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Why study local history? Here’s how one York County school is doing it

Tom Melhorn, a local history teacher at Dallastown Area High School, says his students are curious about the Underground Railroad in York County. The William C. Goodridge House, pictured in this file photograph, is one of two York County sites recognized by the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom as an Underground Railroad site. An Underground Railroad Museum has been proposed for years in the Goodridge House. Also of interest: Check out these stories and photographs about the Underground Railroad in York County.


There’s a lot you can say in explaining why local history matters.

It’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s start big, with a recent observation by sociologist Os Guinness in assessing insights from early 20th century historian Christopher Dawson about history, in general: People who see the past most clearly often are ones who see the future the best.

As for local history, you can say that embedding that spark of interest in community at an early age often grows with time. Students who capture this today are more likely to become local leaders tomorrow.

Knowing the history of a community gives a common language or understanding, useful at a time of great change. It keeps a town, school district or county from coming apart when facing stress.

“This nation was founded on change,” David McCullough said in a 1995 speech. “We should embrace the possibilities in these exciting times and hold to a steady course, because we have a sense of navigation, a sense of what we’ve been through in times past and who we are.”

McCullough has also used a famous example from former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin: Planning for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.


David McCullough has also called for teachers to become scholars in their field because that will only add to their effectiveness in the classroom.

So this discussion on local history brings us to how it’s taught in area schools.

Here’s one good example:

Tom Melhorn teaches a local history class at Dallastown Area High School.

It’s a micro view of history, as he describes it, telling about real people from York County.

He invited me to talk with is class recently, and his students were full of thoughtful questions about their home county’s past.

They’re not planting cut flowers in Dallastown.


I posed questions to Tom Melhorn as part of my preparations for that presentation. His lightly edited responses follow:

Q. Dallastown has a long tradition of offering a local history course? Why is this?

Dallastown has had a long-standing dedication to offering choice in a high school student’s education, and, from my perspective, I see that as part of why we offer such an interesting course.

As well, our survey courses offer a macro view of our countries’ involvement in world affairs … this course is the one that can give the micro view … real people from your home area.


Q. What is the goal or purpose behind the course?

The way I see it, there are many.  The first and most selfish for me is to reverse the “York is so boring … there’s nothing to do” mentality.  York and the area around us is rich in opportunities… you just need to know where to find them.

The second goal is to give history a personal touch.  As said above, the macro view of history just assigns importance to national figures … but what about all of the other events that contributed to the overall movements and wars in our country’s history?


 Q. Is there a historical moment about York County that particularly captures your students’ interest?

The York City Race Riots… easily the most intense and question provoking unit of study of the year.


Q. Is there an important moment that is not a favorite of your students

Sadly, the time period of the Revolution.  When we reach that topic, the 10th graders have been saturated with talk about the Articles of Confederation and the students just don’t seem to get as into it as I would expect them to be.


 5. Is there a part of York County’s history that you think is under researched and deserves a closer look?

The one item that my students are quite interested in but would like to know some more details on is the Underground Railroad in York County.  Millersville University used to have a fantastic page on it, but that webpage can no longer be found on the internet.

Students find this topic to be fascinating, in general, no matter what the course, but little can be found on it outside of pages on William Goodridge.  If I could, I would go on a field trip of the different sites on the Underground Railroad.


Q. What role does digital play in local history education now and in the future v. more traditional routes – books, museums and exhibits.

To answer that question, I think that digital storytelling is what the young people need today… I think it is what a large amount of the population is used to now, and it is crazy how quick the transition has occurred.

Every time I visit Martin Memorial Library, I am amazed at how many of the computers are tuned into YouTube videos.  It seems like YouTube has become the new form of television for most people.

The lucky part for me is that there are some great contributors out there that have placed some wonderful and reliable U.S. history resources on the internet.  From Ted Ed to Khan Academy, there are some great new sources out there.

One thing I was even considering with my Local History students is for us to possibly team up with our TV department at Dallastown to create our own YouTube videos on Local History topics.  It would be an adventure but it would be one that would surely exhibit their knowledge on a topic!


 Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say about your course or York County history?

In regards to the Local History Course, I worry about the nature of a young person today in relation to history, and specifically history of the area.  If the telling of history doesn’t include a flashy video or something shocking, I can tell that they aren’t all in.

I cannot show the “Nine Months in York Town” video in its entirety to them without a number of them losing interest.  The students of today want their news and their history in snippets.  My students love John Green’s Crash Course U.S. History videos, and I’ve found that his quick video style is on pace with the immediate gratification needs of these young people.

With that, and relating to the second part of your question, I now see that some of the young people today see the Revolution and some other historical events as being so long ago (and therefore not very relatable).  I do what I can to relate history to their lives, but there can be a disconnect unless the senses are engaged by interesting images/sounds.

This all being said… I love checking out the YorkTownSquare blog and I, for better or worse, force my students to check it out, as well as ydr.com.  The students immediately gravitate to the videos on YDR.

Though the students of today present their own unique challenges, I actually really love the place that I am at and the style I have adopted when it comes to the style of young person today.  I try to tailor my lessons to that immediate gratification style and my students really take to it.

Also of interest:

Here is part of my response to Tom:

Also, notice that I have an Underground Railroad category on my blog. This might be some help. Thank heavens Scott Mingus is coming up with a book on the topic, and he also covers the Underground Railroad extensively on his Cannonball blog.

I would point out too that the best, most reliable source of York Riots would be links in this post, particularly Kim Strong’s pieces on YDR.com.

The American Revolution, long a source of York County pride, is seen today by Dallastown local history students as being a moment in the distant past, local history teacher Tom Melhorn observed. My response: A way back into that period might be developing. The mysteries surrounding Camp Security, a British POW camp, are compelling to York countians of all ages. A drawing, courtesy of Friends of Camp Security, of the prisoners escaping the Springettsbury Township stockade is seen here.



Check out these YorkTownSquare.com stories and photos about York County’s history.