Over the last year, as my grandmother, Evelyn Brunk Maust, neared the end of her life and then passed away, I started looking at family pictures. At Christmas, I looked through scrapbooks as she slept in her chair. In May, as we prepared to bury her, we looked through many more. And last week, as most of the family gathered at a beach house for a vacation, we looked at a couple hundred slides.David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig included looking at family photos as one way of engaging with the past in their landmark study The Presence of the Past, and now I understand why. I was able to see past editions of these people I love, versions I will never meet. I was able to catch glimpses of their world: to see how my grandparents’ house evolved and how the neighboring campus of Eastern Mennonite University has changed and remained constant.
There were flashes of the present too. Nearly every photo of my dad and my uncle was accompanied by an outburst of “He looks like [my cousin/me/my cousin’s children]!” The boys in the slides, now in their seventh decade of life, retained fresh memories too: of people, places, and sartorial choices.
Because of my interest in public history, I paid special attention to the photos of relatives at historic sites. In the scrapbook, for instance, I found a photo of my grandmother’s family visiting Mount Vernon. In the slideshow, there were many more history sites.
When my father was a boy, his family spent many of their summers in Pigeon, Michigan, with his father Earl’s extended family. Several summers, however, they embarked on massive road trips. On these odysseys, the Mausts made stops at various national parks and tourist attractions.Historic ships have their own special appeal, and the Maust family visited at least two of them. They visited Plymouth Rock too. The rock, inscribed with the year “1620,” was identified as the landing place of the first Pilgrim immigrants by a ninety-five year-old man in 1741 and moved multiple times over the last centuries.1 The western trips included stops at the St. Louis Arch, giant redwoods, at least one spot that had a person in American Indian ceremonial costume, and Mount Rushmore. Perhaps more surprisingly, on a trip through Georgia, the Mausts visited Stone Mountain. Their visit was probably soon after the site—which features carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson—opened to the public as a state park on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. What were the lessons at all of these sites in the 1960s? Despite Denise Meringolo’s uncovering of radical precedents of public history, the historic sites and monuments of the mid-twentieth century were overwhelmingly nationalistic and concerned with privileged Americans. Many of these sites, both private and public, explicitly aimed to teach visitors how to be American; that is, how to assimilate to a specific strand of American culture. House museums and period rooms, for instance, were used to display idealized American homes and teach the values which informed the décor choices.
The sites visited by my family probably saw themselves fulfilling the same purpose to varying degrees. The messages at historic ships and Plymouth Rock likely centered around eighteenth century European immigration. Across the American west, history sites largely told the story of Manifest Destiny. Did the Mausts hear anything about the “Six Grandfathers” on the South Dakotan mountain which were replaced by four white presidents? Surely the word “genocide” did not appear on any plaques or on any tour guide’s tongue.Evelyn and Earl Maust were mainstream Mennonites for their time. Earl achieved several degrees in music and education and Evelyn was a nurse. Earl served in Puerto Rico in Civilian Public Service. Together they had traveled through Europe. So what did they take away from any of these places? Did they feel patriotic fervor at Mount Rushmore? Or alienation? Did they feel American? Did they settle for awe at the size and and skill evident in the carving?
Perhaps more intriguingly, what did they take away from Stone Mountain? To what extent had the nurse from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the choral director from Pigeon, Michigan, internalized the Lost Cause narrative? Did they know that Stone Mountain was the site of the re-founding of the KKK in 1915? Earl participated in a march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Nashville just a few years before. How do we square these events in one family’s life? What was the Mausts’ racial consciousness in the mid 1960s? Were Earl and Evelyn just attracted by the novelty of the new state park?These are questions I suspect I’ll never have answers to. My grandmother left behind some diaries and correspondence which might shed light on her tourist experience, but knowing her, any observations would likely be enigmatic and brief. My grandfather, who passed away fifty years ago this fall, left these slides and little else, I think.
Why do I pose these questions? By the late 1960s, over a million and a half Americans visited Mount Rushmore each year. I suspect that the Mausts were not the only Mennonites among that number. Considering how Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups engaged with American public history sites at the high tide of their nationalist focus could provide an important data point in the story of twentieth century Anabaptist life and these communities’ relationship with the state. Perhaps more importantly, considering Anabaptist reactions to sites such as Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain which directly or indirectly commemorate white supremacy and genocide might provide important context for those working to dismantle racial injustice in the present. For those of my parents’ generation, understanding their parents’ engagement or disassociation with mainstream American culture through this lens might be enlightening as they consider their own identity as American Anabaptists.
What messages conveyed by these sites were comfortable to mid-century Anabaptists? Which ones were uncomfortable? Even glimpses into the answers to these questions might be illuminating as contemporary Anabaptists confront an uncomfortable present.
Special thanks to Robert Maust for digitizing these slides on short notice.