Some Observations on Historic Markers

This past March 23, I attended my first historic marker dedication. Yes, it’s true, even though I’ve been working in history and museums for more than twenty years and have been a history geek as long as I remember, this was the first time I actually attended a marker unveiling.

The marker is the first in Florida dedicated to the Allman Brothers Band, the pioneering rock band from the South that formed in Jacksonville on March 23, 1969. My friend Bob Kealing, journalist, author, and Florida history guru, arranged for the marker at the site of the band’s founding fifty years to the day of the band’s first jam together in Jacksonville’s Riverside Avenue neighborhood.

Several hundred people attended the unveiling, including Jacksonville native Derek Trucks, whose uncle Butch Trucks played drums for the band from 1969 until 2014. Derek, one of the world’s top guitarists and leader of the Tededeschi Trucks Band, played guitar with the band from 1999–2014.

Watching all of this attention a small but important bit of Jacksonville’s history drew gave me the opportunity to reflect on the medium of historic markers.

Derek Trucks (second from left, standing with his sister, father, and mother) actually unveiled the marker.

The marker dedication in Jacksonville came on the heels of a vacation I took with my family.

It’s where I saw this monstrosity at the resort where we stayed:

The marker text is a little small, because I wanted to frame the photo to better show its context. It tells the story of a made-up pirate battle at the site of the Bonnet Creek resort.

The issue is that THERE’S NO Bay of Bonnet Creek…there’s no bay at all, only this retention pond which the result of fill the builders excavated in order to construct the towers. The retention pond is ringed with a sidewalk and features several other markers telling various elements of this “tale.”

It is an understatement that my historian sensibilities were tweaked. That I saw people reading these signs and even heard some discussing them as if they were real was like a punch in the gut. Not only is it passing off a false history — and a patently false one at that (no self-respecting pirate would ever find him/herself nearly 50 miles inland fighting over a retention pond!) — it complete ignores the story of the native peoples who once inhabited this land. (Yes, I have a note in to the management of the resort about this; no I do not expect them to listen to me.)

While on this trip, we had the opportunity to visit the house Jack Kerouac lived in when he was in Orlando. It was actually where Kerouac lived when his seminal novel On the Road was first published, and where he wrote its follow up, The Dharma Bums. Today it is home to the Kerouac Project, one of my favorite historic preservation adaptive use projects (check it out).

The Beatty family — my museum and public history focus group.

Before that marker went up, many Orlandoans had only heard of Kerouac’s connection to our town. We had no idea where he’d lived. (Bob Kealing actually chronicled much of the author’s life in Florida here.) Now pilgrims can easily find it.

Coincidentally as I thought about markers, several other things crossed the transom.

First, Todd Groce of the Georgia Historical Society sent me an article about a marker GHS had installed just recently, honoring a Republican leader of the Reconstruction era in Georgia named Amos Akerman.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution,

In 1870 and 1871, Akerman led the federal fight against the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South, beating back the para-military organization as it attempted to re-establish through terror the white supremacist society that had been lost in war.

The Akerman marker continued GHS’s efforts to utilize historic markers as one way to tell a more complete story about the Civil War and its meaning: four of the fifteen markers they erected during the war’s 150th anniversary focused exclusively on the African American experience in the Civil War. (See Seth Bruggeman’s book on commemoration or Todd Groce’s chapter in Controversial Monuments and Memorials.)

This was true for the Akerman marker as well. And it seems to have helped shape the historical narrative just a bit. “You cannot believe in both the Lost Cause and Amos Akerman,” the AJC concluded in its article on the unveiling.

As an unabashed fan of puns, this photo literally made me laugh out loud. It’s cheeky and, best of all, factual. And is installed as part of the Alternative Heritage marker program in the U.K. city of Hull.

It made me wonder of the possibilities of being a bit more lighthearted about our work. Would that help draw people to history as well? I certainly believe so.

The Historical Marker Database reports there are more than 115,000 historic markers in the United States. I’m guessing that number is low. And there are certainly a number of markers (and monuments) that get it wrong — and we should work on correcting that where we can. It strikes me that adding markers to underrepresented stories is one way we can more effectively and quickly balance the commemorative landscape. Certainly this is what the GHS is doing. I’m sure more are doing it as well.

Markers are the most public of public history. They are the only contact many people have with “formal” history outside of school. They are also (relatively) simple for us to put into motion. It is to our detriment that we ignore their potential for sharing the messages of the importance of history.

ps: I fibbed a bit when I said I’d never been to a marker dedication before. In 2007, I did “unveil” this marker my mother bought me when we first moved into our home in Tennessee.

“Historic” marker at my house

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on historic markers, or to engage in discussions about public history in general. You can reach me here.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, community engagement expert Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.

President of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit firm providing community-focused strategies for planning, assessment, and interpretation.