“Do you like being a historian?” asked a five-year old at the local elementary school. “It’s the best job ever!” I replied with a smile.
After being asked to speak to the Kindergarten class at a local elementary school about my profession, I became nervous. How does one explain the job of an historian in language that a young child could understand? I couldn’t tell them about Charles Tillotson being wounded in the head during his first battle, Antietam, or how Charles lingered three days before succumbing to the inevitable conclusion of his life. I didn’t want to frighten the children by telling them how sharpshooter Nathan Cook and his brother, William, died within weeks of each other, killed by disease. When I told them I researched soldiers, would they ask difficult questions that I wouldn’t want to answer for fear of overwhelming them?
“Hello, boys and girls. I’m here to tell you about my job. I am an historian. Can you say historian? When you say historian, do you hear another word in there? HISTORY-an.” I told them my job was to research people and places and tell their stories so the history would be kept alive forever, and that I especially loved researching the history where we lived.
We talked about James Chamberlin, who was a trooper with the 3rd New York Cavalry. Did they know the cavalry was composed of the soldiers who got to ride horses? The Chamberlin Rubber Co. was started after the war by James Chamberlin, who saw many soldiers become sick after being in the wet and cold. What would the Chamberlin Rubber Co. have made to keep the soldiers dry? Raincoats!
Kingsley Brownell was a trooper with the 21st New York Cavalry. He rode a horse, too. Kingsley was so strong he could lift a bucket full of water over his head. They were quite impressed with Kingsley’s accomplishment.
“Who goes to Ben & Jerry’s for ice cream? If you look down the street when you are at Ben & Jerry’s, you can see the Wiltsie Building.” After showing them a postcard of the Wiltsie Building, I produced a photo of George B. Wiltsie and his comrades.
John Buckley Bacon was called Buckley by his family. He came here after the Civil War and started a family. His son, Howard, was a soldier in two wars – World War I and World War II! “Someday I’m going to be a soldier, and I’ll be in World War I,” said a determined little boy. Another boy, not to be outdone, stated “My Grandpa was in the Civil War!”
“Who puts gasoline in their cars?” The children were very excited to see the Vacuum Oil Co. truck, and I told them about Matthew Ewing the inventor and how years later his Vacuum Oil Company became Exxon Mobil. “My mom works at Shell Oil,” volunteered one little person. “Hey, that truck is a bank! I have a bank,” another child piped up. Then I showed them my 1911 Rochester G.A.R. Encampment souvenir medal, and we talked about it being 100 years old. “My mom was born in 1972 and she’s still alive.” I couldn’t help but snicker at that, as did the teacher.
At the end, I held up a painting of the Erie Canal done by my friend, talented artist Rusty Likly. The kids immediately recognized the landscape, and a discussion ensued about the other buildings they knew along the canal. The questions came fast and furious. “Do you use your computer a lot to learn about history?” “Do you work with someone else?”
Not once did a child ask if anyone got killed, or ask any other difficult questions. They were simply excited to hear about our local history and hometown heroes. My favorite question, however, was asked by a young boy who had been relatively quiet during the entire session. “Do you like being a historian?” “It’s the best job ever!” I replied with a smile.