Using history to create a sense of purpose
MARK HARE • JULY 30, 2009
The historian's task is to tie the past to the present and the present to the future. History as an ongoing story, as a product of human decisions and actions, is far more interesting.
Former city historian Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck has started a business she hopes will make history come alive and open eyes, especially young eyes, to the possibilities that await.
In 2007, Naparsteck founded Herons Bend Productions for the purpose of researching, writing and publishing history, with a focus on including the voices of ordinary people and those who live and have lived in small towns, villages and rural America.
As city historian, Naparsteck wrote many books, several of which are now available through Herons Bend Procuctions.com web site. Her newest venture is the re-release of illustrator Peter Spier's 1970 children's book, The Erie Canal. Spier's book uses watercolors to depict life along the canal in the early 19th century, with bustling canal towns, low bridges, barges hauling all kinds of material and mules pulling the barges from towpaths. Each page is captioned with a line from the popular ditty, "Low Bridge, Everybody Down." ("I've got an old mule and her name is Sal ... ")
The canal is a fitting stage for telling the history of our state. Outside of New York City, Naparsteck says, 80 percent of the population lives within 20 miles of the canal, which means that as a classroom, it's accessible to a large portion of the state.
Naparsteck has donated copies of the book to Corn Hill Navigation, which will distribute them to schoolchildren who ride the Mary Jemison boat along the river and canal. She is working to get more copies into local schools, as well.
And she is developing a tax-exempt nonprofit spinoff of Herons Bend — an entity that can leverage grant money that Naparsteck can use to develop curriculum and teacher workshops.
Naparsteck is also working on an oral history project to preserve the stories and voices of African-Americans in the Rochester area, and on a young people's history of the Genesee Valley region. "I'll develop an online curriculum for teachers," she says, "so the book itself will be very readable" for children.
In conjunction with the re-release of the Spier's book, Naparsteck is working with historians and librarians in towns all along the canal, where she hopes to be able to make presentations to supplement the text. At some point, she says, she'd like to record the histories of third and fourth generation canal workers who could tell the story of the canal's present as well as its past.
"I don't want fourth-graders to think of the canal in 1825," she says. After the canal's heyday, she says, many of the towns that sprung up along its path reoriented themselves to Route 31, literally "turning their backs on the canal."
History should remind children and adults that each of us can be a part of it, that change is a function of the choices we make. "I hope they see themselves on a continuum," Naparsteck says. "What they do will have an effect. A lot of kids don't feel they have a purpose."
History, she says, can give each of us a sense of purpose