Interview with Dr. John Anfinson–National Park Service

On February 8, 2011 I conducted a phone interview with Dr. John C. Anfinson, a former historian and cultural specialist at the National Park Service. Anfinson has been a main fixture at the NPS since 2000 and in December of 2010 he was promoted to Chief of Resource Management for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA). Anfinson’s journey to his current position with the NPS was as Anfinson calls it “through the back door.”

As a way to put himself through graduate school Anfinson interned with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to aid with historic preservation and cultural resource review. Eventually he graduated with his PhD in American History from the University of Minnesota. Upon graduation he was offered a teaching position at South Dakota State University but instead of continuing on the academia route he instinctively chose to stay at the Corps, which had offered him a permanent position. From 1980-2000 Anfinson continued his job at the Corps as a historian with additional duties in cultural management. He explained that he made the position his own by going above and beyond the basic job requirements. His advice to those interested in going into the public history field is to do the same. He advocated pursuing and researching personal topics of interest while integrating it to benefit the organization you work for. This is of course in addition to effectively completing job tasks. He cited this strategy as the way he gradually moved up in both the Corps of Engineers and National Park Service.

During his ten year tenure at the NPS Anfinson’s interests have expanded to environmental and public history. His primary interest is the Mississippi River and has published two books, The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi and River of History: A Historic Resources Study of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in addition to several articles. While Anfinson has responsibilities that come with his title at the NPS, he also has the autonomy to choose his own projects. This in turn enables him to go and speak at professional conferences in a variety of academic fields, all the while representing the NPS.

With a depressed job market Dr. Anfinson suggested those interested in entering the NPS as a historian have at least a Masters degree. Competition for historian positions in the NPS are fierce for those holding Masters and PhDs. Anfinson explained there are several characteristics and qualities that are preferred when looking at job candidates, however three are of the upmost importance. One of these attributes is a competitive edge. The NPS might look for someone possessing an athletic background or participation in some other form of contest that requires tenacity. A second he mentioned was experience, either through a job, internship or volunteerism. Superior grades alone don’t make the cut anymore. Lastly, Anfinson discussed if he were to hire a National Park historian he would specifically look for those candidates who are verse in people skills. The ability to communicate in the workplace with colleagues and in the field with the general public is imperative.

Dr. Anfinson ended the interview with voicing the immense gratification that comes with his work. Last year the National Park Service helped put seven thousand school kids, a majority from the inner city from the Twin Cities, in canoes on the Mississippi River. The program provided education to the children about the history of the river, water quality, and most importantly instilled in them the belief that they are a part of nature, not separate from it.

It seems working for the National Park Service provides the opportunity to straddle two distinct worlds. On one hand it presents the opportunity to continue to research and publish, and on the other it makes available the ability to interact and educate the public in a variety of ways, including on canoes.

That’s so homestead…

It is my pleasure to introduce you to the Moon-Randolph Homestead. The property itself is located a mere 2 miles from downtown Missoula, Montana and stretches 170 acres. The history behind the property dates back to 1889 when the Moon family originally homesteaded the land. Over the last hundred plus years the land passed to various family members and has been home to cattle, chickens, hogs, cherry and apple trees, and various vegetables. The City of Missoula purchased the Moon-Randolph property in 1996 to preserve the open space for plants, animals and people alike.

In 1998 the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC) embarked on a mission to save the northwest corner of the homestead, the location that encompassed the buildings that had been built or maintained by the Moon and Randolph families. The campaign to preserve the homestead was successful and in 2000 the NMCDC and the City of Missoula Parks and Recreation have managed the property through a cooperative agreement.

Today visitors, senior citizens to elementary children on field trips are able to experience the Moon-Randolph Homestead and find out what it was like to live the pioneer life. This is not thanks to an employee who has a 9am-5pm shift. It is thanks to the Smetankas family; who live on and care for the homestead. A Sunset Magazine article explains, “In exchange for living rent-free in a converted chicken coop, the Smetankas care for the land and livestock; maintain the buildings, including the original 1889 Moon cabin; coordinate a Maypole party and harvest festival; and greet visitors every summer Saturday.” This is all in addition to their day jobs. Andy Smetankas is a free-lance writer and teaches in Missoula and Joanna Smetankas co-owns a children’s clothing store also in town. Speaking of children, did I mention they have two boys Asa and Axel?

Per the Smetankas’s agreement with the NMCDC while living on the homestead they are to “value the homestead as a cultural landscape where active stewardship co-exists with layers of human and natural history.” However, they go above and beyond this and share with everyone who has access to the Internet as they blog (Moon-Randolph Homestead Blog) and create YouTube videos of their experiences while living on the homestead. While they have electricity and a computer, the modern amenities stop about there. The whole family shares a “family bedroom” and there is no modern plumbing.

Sun Before Arises–Moon-Randolph Homestead YouTube Video

The Moon-Randolph Homestead has even inspired a new take on language for the Smetankas. Joanna explains on her blog “We’ve been using the word ‘homestead’ as an adjective for a long time. Whenever we do something really hard-core or over-the-top pioneerish, we say something like ‘Damn, baby, that’s so homestead of you.” Their Top 10 hard-core moments include Andy smoking out a skunk near the chicken coop/house and Joanna squatting to pee into a chamber pot at nine months pregnant—“like, thirty times a day.”

While the Smetankas family live life rustically, they don’t do it alone. Come spring they enlist countless numbers of more than willing volunteers to help them plant gardens, take care of livestock, and maintain buildings. All the while these volunteers and visitors who come on summer Saturdays get to interact with the history, culture, and environment of the Montana landscape. The public is an essential piece to the sustainability of the Moon-Randolph Homestead. Not only do they visit and volunteer, private donations from the public are the homestead’s lifeblood.

The Moon-Randolph Homestead serves as an example of what can be done in the Inter-Mountain West in persevering the quickly depleting pre-Great Depression agricultural landscape. The way in which people once lived is becoming something one reads in a textbook rather than something you experience first hand. The Moon-Randolph Homestead is an excellent model of what could be done in Boise with the Pearl Jensen Farm Property off of Lake Hazel Road. Not only could it serve as a symbol of the pioneering spirit of Boise’s past, but by embracing current technology like blogging, social media, and mobile applications it can cement its place in the future. Who knows, you could even start uttering, “Damn, baby, that’s so homestead of you.”


Moon-Randolph Homestead Blog

Mobile Apps: Enriching? Yes. Limitations? Maybe.

I was amazed this week by the vast and seemingly unlimited opportunities social media can offer in respect to digital history projects. Many of the mobile applications explained in “7 Ways Mobile Apps are Enriching Historical Tourism” were ingenious in their ability to have dually tapped into the ever growing tech-savvy population and possess intriguing topics/content. As I was reading and exploring I could not help but ponder where they might be limited. I realized one limitation (in my opinion) when watching the video add for the Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill. As the heavy-eye-liner actress decides to go on the walking tour she is connected to her iPod the entire time. You don’t see her at any point in time communicate with another human being. Similarly, many of the app reviews (for all 7 apps) cite that it behooves the traveler to use the $2.99 app rather than bother with a guide or large groups. Reviews also cite you can set your own pace, take unlimited potty-breaks, and stop for shopping or lunch whenever it so pleases you. But my question is who are you meeting on this tour when you are by yourself, or perhaps, at best, with friends/family you already know? Some of the most enriching moments of historical exploration or travel are when you can share experiences with a total stranger. (This is probably why I found “Ourkive” amazing.)

Ironically, the Murder on Beacon Hill review reveals the app “can encourage you to see things and meet people you wouldn’t normally see or meet.” I would be interested to know how they went about this because

  1. Heavy-eye-liner actress doesn’t seem to meet anyone. And
  2. As my group and I develop our own mobile history project this will be an issue to address.

My point is while mobile applications are without a doubt the new wave of public history, I think these apps need to make a conscious effort to incorporate a human element. In a society that is all about facebook posts, text messages and crunk badges, actually speaking, face to face to an actual human is important.

“It is a matter of learning how to see.”

The chapter that inspired and provoked the most thought for me this week was chapter 12 “Normative Dimensions of Landscape.” The discussion on Thoroughbred Park was of particular interest, as my thesis project has a great deal…actually everything to do with parks. From previous research and required historiographical papers I am well aware of urban parks utilized as dividers between commercial and residential areas, along racial neighborhoods, or gang territories. Schien describes this in relation to Thoroughbred Park in writing “The site is…a place that joins and separates several functional areas of the city” (214). What was in a sense revolutionary to me was when Schien went on further to describe that the “Thoroughbred Park hillside displaying the grazing horses was literally built for the park to effectively hide the East End [coded as the ghetto] from view for anyone approaching the central city” (214). I would like to think I have always been aware of public space having the potential to manipulate meaning or disguise/camouflage unwanted areas. But I have never before thought about my role in the larger scheme of things. This led to a slight panic attack where I sat frozen for approximately 5 minutes as my mind went a million miles an hour in every direction possible. All at once I came to the realization I have a responsibility to make sure the history and landscape interpretation I come up for my project encapsulates all dimensions—social, agricultural, political, etc. Fear crept in that Richard H. Schein would find the park proposal I will eventually write and point out all its discrepancies. I laughed at myself after I calmed down from my panic attack because that ridiculous quote from Spiderman popped into my head “Where there is great power comes great responsibility.” But if I’m being honest, public historians do wield some power in how we relay information to the public. Ethics and motivations matter when “doing public history.” At times I find this incredibly daunting, but if Spiderman can handle it, I’m confident I can too.

Reflections on Cultural Landscapes and Public History

The older I get, the more I realize there is so little I actually know. It was invigorating and highly educational to read the assigned chapters and article this past week. My knowledge of cultural landscapes was shaky at best prior to the readings, but the readings cemented a foundation for further understanding and reading. I appreciated the introduction to the study of landscapes in chapter one as well as the biographical information provided on J.B. Jackson.

This being a public history course, I could not help but find connections between the study of cultural landscapes and public history. In many ways it seems that some of the driving concepts of studying cultural landscapes can be applied toward public history. In chapter one, Groth and Wilson explained that Jackson “took ordinary settings usually overlooked by academic study and made them interesting” (11). This makes me question whether public historians are doing enough to research and analyze topics that are unseen or dismissed. Public history can be so much more than an interpretive sign. I think Jackson’s passion is inspiration for future public history projects. Additionally, Jackson’s fervent belief in making the information accessible to the “intelligent layman” again can be brought back to the application of history for the public. The hoarding of new perspectives and knowledge by elite scholars within their inner circle is not unlike a squirrel stock piling nuts for the winter. Share the wealth. History, in general, should be available and obtainable by all. Another lesson learned from Jackson are his methods in asking probing questions. Instead of inquiring “What’s the history of this particular place?” models like “How do places like this come to exist?” and “What do they mean to us today?” are questions historians, public or otherwise, should consider (114-115).

On a side note, I was fascinated by Jackson’s beliefs on historic preservation. I found his reasoning compelling, especially the idea that “preserving architectural relics that outlived their social usefulness was a sign of obsessive traditionalism and cultural rigidity…[and] should not be allowed to constrain the vitality of evolving social forces” (74-75). This made me ponder other perspectives on the topic and where they diverge or intersect with Jackson’s belief. Needless to say, I am excited to start Historic Preservation by Tyler, Ligibel, and Tyler.