This study examines the activities of the members of the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society. Organized in 1920 in Evansville, Indiana, the society eventually drew over 500 members from all walks of life and from across the nation to study the life of Abraham Lincoln and his neighbors on the Indiana frontier. For nearly two decades, they conducted research, interviewed elderly residents, indexed old newspapers, taught high school students how to research in the court house, wrote papers and newspaper articles, built monuments and a reconstructed pioneer village, memorialized the grave of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and produced historical pageants. Extensive records of their proceedings, minutes, and correspondence are preserved in the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana, the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, and in numerous local history societies and museums throughout southern Indiana.
The greatest obstacle to understanding popular interest in history is the tendency to reduce its variety and vibrancy into simple dichotomies of approved and unapproved practice. In the early twentieth century, the categories were most commonly "professional and amateur," but also "history and myth," "realism and romance," or "reason and faith." Today they appear as "academic and popular," "official and vernacular," "producer and consumer," "knowing teacher and illiterate student," "history and memory," or "history and heritage." This study challenges a dichotomous view of historical practice by approaching the activities of the Southwestern as an ethnographer observing lived experience.
Peering over the shoulder of people who do and make history, we see them creating a broad social network in which to practice history. The dissertation traces the society's institutional, social, emotional, and intellectual origins; examines its interaction with other local, state, and national historians and organizations; considers the texture of historical practice relating to witnesses and photographs; and appraises society members' efforts to organize networks, define and defend authority, uncover sources, craft new interpretations, and pursue new approaches. By looking beyond modern professional categories, by accepting unorthodox methodologies, by examining why people are interested in the past, my research asks what history can offer and seeks for answers in alternative pathways to the past.