Public History

A Historian's Experience in the National Park Service

Ann Deines, January 1999

When someone discovers I work for the National Park Service, they invariably ask if I get to wear the Smokey Bear hat. While my answer—"no, I am a behind-the-scenes staff person who rarely meets with visitors"—may be disappointing, further elaboration of my job and the role of a historian at a national park often piques interest. Historians in the National Park Service perform a variety of tasks, including research, cultural resource management, education and interpretation, planning, and park management. They work in the Washington office, regional support offices, and service centers as well as at individual parks. For four years I have worked as the staff historian at Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio. While my experiences in no way serve as the definition of historians in the National Park Service, they do reflect some of this variety and the complexity of some of the management situations in which historians operate.

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park is a recent addition to the national park system. Congress authorized the park on October 16, 1992, to commemorate the legacies of three of the region's most notable residents: Wilbur and Orville Wright and Paul Laurence Dunbar. This nontraditional park contains four noncontiguous sites, each under different ownership and management. The core parcel—The Wright Cycle Company building and the Wright brothers' print shop building (Hoover Block)—is the only site under National Park Service management. The three others (Huffman Prairie Flying Field, Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial, and the Wright Flyer III) are separately owned, managed, and operated by the U.S. Air Force, Ohio Historical Society, and Carillon Historical Park, respectively. In addition to making the four sites part of a national park, the enabling legislation allows for all significant sites in the Miami Valley related to aviation heritage and Dunbar to be designated with signage.

The park's General Management Plan, approved in October 1997, outlines how this unique partnership will function. The NPS, in conjunction with the three legislated partners, will serve as the initial catalyst for park development. The NPS efforts will be focused on the core unit of the park as well as coordinating the three additional park sites. Under this plan, each partner will continue to make the management decisions for the sites they own and operate. The NPS will provide mutually agreed upon technological assistance and staffing as it becomes available. As the park's historian, this partnership has proven beneficial, as I have had access to many different organizations' archives and other resources to assist me in my work.

As a developing park, Dayton Aviation Heritage is staffed by three permanent employees (a superintendent, a historian, and a park ranger), making it one of the smallest park staffs in the Midwest Region. The park's budget is also small, ranking in the bottom third of the region. With the minimal staff, the park relies on the Midwest Regional Support Office for technical expertise, feedback, and advice in areas such as historic architecture, cultural landscapes, and archaeology.

I was hired in August 1994 to research and write the park Historic Resource Study (HRS). It is still my main task, but no longer my sole project. In this article, however, I will focus on the HRS instead of all my duties, for it provides a good insight into the variety of experiences inherent even in one project. A HRS is required for each unit of the national park system and provides a historic context of the many themes of a park. It also identifies and evaluates all significant historic resources. It is the cornerstone for the park's interpretive, cultural resource, and general management planning. The various resources at Dayton Aviation Heritage and related sites cover a wide range of time and topics, and my HRS was necessarily broad in scope. Instead of writing another history of the Wright brothers and their friend and client, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, I found myself preparing a regional history, including such topics as prehistoric Native Americans, the city of Dayton, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, flood control, and Olmsted landscapes.

Located in West Dayton, where the Wright brothers lived and worked for most of their lives, the core parcel of the park is integrally related to the surrounding neighborhood. A suburb of Dayton at the turn of the 20th century, West Dayton was frequently excluded from the city's histories, but is important in developing the historic context of the Wright brothers and Dunbar in Dayton. With little secondary source information available on the neighborhood, I have applied the same research methods I used on the park-owned buildings to develop histories of some of the buildings and biographies of residents. This includes conducting deed and tax assessment research to determine who owned each structure and when they were built. I was then able to use this information to locate further information on the individuals who lived in the neighborhood. In addition, the U.S. Census and Sanborn Insurance Maps have provided a look into the neighborhood in a given year. Through this work, a greater understanding of the neighborhood and its history has emerged, benefiting not only park visitors but residents of Dayton as well.

Though my research focused on Dayton and the Miami Valley region, the work itself took me across the country. Besides researching the archival collections in the Dayton region for information on the Wright brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar, I had the opportunity to review documents at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; and the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. In addition, I conducted oral history interviews and reviewed secondary materials. This research resulted in a 12-chapter study on the history of aviation in Dayton and various related topics.

My research for the HRS and other projects serves as the basis of historical documentation for the park staff. Since this is a new park, it did not have a library archive when I was hired. Throughout my research, I have copied documents at archives, gathered articles, and kept a detailed record of all my activities so that researchers on any future park projects will not repeat my efforts. The developing park library provides much needed background information for park staff developing interpretation programs and management planning.

An important component of my project was working with representatives from the three partnership sites. Both the Paul Laurence Dunbar House, operated by the Ohio Historical Society for the State of Ohio, and Carillon Historical Park (which contains the 1905 Wright Flyer III) are long-established museums with developed programs. The Ohio Historical Society and Carillon Historical Park both maintain historical records on the resource from which they base their interpretative programs. I worked with representatives from these sites to gather this information and discuss their knowledge of their resource, supplementing this information with the primary source material I reviewed at other repositories.

Both institutions have responded favorably to my project, because neither group's staff has the time to devote to similar research. The unique partnership that oversees Dayton Aviation Heritage allows me to collect resources from many repositories and make them available to all the parks in the region. In the case of the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial, the records are in collections of the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. For this reason, I have not worked as closely with the staff of the site as I have with those from Carillon Historical Park. As a private museum with a very small staff, Carillon Historical Park has limited material related to the Wright brothers. The majority of their records pertain to the restoration of the Wright Flyer III and the development of the park. Thus, my research and the resulting study have provided them with some new and more detailed information on their resource and the overall story.

The Huffman Prairie Flying Field on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, like the core parcel, is a newly recognized resource in the initial phases of development. While Huffman Prairie Flying Field was long identified as the site where the Wright brothers developed the first practical airplane in 1904 and 1905, the site was undeveloped property at the end of the flight line inside an Air Force Base. The site was preserved, but little else was done. When I began my research, many of the documents pertaining to the flying field were scattered throughout offices on the base and there was no one person to contact regarding the history of the site. The manager of the flying field and I have worked simultaneously to develop better documentation.

Each partnership site was provided with a draft copy of the HRS. As subject experts, the site representatives played an important role during this phase of the project. Their understanding of the resource, in a few instances, served to question the documents I used as sources in the study. The reverse occurred where the documentation I uncovered made them question some long-held assumptions. For instance, I discovered documents stating that 80 percent of the Wright Flyer III is original where Carillon Historical Park's information said no more than 60 percent of the plane was original. Both documents are considered reliable sources, and since this discovery the park has used both figures in their information about the Wright Flyer III. This review by the partners is unique to national park units like Dayton, with officially legislated partners. Since the HRS guides the interpretative planning, as well as other types of planning at the park, the consensus of the legislated partners is necessary. While I am the sole author of the project, the resulting documentation of the historic resources in the park and the historic context must meet the general approval of the partners. Since no major concerns were raised over the content of the draft, the manuscript is being revised and finalized for distribution.

When I began this project it appeared I would work individually on a narrowly focused subject matter. Over the past four years, this has proven to be far from the truth. The project, besides developing a better understanding of the history of the Wright brothers and Dunbar in Dayton, Ohio, has been diverse in nature as well as in the required skills. I have conducted a wide range of research at various archives, conducted oral history interviews, and researched not only individuals, but neighborhoods, buildings, and events.

My work on the HRS has led to many other projects at the park. Because the HRS provides information for the park planning process, I have participated in many planning meetings as a subject expert. Ideally the HRS would be completed prior to any planning, but with the centennial of powered flight only five years away, the park is working rapidly to become fully developed and operational. After completing the HRS I will continue to be an active participant in park planning. In addition, my position will evolve into a cultural resource management specialist. Besides continuing with historical research projects as needed, I will be responsible for the development and implementation of the park's resource management program.

While I could not be prepared for all aspects of this project, a graduate degree in history with a focus on historic preservation has proven beneficial in this job. In addition, my prior work experience in historical researching and writing has been just as helpful. The knowledge of methodology I brought with me helped in developing an approach to the variety of historic research needs at this new national park and enabled me to convey this to the partners. The result is a historical study that tells the story not only of a park, but also of a region and its people.

—Ann Deines, a National Park Service historian, works at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. She has an MA in American Studies, with an emphasis in historic preservation, from George Washington University.