Public Historian on Vacation: 3 Part Series

I haven’t posted on promised subjects yet, but I am still researching and have half of a post drafted on the gendered history of baking. I just haven’t quite gotten that project where I want it yet, so I’m moving on to other topics for the time being.

I’ve been busy, at work & at home, including a vacation with my husband and my mother to her home state of Texas. We went to Galveston and San Antonio with mom and then split ways, with her off to Fredericksburg and us staying another day in San Antone before going to New Iberia and New Orleans, Louisiana.IMG_1811

While this was purely a fun, family vacation, I’m still a public historian even when on vacation. In each stop along the way we visited historic sites, museums, or historical areas with shops & restaurants trading on history. This three part series will share my thoughts on each of our destinations, beginning with Galveston, TX in Part 1 below. Parts 2 & 3 coming soon.

Part 1 – Galveston, TX – April 7-10

The first stop in our journey was Galveston Island, a beautiful island town along the Gulf of Mexico. A port city, the island itself has a long, interesting history, including being an entry point for immigrants much like Ellis Island, a battleground of the Civil War, a survivor of the Great Storm of 1900, and much more.

We were there to visit my mom’s paternal family including my grandparents, my great grandmother, and some aunts, uncles and cousins. My great grandmother lives right on the water on Tiki Island–it’s one of my favorite places and I could listen to her talk about her life for hours. She’s done a lot of our family’s genealogy and put together books of information, photos, documents, etc. At 95 years old, she’s lived an interesting and full life and is full of wisdom and love.

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Me, my great grandma, and my mom.

While we were primarily there to visit family we did get in a little sightseeing with two visits to The Strand, Galveston’s historic business district downtown near the port, a trip to the Rainforest Pyramid of Moody Gardens, and a special peek into American National’s archives exhibit space.

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My mom and I outside La King’s.

The Strand is full of restaurants, boutique stores, and tourist shops, all housed in Victorian-era buildings. A favorite of mine is La King’s, a candy and ice cream shop where I love to stock up on salt water taffy. The store has been on the Strand since 1976 but makes 1920s style candy and ice cream treats, and strives to create a “unique atmosphere of days gone by.”

The Strand is a quintessential historic district for tourists, with all of the charm and romance: Beautiful architecture, delicious ice cream and food, plenty of shopping. There are also nearby museums and historic tours for those more interested in the history.

This kind of commercial area trading on the charm of history raises some questions of how these places influence the public’s perception of the past. While romanticizing history, one could argue the popularity of these places also means that the public has an interest in history. But does that interest extend to more complicated or difficult histories? More on this as we continue on to our other destinations in the next two parts.

 

While in Galveston, we also visited Moody Gardens, a huge local attraction with three large pyramids, each housing a different kind of exhibition, as well as other activities including a beach, a ropes course and zipline, a paddlewheel boat, etc. The pyramids include an aquarium pyramid, a rain forest pyramid, and a discovery museum pyramid with changing exhibits. We only had time for one attraction so we chose the Rain Forest Pyramid. Not a history museum obviously, it functions as a hybrid between a botanical garden, an aviary, a zoo, and a natural science museum, describing and educating visitors on the wildlife within.

 

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The highlights of the Rain Forest Pyramid would have to be the sloth, the many colorful birds, two monkeys, and the ocelot. Many of the animals, including the birds, the sloth, and the monkeys were not separated from us by fencing or glass and the close proximity was really incredible.

We also got to visit the archives exhibits at the top of the American National building owing to the fact that both my grandparents (plus my great grandfather) used to work there. The exhibits there were very nicely done and include some really cool artifacts such as the life insurance payouts for Bonnie and Clyde. (Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.) There was also a lot of history about the city before and after the Great Storm of 1900. An added perk was the amazing view from the space which overlooks downtown Galveston. All in all, a great example of a corporation drawing on its history to create interest, drive branding, and inspire employees and guests alike.

 

One of our final stops was the beach, along which runs the 17-foot-high Seawall constructed after the Great Storm of 1900. That hurricane caused so much damage and loss of life that it led to major renovations across the island to raise buildings and of course inspired the Seawall. The first part of the Seawall (about 3 miles long) was completed in 1904 and by 1963 had been extended to 10 miles.

 

Galveston is a truly interesting and beautiful place and there is so much more to it than what we fit into this most recent visit. There is the Railroad Museum, the Bryan Museum of the American West, the restored historic Pleasure Pier, and more. I would love to learn more about the port as a gateway for immigrants and their lives once they arrived–something to look into until our next visit. 🙂

Stay tuned for Part 2 – San Antonio – The Alamo, the Riverwalk, lots of Missions, and more.

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