CHAMBERSBURG – “Nobody ever covers this,” says Ann Hull, director of the Franklin County Historical Society. “They want to cover the Civil War and the burning of Chambersburg.”
“It’s wonderful to do that,” says local historian Carlton Bigler, “but how many times do you want to keep doing that?”
The two historians are sitting at a folding table in the Old Jail’s Minehart Lecture Hall flipping through the Franklin County Historical Society’s newest publication “The Way We Were,” which explores the region’s not-so-distant past spanning the 1940s through the 1980s.
The pair will be holding a signing for the book in this room on Saturday, July 20, from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. (The same day as the reenactment of the burning of Chambersburg).
Copies of the book will be available for $22 plus tax, and the proceeds benefit the Franklin County Historical Society.
There won’t be a formal lecture or talk, but Hull and Bigler look forward to discussing the pictures in the book with visitors. The event also coincides with a World War II exhibit that is on display in the same room.
As historians in Franklin County, Hull and Bigler are quick to assert that Chambersburg’s Civil War history is, of course, very important – after all, there is a permanent exhibit dedicated to it at the historical society – but their new book is a reminder that a lot has happened in the meantime.
“There have been so many books showing the burning,” says Carlton. “There’s so much of that, and we just felt that the age group that’s coming along right now would be more interested in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s because they can relate to them. Not 1864.”
The 165 page paperback book is filled with a painstakingly-curated selection of black-and-white photographs divided by decade. Each decade begins with an introductory essay that provides a national and local historical perspective for the images that follow.
“The Way We Were” deals with history that is close enough to us in time that readers are sure to recognize many of the buildings, names and faces that appear in it.
They might even recognize themselves in it as Hull discovered when she showed the book to someone who turned out to be in the book.
The book includes many of the familiar trends of the 1950s and 60s, but where the book really shines is in the daily slice-of-life photographs.
These photographs contain memories that should never be completely forgotten – although they may have gotten a bit fuzzy over the years.
Bigler cites the radio station WCHA as one example:
“People that grew up and graduated somewhere in the 60s remember WCHA but have forgotten the control room and how it looked up there in the Professional Arts Building, which is still up there as WIKZ 95. But this is how WCHA looked – with ‘Miss Dedication’ in 1959.”
Adding: “That’s what makes the book interesting. It’s things that your parents talked about or that you remember individually from that period and have forgotten, as we all do, how it used to look.”
Other pictures present aerial views of the town with labels and captions explaining how the landscape has changed over the years.
“We’ll look at anything that’s available,” says Bigler. “Anything from parades, buildings that have been removed or rebuilt, layouts of the area, the development of new shopping centers that we’re now losing.”
“But it’s not just landscapes,” says Hull. “It’s pictures of people. People love to look at pictures of other people.”
Some of the more random pictures depict sunbathers on an unusually warm April day on the outdoor deck at the YMCA (which was later turned into a pool and enclosed); the Haunted House Club (an all-membership club that lasted from 1966 through 1971); and John Ritter performing at the Totem Pole Playhouse.
Curiously, one picture remains a mystery to Hull and Bigler. It depicts a large number of teenagers at a social event. At first they thought it was a high school prom, but then they realized that it was at the YMCA. While they have managed to identify some of the people in the photograph, the origin of the event still eludes them.
It’s strange to think that a single photograph could be all that remains of an event that involved so many people, when today, Instagram would be clogged with thousands of pictures from hundreds of phones during a single prom night.
But without physical copies, as soon as the app refreshes, those images – and the memories attached to them – are gone.
“The Way We Were” isn’t just a nostalgia trip, although there’s plenty of that. It is also an act of historical preservation.
Many of the photos were donated to the historical society and scanned to preserve them for future generations (the owners retained the original copies).
And now they have been collected into a book so that we don’t forget the way we were.
[Main picture caption: Local historians Carlton Bigler and Ann Hull pose with their book “The Way We Were” on July 18 to promote a book signing on July 20.]