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State grant gives history class wheels

Workers at the former Mack plant, circa 1940.

Thanks to a state local history grant, two Lehigh professors have joined forces with the proposed America on Wheels Museum of over-the-road transportation to honor the history of Lehigh Valley trucking giant Mack Trucks.

Kimberley Carrell-Smith, professor of practice in the department of history, and John K. Smith, associate professor of history, will collaborate on an oral history component for the Public History course that is being taught at Lehigh during the spring semester. Students in the course will conduct interviews with former Mack employees, which will become part of the exhibit’s permanent archives.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the official history agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, recently awarded the $12,500 grant to the museum to conduct the oral history research project in conjunction with the Lehigh professors.

The proposed museum will include a 43,000 square foot addition to the existing historic A& B office building at Front and Hamilton streets in Allentown and is expected to open during the summer of 2006.

Supplying material to future historians

A firetruck built by Mack, circa 1910.

The America on Wheels project is the latest “hands-on” public history project conducted by Carrell-Smith in her class, History and Community Memory, which, in 2001, recorded oral histories of South Side residents (which ultimately evolved into the highly successful Touchstone Theater production, “The Southside Experience”). Last year, Carrell-Smith’s students worked on projects involving the history of teams, traditions and periods in Lehigh’s past, which also employed oral history as part of their research.

“This is ‘real world’ history,” says Carrell-Smith. “It is so rewarding to see the products of student research contributing to the community and becoming a really useful body of work that future historians can use.”

Students in the course will interview Mack’s line workers and supervisors. Smith, who has extensive experience in oral history projects for the Air Products, Merck and DuPont corporations, will conduct interviews with Mack executives.

Smith and a writing partner conducted more than 50 oral histories for the book he co-authored on research and development at DuPont, “Science and Corporate Strategy, DuPont R & D, 1902-1980,” which included a memorable interview with retired DuPont CEO Crawford Greenewalt.

“Greenewalt talked about his pivotal role in the atom bomb program during World War II,” says Smith. “His recall of the period was quite remarkable, much better than for any other topic. When we tried to tactfully mention this, he replied by saying that he had prepared for the interview by reading the secret diary he had kept throughout project. This fascinating document is now part of the collections of the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del.”

Carrell-Smith says she hopes at least one of the graduate students from the class will be able to accompany Smith on the oral history interviews with company executives to “gain a unique perspective on corporate history, from line workers to CEOs.”

Although Carrell-Smith’s course is taught every other year in rotation with other public history courses and was not initially scheduled for the Spring 2005 semester, she said she felt that the opportunity to tie it in with the America on Wheels museum was too appealing to pass up.

“There was some urgency in getting the project underway due to museum planning schedules and because of the health of some of the oral history subjects we wanted to interview,” she says. “So here we are – with the PHC grant to conduct this project and my class gearing up for both the academic history and oral history work.”

Representatives from the America on Wheels museum are equally enthusiastic about Lehigh’s involvement in the project.

“As a start-up museum, we’re very concerned with gathering solid scholarly research and accurate information,” says Mary Catherine Bluder, curator for America on Wheels. “We feel that Mack Trucks history was very important to the history of the Lehigh Valley and are very pleased that we can benefit from the expertise of the Lehigh professors, and from the work of the students. The involvement of the Lehigh professors gives us a chance to expand on our mission as an educational institution as well.”

Appreciating the personal side of history

Carrell-Smith is expected to draw upon her extensive experience with museum work for the America on Wheels project. She’s worked with the Hagley Museum and Library, the Winterthur Museum and Gardens, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History over the course of her academic career.

Smith specializes in the history of technology and business history and has served as an academic consultant for several science and business-related documentaries produced by programs such as NOVA and the History Channel, and he has also been a historical consultant on several museum exhibitions.

Beyond sharing in the expertise of their professors, the benefits to students from being involved in the oral history project are numerous, Carrell-Smith says.

“This class has been an overwhelming success with students each time I’ve taught it,” she says. “Just the idea that they get to do an original project – doing research in written primary and secondary sources, and then using that knowledge to provide information to develop a new kind of research tool in oral history – it just blows them away.”

Since it is a departure from research techniques used in other classes, the students learn to hone their interview techniques to elicit specific responses, and learn how to navigate language and other cultural barriers.

“Invariably, when we talk about the experience as a whole and evaluate the collective academic and public history products, the students say they never knew that oral history could be so hard,” she says. “Afterwards, they can really see and appreciate the personal side of history, no matter what the topic, and that’s a great moment for a history major.”

The project also carries benefits for the community, she adds.

“As older generations in a community die out, I think we’re all conscious of what we lose, collectively,” she says. “This is an opportunity to preserve at least the memories and the stories, and to create a fuller, more diverse history so that future generations can understand a least a little bit about the world their ancestors created and experienced.”

For more information on the America on Wheels museum, please contact Carroll F. Cook at 610-432-4200, or go to the America on Wheels Web site or the Web site dedicated to Mack Trucks history.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Sunday, February 27, 2005

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