The plowing match is one of my favorite events at ALHFAM annual meetings/conferences. I wrote the following after a particularly rewarding experience:
This summer at the ALHFAM annual meeting I plowed. Granted it was only two furrows in the horse-drawn plowing match, but in my mind, I plowed.
I was nervous, as there were lots of things to remember and much that could go wrong. I was in the novice class and had an expert “mentor” standing beside me, ready to take over if things went awry. This was both a comfort and a motivator. My goal was to make it down the field with only my hands guiding the plow. I did it and felt inordinately proud of myself. I spent the rest of the match cheering and strategizing and examining rocks with plow scars with the other participants. Not surprisingly, it was fun. Surprisingly, it also had me thinking about how I relate to the objects I’ve been tasked to care for at the Nebraska State Historical Society.
I have lived primarily in urban areas and my personal experience with farming is limited. As a curator, I’ve walked past and looked at photographs of plows several times a day. By and large, the artifacts in our collection are preserved and not used. I’ve been trained to take care of plows, exhibit them, research them, and make them available to the public, but I’ve never been trained to use them.
Using a plow was by far the most complex interaction I’ve had with an artifact. During the match I plowed in two different locations. The experts warned that the soil in the second section was difficult, and they were right. It was harder to keep the plow bottom in the soil. Though I saw no rocks, I hit bumps I didn’t encounter in the first field. I needed helping keeping the plow straight.
This was fascinating. Why did the soil differ so much in such a small area? If I didn’t see rocks, why was it so bumpy? Was it my technique or the quality of the soil that made my second run less successful than my first? How much experience would a person need to be able to handle all types of terrain? I was full of questions and found myself thinking of the plows in our collection and what it would be like to use them. These thoughts had never crossed my mind before.
I have attended a number of professional meetings throughout my career to learn about caring for and sharing the artifacts of our past. What I appreciated about the plow match at ALHFAM, and other hands-on offerings there, was that they helped me understand how objects work and what it feels like to use them. This helps me relate to the people of our past in a way that would never happen by just passing a plow in storage or on exhibit day after day.
This experience also had me thinking about a photograph in our collection. It shows the Chrisman sisters, some of the few women that came to Nebraska to claim their own homesteads. I’ve seen their faces hundreds of times, but I began to wonder about them as people. Did they learn to plow before they came to Nebraska? How did they manage their first time? Were they mildly elated like the rest of the novices in our match? Did they feel a sense of accomplishment, or did they feel discouraged that only one furrow was turned and so many were left to go? I was relating to these women differently now because we had a shared experience: we all stood behind a plow.
What about you: have you ever had an ALHFAM experience that changed your perspective?