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The Kipona Club and a Day in the Archives

Last Thursday our Digital History class took a field trip to two archives in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Historical Society of Dauphin County to research for our first projects. Our first project is to create an Omeka exhibit about a component of the City Beautiful Movement.

Arion and I working at the PA State Archives (Source: David Pettegrew)

When I arrived at the Historical Society of Dauphin County that afternoon, I had two ideas for my project. Before going, I looked at the websites of each archive where they list their collections based on manuscript group number. Dauphin County had two collections of interest, one on the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames and one on the Kipona Club. The Society of Colonial Dames was an organization of mainly upper class women focused on preserving the history of the American Revolution in Pennsylvania while educating the local populace. The Kipona Club is the group that organizes the Kipona Festival every Labor Day weekend in Harrisburg. Both were examples of the City Beautiful Movement in that they desired to show the culture and history of their city. After looking through the folders at Dauphin County, I decided to focus on the Kipona Club because of the resources available. Also, the Kipona Club sources were mainly newspapers, easy to read and organize, while the Colonial Dames had a book of meeting minutes in faint script. While there is an important story to tell about that society, with the short amount of time I have for this project I could not spend most of it transcribing handwritten minutes. One essential part of digitizing is knowing how much time you have. So I decided to save my curiosities about the Colonial Dames for the future and instead focus on the Kipona Club.

From my research so far, I have learned a good deal about the origins of the festival and its purposes. The first Labor Day festival was in 1911 because Harrisburg needed a summer attraction. It wasn’t until 1916 that the Kipona Club put on their own celebration. The Kipona Club also started the festival in order to showcase the rich river culture of Harrisburg with boat races and other activities. It not only offered a fun festival for people in the community, but also reminded people of the history of Harrisburg as a shipping and canal city. During the Labor Day weekends, articles were written about life on the river, including one from The Harrisburg Telegraph in 1916 titled, “City’s Oldest River Boat Captain Tells of River Days of Old.” The first president of the Kipona Club was Edward J. Stackpole, the editor and publisher of the Harrisburg Telegraph. His influence helped to make the festival such a success. The festival brought revenue to the city, reminding people of its beauty and history. The festival allowed for people to celebrate Harrisburg during the City Beautiful movement. The festival stopped in 1921, but was revived in 1936. Since then, it has continued to be an essential part to the Harrisburg calendar.

One of the main lessons I learned while at the Historical Society of Dauphin County is how that there is a bias and narrative already in the sources. The selection of sources and their organization play a major role in how the historian views them. An archivist placed them there in order to tell a story. The Kipona Club folders tell a story of a great festival that drew people back to Harrisburg for the summer and was successfully revived in 1936. However, the folders never give reason to why the Kipona Festival was cancelled in the first place. The missing piece demonstrates some bias in manuscript groups. My one friend at the Pennsylvania State Archives was researching the burning of the Harrisburg capitol in the late nineteenth century and the debate on whether or not to move the capital. His folders, mainly from the Hastings files, tell the story of a rebirth of Harrisburg with the help of their governor. Many of the documents were letters congratulating the governor. While the archives offer mostly primary sources, there is interpretation in the selection and organization of those sources. Jim Mussell writes in History in the Digital Age, “these resources become constitutive parts of the archive and so subject to analysis in their own right” (80). The historian and archivist can tell a story without writing a word.

My trip to the archives this past Thursday taught me more about historical research. Searching through archives takes a great deal of planning and work. You have to work quickly while you are there, and be prepared with the right equipment. It is also essential to understand the bias in the manuscript groups, and hope to break through that to discover all sides of a story in history. The work in the archives is worth collecting history for the future, as Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly say in their article, “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5,” it is necessary to build archives for the future. I look forward to completing my first project on the Kipona Club and its historic festival.

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