Geneseo students help communities rediscover their past and celebrate their legacies.
By Kris Dreessen
Some of Rochester’s best-known buildings were designed by Thomas W. Boyde Jr., who made history himself as the city’s first African American architect. He helped plan Rundel Library beside the Genesee River, the ornate facades of Monroe Community Hospital, and dozens of homes that feature his signature rounded walls.
Jenna Huizinga ’23 was able to help archive a comprehensive collection of his work for some of the 700 buildings and homes he designed that helped shape mid-century Rochester, through an internship last spring.
She is among 21 Geneseo students who have worked with historians and museums to gain professional skills while preserving history of villages and towns in the area, through a $173,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
“They are handling rare books and documents and artifacts that are bits of ordinary people’s lives that tell the story of the past,” says Geneseo Distinguished Professor of History Michael Oberg. “That can be a magical experience for students. In turn, when they expose members of the community to the history, it’s a powerful thing.”
Oberg established the Geneseo Local and Municipal History Center in 2019 to create such immersive experiences for students, earning more than $600,000 in grants to fund student internships.
The NEH grant pays for a total of 21 Geneseo students and the center’s director, Joel Helfrich, through the end of this year. A public historian, Helfrich coordinates with historical organizations, historians and other project partners, advises student interns, and mentors students in the accelerated bachelor’s/master’s program in history with Claremont Graduate School. The grant pays for a director for one year.
Six Geneseo students are conducting field internships in fall 2022.
“A good number of local historians have embraced our student interns,” says Helfrich. “Some historians, like Anita Mance in East Rochester, were, with student help, able to complete multiple projects that might have otherwise taken months — or longer. Anita was so far ahead after working this summer with a Geneseo student intern that she was unable to take on another intern this fall. Oftentimes both the student intern and internship site benefit from the experience.”
Students have worked with State Historic Preservation Office representatives to list properties on the National Register of Historic Places; planned and installed exhibitions; provided social media outreach; written applications for grant funding for the host site; and organized, inventoried, cataloged and — in some cases — digitized collections.
“Along the way, students have learned skills necessary to help them in the field of public history,” says Helfrich. “Meanwhile, the local historians and communities have benefited from the extra hands, hours and skills that students provide.”
There is more to come. The Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History also earned $300,000 from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. The Geneseo Center is leading a partnership with six other New York state colleges to offer 50 undergraduate students internships in 2023 and 2024, to re-examine the American Revolution and its legacy, as the 250th anniversary of American independence approaches. Geneseo and several institutions of the program committed a total of $150,000 in matching funds for the project.
“When we teach people about their own history, their own place, we teach them, at least in part, that their stories matter. It may not be enough for us any longer merely to remember the past,” Oberg has said about the center’s mission and project. “We can and should do more. We can connect people who feel disconnected when we present them with the evidence that they have a role in their community’s story, and that they are themselves forces in history. That is what the Geneseo Center is all about.”
The Legacy of a History-Making Man
Jenna Huizinga ’23 hadn’t heard of Thomas W. Boyde Jr. before she started her internship, but she finished with a keen appreciation of the architect and a new interest in documenting local history.
Huizinga worked with the Town of Brighton and the Greece Historical Society and Museum team that is conducting a Cultural Resource Survey of Boyde. The work will help get Boyde’s architecture included in the National Register of Historic Places, says Gina M. DiBella, architectural preservation consultant for the Greece Historical Society. Huizinga helped archive preliminary and final drawings for buildings and other material recently loaned by Boyde family members.
“There were huge rolls of plans,” says Huizinga, an economics major with history and philosophy minors. “He has a huge body of work that still hasn’t really been recognized.”
Huizinga also transcribed interviews created for a 1990s documentary about Boyde, who was, among other things,t the first African American graduate from the School of Architecture at Syracuse University.
Boyde’s vision helped shape Rochester’s mid-century downtown and suburbs. He designed buildings and homes from the 1940s to the 1970s, including buildings for economically disadvantaged communities. His work stands out because he did so even before desegregation and national fair housing rights were enacted.
“We are really celebrating his life,” says Huizinga, “and being part of such a big project is exciting. I can see all that goes into it. It feels good to help commemorate and preserve the work of a historical figure in Rochester.”
Huizinga enjoyed the Boyde project so much that she’s undertaking a second fellowship at the 1830s Tinker Homestead and Farm Museum in Henrietta, N.Y. She is archiving new and existing items from the former family farm and cataloging recently obtained books, plaques, letter openers and other items of Lucien Morin, a World War II veteran, businessman and Monroe County politician. The museum collection helps depict everyday life for more than a century.
“I love learning, being part of the process by contributing to knowledge and sharing that knowledge with others,” says Huizinga. “It’s important to recognize where we come from — and people we may not hear about are part of this story. We need to keep history alive.”
World History Made Personal
College is a time to explore interests and find out what you do or don’t want to do in the future. George Macko ’23, a history and anthropology double major, had field placements building a digital inventory and an archive of local artifacts that created a career “do.”
“Seeing items and their stories on display is the difference between reading a textbook and viewing someone’s scrapbook. You can connect with them more,” says Macko. “It really affirmed that working with museums is what I want to do.”
Macko spent the 2021-2022 academic year at the Big Springs Museum in Caledonia, N.Y.
“It’s a small museum with massive collections,” he says. “It’s very impressive, but they don’t have digital records of their collections, whether they’re on display or in storage. I went room by room, inputting artifacts into the digital archiving software.”
Macko and volunteers tweaked the cataloging process, making it more efficient and deciding what information was needed to describe the stone tools, wampum, Civil War artillery shells and other items in the collection.
Now on his third internship, Macko spent fall 2022 poring over 18 boxes of documents, yearbooks, photos, course catalogs and other materials salvaged from Rochester Business Institute, which began as a respected business school in the 1800s and was closed in 2015 for being, essentially, a diploma mill. The boxes rescued from the school’s rapid closure were unopened and disorganized.
Macko has completed an inventory and is now organizing the contents so they can tell a story.
“It’s interesting to understand the extensive process behind the scenes,” says Macko. “There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes.”
His field work has taught Macko the impact on people of individual events, like war and business closures.
“These photographs and artifacts are from people who lived through those events,” he says.
Honoring an Important Event in a Small Town
On a snowy night in 1900, Porter Smith and his wife, Amy Mason Smith, and their kids stopped their buggy at a railroad crossing. They were nearly home. Their son, Granger, was driving and didn’t hear a whistle and drove forward. The family was hit by a train; only the father and one son survived.
Porter Smith sued the Lehigh Valley Railroad Black Diamond Express train for negligence — and won. The Supreme Court of New York ruled that it’s likely the conductor never blew his whistle.
“It was very unusual that Smith won,” says Farmington Historian Donna Herendeen. “It came down to the man’s tenacity. He was a powerhouse and didn’t give up. The railroad paid dearly for each life lost and for the injuries of the survivors.”
The accident is historically important, says Herendeen, because it was rare for a resident to take on the train industry and win, and many farming families, including the Smiths, have ancestors in the town.
Jake Domagal ’22, a history major who graduates this winter, used his field experience with Herendeen last spring to archive the town’s collections and help the town honor the Smith family.
Domagal met with authors of a book about the accident as part of his research — and successfully applied to earn a grant from the Pomeroy Foundation to install a permanent historical marker at the site, on County Road 8 by the Farmington Town Hall.
Herendeen wanted to provide Domagal with resume-enhancing skills; Domagal discovered a more personal interest in history. He’s now researching the Battle of Oriskany for class.
“The battle took place two miles from my hometown and affected the outcome of the Revolutionary War,” says Domagal. “There’s a lot of historical information most people don’t know about Rome, N.Y.”
Domagal is looking forward to sharing what he discovers, so more people are aware of what happened in their town.
History made what communities are now.
Herendeen says that’s especially so in Farmington. As the fastest-growing town in New York State, says Herendeen, it’s important that residents take note of their past.
“Your history is what gives you community,” she says. “We are living history right now.”