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How-To: Get Started

Exploring Your Neighborhood!  Rosemary Shaw

One of the things that I found amazing about my students was that they knew very little about their own neighborhoods. I know with this fast changing world in which we live, people move, towns grow over night, and many of the old story-tellers have stopped telling their stories.

Well, it’s time to bring back those stories, and to let students in on the secrets, which are hiding in their own backyards! 

I began the school year this year with an assignment for the students to research their own homes, or to choose a local historic building or home that interested them. I encouraged the students to talk to their parents and neighbors to get a feel for any good stories in the neighborhood. Next, I told them that they should be looking at the tax assessment and building permits records. Tax and assessment rolls are local government documents, and are usually found at the municipal (or city or county) clerk's office where the record originated. I know my students inundated the local clerk’s office and the local museum with numerous calls, but everyone was kind and helpful.

I also told my students about a story that I had recently heard. Many years back, in the days before TV, boys and girls would save all their pennies, and when they got together 10, they would head down to the local theatre to watch the movies. Most of the children’s films back then were series and shorts about cowboys and Indians. The children loved the action and the excitement of the Wild West, because that was still recent history to them. All the boys wanted to grow up and be cowboys, and all the girls wanted to grow up and marry them.

One of the biggest stars of the 1920’s was Tom Mix. Mix was a cowboy movie star, a big one. He appeared in over 300 Westerns. Try to imagine the BackStreet Boys, N’Sync, and Spongebob Squarepants all rolled into one superhero. Tom Mix lived well and enjoyed the finer things in life; by the early 1920s this former Texas Ranger was earning the princely sum of $10,000 a week.

Tom and his horse, Tony, would travel to different towns in the summer to give children a little thrill, and to make a little extra money. One year, Tom and his horse came to the storyteller’s hometown. Everyone was excited, everyone was proud, and all the children in town were there to try and see Tom Mix. However, as a joke, or out of jealousy for a star, someone cut off Tony’s tail. Who would have the nerve to cut TOM MIX’S HORSE’S TAIL??? It was horrid! It made national news! Tom Mix threatened to sue, and vowed never to come back. 

That happened in downtown Sanford, FL at the Imperial Opera House. The Imperial opened June 15, 1910. The contractor was W.G. Hammond and it was built for T.J. Miller and son (also the local undertakers). George A. DeCottes was the first lessee. The building is constructed of rusticated concrete in the Florentine Palazzo style with a flat roof and parapet. Currently, it is falling down and being left to rot with the windows broken out and the rain getting in. 

This story represents one of the reasons why we should investigate our neighborhoods, and why you should know your history. When great stories happened in your town, and you don’t know them, it’s a shame. When beautiful old buildings are left empty and deserted, it’s a crime.

Do you know the stories of your neighborhood? One project that you might be interested in is Listening to the Walls Talk. According to the site, “The goal of this project is to teach students basic geographic and research skills. A secondary, but possibly more important goal of this project is to record the history of houses and neighborhoods around the world. According to the National Historic Trust: Historic sites have fascinating, engaging, and compelling stories to tell. Preserving these places, listening to their stories and learning from them are essential to our understanding of who we are. Many houses and neighborhoods are rich with history. Before this history is forgotten, we want to forever record it for future generations.” This project has lesson plans, standards and encourages collaboration between schools in different states, and even in different countries. For more information, go to: 



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