Facebook Groups: (Unexpected) Local History Forums

UPDATE (8/13/19)

I have completed the project that inspired this blog post! If you would like to take a look, please use the following link to access my document: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1X8wN1z3RBKyTIkURMfEJrt8KkcNrjxrpDHNjIiSviQw/edit?usp=sharing

Now, on with the promised content!

“You know you’re from [insert place] when…”: As a popular and frankly overused phrase that has made countless appearances in my social media escapades over the years, I can say with the utmost sincerity that I did not foresee the event that a Facebook group under a similar name would happen to help me fill in the figurative blanks of my hometown’s history.

As readers of this blog over the past couple of years likely know, I have created a tradition of sorts that calls for me to complete “research projects” over my lengthier breaks from school. From these undertakings have come such products as “Echoes of the Exposition,” “Chicago’s ‘Hotel World’,” and “Historic Chicago Hospitality Hopscotch,” tied to summer 2017, winter 2018, and summer 2018, respectively; furthermore, during this past winter break, I crafted the first drafts of the multitude of pieces that would become the “From a Century of Progress to Progress City and Beyond: The Comparability Between the 1933-34 World’s Fair and the Disney Parks” project, for which I began the process of editing and publishing on this blog at the start of the year and am now finishing well into the summer.

Although I could argue that my efforts for my most recent project have seeped far enough into these past few months that I could most definitely elect to have the series represent my requisite venture for the season, my obsessive self has continued to push for the creation of a separate undertaking that will prove my persistent dedication.

In turn, over the summer, I have dragged myself to search engines and databases alike in pursuit of an apt topic. Contrary to my typical inclination to identify ideas related to occurrences and trends in the hospitality industry of Chicago proper, both my desire to survey a different context and my assumption that a subject closer to home would give some ease and a bolstered sense of connection to my work compelled me to delve into the history of lodging establishments in my suburban habitat. Specifically, the existence of a bed and breakfast–one that I had first heard about through a casual reference by one of my favorite professors in her discussion of how, if given the opportunity, she would open an inn somewhere in our shared place of residence–most intrigued me.

Believe it or not, not a single a hotel, inn, motel, bed and breakfast, or anything of that sort currently operates here, a place considered a city; thus, to even hear of the past appearance of one such business tantalized me, and to finally come across more information on the matter (which, yes, was a rather easy quest) early this past July was not too far from a thrilling experience in the frame of reference of these drowsy summer days. Furthermore, from my initial research that brought me to the resources of my county’s history museum, I learned about another, albeit much older, lost hotel nearby!

From then on, I was absolutely determined to collect every piece of evidence I could find of the operations of the bed and breakfast I initially identified, and amidst the results of my highly strategic combinations of terms in search engines (my next step after databases), I located a link on Google to a Facebook post. Promptly, I disregarded the source as either some sort of mistake in my results, a coincidental match to my detailed requests, or as an untrustworthy potential wellspring of material on the inn at hand. Down the figurative line, though, my frustration that rose in conjunction with the declining number of relevant search results that I could dissect led to my ultimate decision to click on said Facebook link.

Under the page entitled “You know you’re from [insert the name of my hometown] when…,” I soon saw before my eyes one post that would promptly lead to the multitude of threads I could savor. Offering images from the collections of the aforementioned county museum, scanned copies of vintage postcards and directories from sources as scattered as family collections and eBay listings, and maps circulated starting in the 19th century that chronicled hotels to which I had already been introduced and those I had not yet been acquainted with (including a property shockingly close to where I live), the discoveries awaiting me in the public Facebook group were more than enough to satisfy. What heightened my engrossment with the source to a truly remarkable extent, though, was the extent of conversation I would inevitably locate in the comments section of each appealing post. Certainly, a few of the 10 to 90 comments in a given thread will showcase classic nitpicking on the quality of the images published and on the vices of alcoholic beverages (hey, we were a dry town until the mid-1980s), but even the most “heated” discussions of the exact location of a hotel and the validity of a rumor about how a celebrity almost stayed overnight at the town’s bed and breakfast left me amazed. How could I not, when members of the group were open to relaying their experiences with defunct establishments based in the area, providing intel only residents can offer on the reasons for the closure of local lodging options, and freely leaving links to past discourse on relevant topics for those newly interested?

So, here I was on a Wednesday afternoon in July, combing through Facebook, of all resources, for the circumstantial information that could help fortify the mere fragments I could snag from the same databases I had almost solely relied upon for Chicago-themed projects.

A chain reaction had, indeed, been initiated (much to my delight and puzzlement), shoving me from one user-created report to another and going so far as to send me to explore other suburb-focused Facebook pages, along with entire websites and a podcast dedicated to my hometown.

Naturally, the abundance of slightly-questionable information I collected from Facebook provoked my transition after the midpoint of July from an intimidating listing of hyperlinks in my labyrinthine “Plans” Google Doc to a collection categorized by each local lodging property I identified, to be accompanied by subsections for the complicated inn that precipitated this journey of mine and a separate grouping of modern and miscellaneous items. While I have felt excited about the prospects of taking a deep-dive into such a comprehensive analysis of the lodging industry in what is now a “hotel desert,” not only has the ever-abating timeline with which I could conduct the large endeavor subdued me, but the complications and serious difficulty–at least at this point in time, when I do not have much of a professional network in my area’s history field– of rounding up the level of detail that I desire to portray in my work can also be credited for my recent decision to narrow my subject matter back down from the broader view I had gained. Nevertheless, I remain excited about what I can accomplish in these last weeks of summer break.

Throughout the evolution of my proposals, particularly since my absurd Facebook epiphany, I have ensured that I can acknowledge my privilege to live in a municipality with the resources and sense of community necessary to not only boast local historical institutions and be part of small- and large-market newspaper coverage, but also to freely document and relay the people and places that have constituted our personal experiences in the town and may not otherwise attain wide remembrance.

My city, unlike many other larger towns in the suburbs, may not have its own dedicated museum–a circumstance that has prompted some groans from yours truly and the Facebook group members with which I am now acquainted–even so, I have to acknowledge my sense of entitlement from living in a region that can even have this sort of situation and be grateful for the supported institutions I have at my disposal. In fact, I would contend that the town’s Historic Commission, public library, country history museum, and private museums all can be credited as factors conducive to the casual, public distribution of knowledge that is occurring between everyday citizens in-person and online, for these institutions assist in broadening the accessibility of localized information.

My hometown’s residents are enthusiastic, to say the least, about their idiosyncratic body of knowledge. Boasting an average of at least ten new posts per day from its approximately 6,200 members (equivalent to about 10% of the population here, for context) and calling for these residents and other fiends to “Post your pictures, share your memories,” the Facebook group at hand appears to be a passion project through and through, complete with such content as videos of the Union Pacific Big Boy steam locomotive recently passing through downtown and shared personal blog posts that are said to have been subsequently utilized by the county museum. If you did not know of the imminent closure of our long-standing video store, the location of the house at which a Facebook user used to live and on which they now reminisce, the precise backstory of the people who lived in an older home now facing demolition, or the estimated year when a resident purchased an item from a now-defunct general store (based on an attached price tag), do not worry, for my neighbors will provide enlightening posts on the matters. Truly, in a manner most intriguing to me, interspersed with details of the latest events in town (I cannot overemphasize the extent of Big Boy-related content lately) that would be expected to constitute a niche, suburban Facebook group are posts in which my neighbors share videos, images, scanned documents, and stories connected to long-lost businesses, family history, and even the humble beginnings of our most notable residents; underneath each contribution, of course, will be largely constructive conversations in which members help answer the questions of original posters, debate rumors, and lend their own memories in the process of discerning truths.

Based on the similar pages Facebook always recommends to me upon my looks at the group at hand, under such cliché titles as “Growing Up in [insert town name],” [insert town name], the way it used to be,” and the classic “YOU KNOW YOU ARE FROM [insert town name] WHEN…” (yes, in all caps), I can conclude that the offerings I have found with respect to my own place of residence are not unique in the region of pretentious suburbia. Nevertheless, or perhaps even more so as a consequence, I have become absolutely fascinated with the concept of Facebook being a key source of local history.

I mean, following the development of forms of documentation that include oral tradition, writing, and clippings of newspapers and family photographs that we stow away, is it safe to say that we can now point to posts on social media as both a source and depository of local history? What a time to be alive.

In all seriousness, and as I argue with a bit more support in my summer research project that instigated this very blog post, a large component of why I am interested in and frankly impressed by my introduction to the influx of history-based discussions on Facebook is the implication of further community engagement. To be sure, bits of local history may not often represent earth-shattering information, but they can provide value to the community and a sense of place worth attention, if not through grand institutions, then by local residents and the stable resources they have the right to possess and with which they can document and share their knowledge over generations. By simply sharing and digesting facets of the places where we live, I believe, one of the many arguments for the broader study of national and world history can translate to a localized context with advantageous consequences: With the help of our knowledge, we can keenly look at our surroundings as ever-evolving reflections of our collective past and present that we should feel empowered enough to influence over generations, in accordance with the prosperous futures we envision.

Therefore, if specialized Facebook groups must be the instigator of such a cycle of productive nostalgia that will benefit the character of and investments in our smaller towns, then so be it, I suppose!

Perhaps one of the astute members of my town’s premiere public Facebook group, whose personal blog post comprised of treasured memories was captured by the county history museum, put the situation best for us students, history enthusiasts, and community members alike: “Google doesn’t remember much.”

So long as such a powerful search engine cannot grant us the engaging details, sentiments, and personal narratives that we seek out in our localized endeavors, I suppose we will do so for each other.

Does your place of residence have any community-run, history-focused groups on social media, and if so, are you a contributor to them? Are the suburbs in which I am based alone in their ventures? Please let me know.


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