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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Todd Maxwell Pelfrey of the History Center feels historians are “stewards of the community’s collective memory.”

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette A collection of products in the Allen County Innovation gallery are among the features at the History Center.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, Director of the History Center, in the Allen County Innovation display of the History Center.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette A display of local artifacts and items that figured prominently in Fort Wayne's past in the Allen County Innovation display area of the Fort Wayne History Center.

Sunday, January 03, 2016 7:50 am

Working to keep city's rich history alive

Steve Warden | The Journal Gazette

Years.

How else do we mark the progress of time? We’re born one year and die in another. They serve as bookends to our lifetime, propping up memories in between. It’s the years that tell us when nations were founded, when presidents were elected, when wars were fought, when the Babe hit 60, when man conquered the moon.

Only the brief ceremonies of blaring horns and midnight toasts interrupt the end of one year and the start of another.

Otherwise, the years connect seamlessly, like a long line of boxcars, each appearing smaller in the distance.

So we’ve said goodbye to 2015. It is quite literally, history. And many will make note of the events from the past 365 days.

Certainly, there would be history without those who have chronicled it. Much like the tree-falling-in-the-forest question, history would still be made even if there was no one to preserve it. We can only thank those who do.

In 1919, history was so revered in New York state, the state’s legislature mandated that every "city, town or village" must have an official historian.

"There is little continuity among the work of the historians, who aren’t saddled with any particular task, and for the most part, receive no pay," according to a Sept. 12, 2012, article in The Atlantic magazine.

"Instead, they’re free to serve their town’s particular historical needs as they see fit. It’s a relatively harmless, even sweet idea. But in an age when the contents of entire libraries can be made available to anyone with an Internet connection, does having a town historian still matter?"

Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center, gives a most definite yes.

"The value of having a professional, local, historical agency in a community the size of Fort Wayne can’t be underscored enough," Pelfrey says.

"We are the silent stewards of the community’s collective memory. Every generation that has ever inhabited the area around the confluence of our three rivers and every generation that will come after us, those stories are told within our historical collection."

The 30,000-square-foot History Center downtown is open daily to the public, including the first Sunday of every month. The History Center will be closed Monday through January 17 for maintenance.

The stately sandstone building at 302 E. Berry St. was once City Hall and is the home to thousands of Fort Wayne and area artifacts, with items as varied as the Fort Wayne Daises of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1945 to 1954, the 8-foot-tall Tokheim fuel pump that was made locally and the story of the city’s namesake, Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne.

Ask any local historian, and many will tell you that Fort Wayne all but wallows in its rich heritage.

John Beatty, who holds master’s degrees in history and library science and is with the Allen County Public Library, is always eager to share his knowledge.

"Once you’ve been in town a while," he begins, "and you see these names, and the (Chief) Richardville House, or you hear about William Wells, for example, and his war of 1812, and you drive on Wells Street and you’re on Spy Run Avenue and you get the question of what is the origin of these street names; why was Spy Run called Spy Run Creek? Because William Wells had been a spy.’

"So one thing triggers further investigation into something else," Beatty says. "I think if you can make it personal like that, you can make it compelling."

It was Beatty who penned a history of his own church, Trinity Episcopal, and edited one of the two volumes of the history of Allen County and Fort Wayne.

Randy Harter is another author steeped in local history. Harter and fellow historian Craig Leonard recently published "Legendary Locals of Fort Wayne," which is a compilation of essays about Fort Wayne luminaries and historical figures.

Harter’s fascination with history began in the 1970s when he purchased an early 1900s postcard for 25 cents. That began a hobby in which he collected more than 3,000 cards that he has since donated to the Allen County Public Library.

"I’ve never considered myself an author," says Harter, who points to the industrial boom in the 1920s and ’30s as Fort Wayne’s most interesting era. "I’ve always considered myself a collator of facts, then I just write them down.

"It’s fun to be able to share everything you spend hours and hours researching, coming up with each little tidbit. It’s fun when someone else is interested in the tidbit."

And there are thousands of tidbits shared by dozens of historians, other than Harter and Beatty.

"There needs to be people … that have all the little things tucked away in their brain so that it makes it easy for non-history-related people to find the facts that they’re interested in without poring through a million pages of microfilm to find the answer," Harter says.

"I find people calling me, asking me, hey, do you happen to know about this, that or the other thing? Lucky me, a lot of times I do because I ran across it here or there, or I know where to go to get the little factoid and share it."

Already, the area is cultivating the next generation of historians, thanks to the History Center opening its doors for local and area students to visit the museum.

"My organization collects and guards the memories of everyone that has ever lived or has an appreciation for the community that would become Fort Wayne," Pelfrey says.

"Our area has a vast and rich and unique heritage, and whereas many communities might have one or a few stories that define their character, Fort Wayne has constantly reinvented itself."

stwarden@jg.net