As I began my second term of service in September 2015, I had an ambitious goal of more youth involvement with the Harrison County WV Historical Society. We made significant strides on that front last year with our partnership with WVU’s Community Service and Learning program and using our artifacts to engage school children. However this year, a unique opportunity arose to use the Stealey-Goff-Vance House to create a new experience in engaging younger people in local history.
Typically when the HCWVHS has school-age visitors, we do a short presentation on the history of the Vance House, and then the students participate in our “Identify the Artifact” activity. Rarely is there time to do the all-inclusive tour, and the younger students are generally more interested in the “old stuff” rather than the house itself. Even rarer is the school tour after the end of the school year. So much to my surprise, I was contacted by Greg Phillips, Upward Bound instructor and history teacher at Robert C. Byrd High School, for two separate Vance House tours in June. Upward Bound is a federally funded educational program for high school students from low-income families or from families where neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. Over the summer, the students take courses to prepare them for college and advanced classes in high school. Mr. Phillips’s group was from the Upward Bound program at Salem International University, and he specifically asked for a tour focused on Vance House’s architecture. By using the architecture, Mr. Phillips wanted his students to learn how the Vance House visually represents the economic and social aspects of 19th century Clarksburg.
In the spirit of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, both groups of Upward Bound students had access to all areas of the Vance House. These tours were a little less lecture and a lot more discussion. The students had free reign of the building after I conducted a short introduction to the house’s three main owners and the architectural features. Whatever nook and cranny they wanted to explore, we checked it out and no questions were off limits. The students even amazed me when they uncovered features of the interior I’ve never noticed before such as one set of the attic’s window is larger than the other. Also, many commented that the iron bars on windows made the Vance House appear unwelcoming. These types of comments are helpful to HCWVHS because we are debating removing the iron bars when the windows are rehabilitated in the future. We now have some input from the younger generation to help guide our decision. By the end of both visits, Mr. Phillips’ students were in awe of our house and collection and expressed an interest in coming back to see us again. Mr. Phillips, too, said he was eager to collaborate on some projects with us once the next school year begins.
So based upon my two years of experience engaging young people in local history, you need to let them explore it on their own terms. Give them a chance to find something in your collection or historic house to get enthusiastic about whether it be a Civil War sword, original fireplaces, and yes, even a creepy mannequin that looks like it’s staring at you from the top of the stairs. These positive experiences in your historic house could potentially turn into future participation of youth with your organization.