Monday, October 21, 2013

Known and Unknown Knowns

While researching a recent series of columns I had the opportunity to study several old Texas newspapers from the mid-1880s. In them I found the thin ribbon of  a story, which, with more research, has turned out to be complete enough to build a new series of columns. I hope to present the new series here, starting today.
I think we often forget how the passing of time changes stories. That fish we caught several years ago seems to grow a little each year as its story is retold; so it is with local history as well.
In the small universe of people writing about the history of Kerrville and Kerr County, stories tend to get repeated. Those of us writing today rely upon the work of those who came before us, who, oftentimes, relied on those who came before them. Writer X tells a tale about Kerrville; it is read and reported by Writer Y; Writer Z, finding the work of Writer Y, shares the story, never even knowing the original story, told by a forgotten Writer X.
And so, like the old parlor game of "telephone," sometimes the story line nudges farther from its center, until the repeated story becomes the accepted version.
I have no doubt this problem extends far beyond the focus of my hobby -- local history. Many of the things we accept as "fact" would likely not survive close scrutiny.
Fortunately, the web we weave for ourselves often works just fine, as we find comfort in the stories we accept and repeat. For some of us, the stories of those who came before us here -- of their lives and hopes, of their fears and the obstacles they overcame -- are an important part of the web we build to understand present-day Kerrville and Kerr County. Facts, if they exist at all, do not get in the way of what we know from our stories: we want to connect with people we've never met, who lived and died years before we were born, but who shared the same home as we have. They viewed these same hills, drank the water from our river, carried a bit of dissolved limestone in their blood, like us.
As I studied the old newspapers from the mid-1880s, I kept coming across reports which seemed to offer new angles on familiar Kerrville stories. Some of the old newspaper articles flatly contradicted "facts" I knew about Kerrville and Kerr County. Other articles seemed to offer new information which would certainly change the flavor of important Kerrville stories.
Phil Graham, the late publisher and co-owner of the Washington Post, said, in an April 1963 speech, "So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand…."  I certainly identify with that quote, as almost two decades of effort have passed with my weekly scribbles showing up on this page of your newspaper.
I certainly recognize the fact that those articles written in the mid-1880s contained mistakes, being, as they were, a "first rough draft of history."  I also recognize the new "facts" I learn from those old newspapers will matter only to a few folks, the few of us who carry these stories around in our heads, like a tattered journal in a coat pocket.
Over the next few weeks I hope to share stories here which will be based upon the things I discovered in those old newspapers. I will not point out the parts of the story which differ from the familiar texts, mostly because I think it would be more fun to leave those differences a small mystery.
Who knows?  It might be fun for you, Gentle Reader, to find those parts for yourself.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who remains pleasantly surprised one can read very old newspapers online, with just a few clever clicks of a mouse. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times on October 19, 2013

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to reading the stories Joe. Thank you for taking on such an important task as our past fades in the digital age.


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