemed like nothing could touch us.  I remember one time, after I could drive myself, when I went to the movies alone on a summer night. Suddenly, the movie stopped and the lights came up; a member of the theater staff explained that a tornado warning had been issued and that it was our choice to shelter in place at the theater or to drive home.  I remember two things: 1) they did give us each a free pass to return, and 2) I chose to calmly get in my car and head home to my parents and the cinderblock basement as fast as possible.  Nothing else happened that night. The movie theater is only two miles from where that skating rink had stood.

I lived in New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit. It was not my first hurricane, and I was not close enough to the shore to really be in danger. But that night, I stayed in my bed watching the weather on TV until the power went out, and then listened to audiobooks until I fell asleep finally, too exhausted to continue being upset by the wind and rain whipping at my poorly insulated windows. My friends and I went out the next morning and walked around our broken town to survey the damage. Trees barred sidewalks and roads, and no one had electricity so we kept our eyes open for downed lines. We noted that we’d be able to walk to school still because the bridge hadn’t flooded the way it did during Hurricane Irene. As we stumbled over piles of branches, I confessed that I had been terrified all night, and they said, “But you grew up in Ohio! Aren’t tornadoes a lot scarier?” I’m still not sure what the answer to that is. I do know that, the next day, I got into my car, thankful that I had enough gas in what became a serious shortage to make it to the Pennsylvania border, and drove home to my parents for a week. When I returned to New Jersey, my power still wasn’t back on.

As tornadoes moved across the Dayton area about a week ago, I was thinking about these storm experiences and checking radar maps to see whether my friends near there would be safe.  I’m acutely aware of how tornadoes, like Trumbull County in 1985 or the storm that struck Lorain and Sandusky in 1924, live long after they end, as communities try to heal and rebuild. The likelihood for an Ohioan to experience a tornado that strong again in the same way is so small that the stories become tall tales, stretching up to point where they can hold the horror of their teller in their events. In the course of a research project in Lorain, I read story after story of that 1924 tornado, trying to fact-check a claim about a historic house. One story in particular kept haunting me weeks later; the tornado had swooped in from Lake Erie and hit a bathhouse on the beach, sucking off the roof and subsuming the people inside into the storm.

When we tell stories about past tornadoes, we know that our ancestors lacked our modern weather warnings and simply had no idea the storm was coming. Yet even with our sirens and sophisticated radar, the days after Dayton have revealed those same stories of how, if one easy thing had been a little later or if a wife hadn’t talked a husband into heading to the basement, already terrible things could have been made so much worse. And when we tell stories like this that are steeped in tragedy, we can easily lose sight of the facts, even as we endeavor to preserve this history for future generations. The 1985 tornado in Trumbull County colored my life in so many ways, even though I hadn’t yet been born, but I never bothered to look and see if the stories my parents had told me were really true.

It is, however, true that the most famous tornado in American history did not occur in real life. When a tornado picks up Dorothy Gale’s small farmhouse and spins her into a new world, she learns that her fantasy isn’t what she needs after all. In our real life, we must be careful to keep pointing toward “home” in telling our storm stories.

For more pictures, oral histories, etc., see the Tornado Memory Project, part of the Trumbull Memory Project at the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library.

Expertise - What's in a name?


This past Saturday, I co-presented a session on how local history organizations can use social media, specifically Twitter. This is a topic that I’ve written and presented on in the past, and it’s a topic that I feel very strongly about. Am I an expert in it? That depends. Most of my marketing training has been informal, either in the very literal “on-the-job” sense or from taking online courses. However, it’s taken me a long time to realize that being an expert isn’t necessarily about knowing the most about a particular subject.

I understand the goals of using social media and generally know how to read the metrics that each platform makes available, but that’s not the most important skill I bring to the table. I know what has worked for me in my past experience managing social media accounts for organizations, and I know what I wish I had done better. I know that a lot of being good at social media management is doing the work—being able to put in the time to build a rapport with your followers and giving those followers what they want while also divining ways to bring in new followers.

For an audience composed of representatives from local history organizations, I’m an expert because I know what that audience needs. They don’t need to know the specific metrics to watch or to hone the skills that a marketing professional would have practiced through formal education, not yet anyway. What they need is to be convinced that adopting social media management practices is worth their time and that the learning curve to basic posting and engaging isn’t too steep for them to start.

So when I focus on talking about Twitter, I talk about the unique engagement the platform can deliver. Yes, there might be a third as many people on Twitter as there are on Facebook, but that group of people engages with intensity and expertise—both traits that can work in an organization’s favor, if they’re careful. I focus on the immediacy of Twitter. Organizations desperate for a specific answer to a conservation question or eager to catch the eye of their local state representative for a capital funding campaign can simply just tweet at those people, and they may very well receive an answer to their question or a special visitor at their event.

Much has been written about “imposter syndrome,” especially for people who used to be in academia, and how the feeling that you’re not good enough to do something can affect your ability to do good in your field. I think that also applies when you’re thinking about building a business or selling your skills for a job interview.  You ask yourself, “am I really good enough, and do I really have enough experience, to do this particular task professionally? Can I really ask people to pay me for this work?” I think you have to find a way to make the answer yes, and I struggle less and less with those questions as I move further and further away from my time in academia. When I was walking out of the meeting on Saturday, a woman called me the “Twitter queen,” thanked me for my insight, and wished me a safe drive home. I’ll take it.

Embracing Cleveland History

FreeImages.com/Kurt Krejny

FreeImages.com/Kurt Krejny

I live in the Greater Cleveland area, which, at this moment in time, overwhelmingly means two things:

  1. The Cleveland Cavaliers have won an NBA Championship and thereby released our city from decades of cursed sports team.
  2. The Republican National Convention is almost upon us, an event which seems likely to bring our beloved city to ruin.

It is not difficult to see how there might be conflicts between these two narratives.

Conflict, in fact, seems to be what this area runs on - a mess of contradictions that make its inhabitants who we are.  And we are wounded creatures of habit, capable of maintaining a cautious optimism to bear us through the crushing circumstances of failure and loss that govern both our sports teams and our regional economy.  We build art from nothing or from discarded materials in an effort to improve our surroundings.  We try to build new neighborhoods from the hollow facades of our history.

As part of Cleveland's efforts to welcome the aforementioned Republicans, banners have been hung all over the city that provide "fun facts" about the city's history - first stoplight, birth of Superman, and so on.  They're strategically placed near historic buildings or places that they refer to, where possible.  When not possible, they're placed where people are sure to see them.  One example of this is pictured below - this banner, which references John D. Rockefeller, is part of a line of banners that cover windows of vacant shops on a once-prominent street downtown, near the central Public Square and many places convention-goers are sure to be.

Rockefeller Banner.jpg

This street, once the home to Cleveland's richest and most glorious people, homes, and commerce, now full of vacant shops and buildings whose windows have long been smashed out.  This street that is now lined by positive reminders of the past and near some of the city's finest reclamation projects of the last ten years or so - the abandoned bank turned into a destination grocery store, the department store turned into a casino, etc.  It can never be said that Clevelanders give up easily.  And so, It is my faint hope that, when the convention is over and the visitors head home, they will think of this city as a place that is using its history to transform its present and shape its future.  Until then... we wait.

Branding Historical Societies

FreeImages.com/Carlos Sillero

FreeImages.com/Carlos Sillero

I talk with a lot of people about historical societies.  Sometimes, I cringe when I hear how their own members refer to them or shorten their names.  These shortcuts only ever make the organizations seem exclusive and old-fashioned, two qualities that most historical societies, especially on the local level, no longer possess.

There’s a bit of a marketing problem in terms of what historical societies are, why they were formed, and why people should join them in 2016. 

Historical societies preserve aspects of the past.  Local historical societies might preserve a past that a current iteration of a town or city might hope to shed.  For example, they might preserve a farm near an area that values building a suburban community.

Historical societies might have originated in Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s) notions of betterment—betterment often advocated in judgment of those who failed to meet standards and in conjunction with social platforms like temperance.  (Think of this like birth control and Planned Parenthood—many modern women love and use these resources, but they came out of Margaret Sanger’s questionable positions on eugenics.)

Historical societies often continued after their foundings at the behest of wealthy benefactors.  Depending on the community and the niche that the historical society fills, there may still be a “big man on campus” aspect to being in charge of such an organization.  Big fish, little pond, and so on.

Historical societies are often so heavily allied to the history of a small place in a particular era that they draw in members who have settled their for life and push away members who might not be so sure that place is the one for them (though perhaps the historical society could convince them so!). 

One of the problems that I have in talking to historical societies is that, when I go into their museums and talk to the people who are so tremendously passionate about their local history, I fall just a little bit in love with the place and walk through in my head all the considerations for what it might be like to live there.  I suspect I am not alone in this, though I may be alone in admitting it.  I don’t need to believe the branding to believe that the organization plays a vital role in a community—but the branding needs to evolve to attract people who need to be sold on that vitality.  And it needs to do that without alienating the passionate people who have kept these organizations going for many years of meetings, events, and community activism.