Librarian touts historic value of common people

By CAROLYNN BRIGHT - IR Staff Writer - 03/31/04

Photo by Jon Ebelt IR Staff - The Librarian of Congress James Billington, left, addresses about 100 students during a ceremony at the Myrna Loy Center honoring those involved in the Montana Heritage Project. Also pictured are Arnie Olsen, middle, of the Montana Historical Society and Liz Claiborne, who helped start the project.

Librarian of Congress James Billington has spent more than a decade absorbing the words of presidents and appreciating the wisdom of poets.

But he says it's the stories of ordinary men and women that make the country's historic record, of which he is the custodian, complete.

"History is not just made by public figures," Billington told an audience of high school students attending the Montana Heritage Project Youth Heritage Festival at the Myrna Loy Center Tuesday. "It is the whole texture of society that makes it great and gives it hope."

The students gathered in Helena this week to present the results of several months' worth of labor under the tutelage of historians and other educators to research aspects of the history of their communities.

The products of their efforts sponsored through the Montana Heritage Project by Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg will become part of the collections of both the Montana Historical Society and the Library of Congress.

About 130 students from communities from Bigfork to Roundup participated in the program this year, tackling issues ranging from the impacts of the Milwaukee Railroad in Harlowton to "What it Means to Be a Montanan" in Ronan.

Students at Broadwater High School used quilts and quilting to investigate the broader history of their community, and created a play based on their research.

A contingent of students from White Sulphur Springs researched the Meagher County Poor Farm that operated from 1896 into the 1950s, conducting interviews with former residents and reviewing historical documents.

"As scholars of Montana's past and your community's character right now, you are linked with the people you have studied," Billington said. "In those linkages live the real secrets of community."

Musician Phillip Aaberg who was the focus of Chester students' research into how a place shapes people said Tuesday that he hopes the time the students spent acquainting themselves with their communities as part of the project translates to an investment in their hometowns.

The 2002 Grammy nominee said it took several years of living in busy San Francisco for him to acknowledge the advantages of living in Chester, and to make the decision to return to his rural roots.

"My hope is that some of (the students) will come back, realize what it is they had," Aaberg said.

Seventeen-year-old Morgan Cawdrey, a junior at Bigfork High School, said his participation in the Montana Youth Heritage Project gave him an opportunity to showcase his talents as he worked with his classmates to investigate the issue of war and peace and how it affected his community.

While Cawdrey hopes his efforts will help pave the way for a future that might take him away from his community, he said he was touched by the stories of the veterans interviewed as part of the project, and the reactions of the men and women who attended a student-organized assembly honoring the veterans.

"It was neat to see the veterans show up to the assembly," he said. "It was a good experience."

The Montana Heritage Project was established in 1995.


Article appeared in the Helena Independent Record on March 31, 2004


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