A middle-aged man touring the Royal Oak Historical Society Museum recently stopped to view a photo of a Royal Oak parade-crowd gathered at Fourth and Washington. He saw his deceased wife and teared up when he pointed her out. A young woman wanted to look at our picture of the 1934 Royal Oak High School graduating class to see if her grandmother was in it.
“How will you recognize her?”
“She has very large ears.”
The visitor found her grandmother and plans to bring her to the museum.
Old class pictures are looked at most intently when the museum mounts its portable display at civic events. Next are old group shots, such as the police or fire departments. The fun seems to come from trying to recognize family or friends. Often, a looker will rush away and return with someone else, to share a discovery. People react to pictures and artifacts, to descriptions of places and events. History is life.
The charred wooden cross burned at the Shrine of the Little Flower during our area's Ku Klux Klan era is one of our artifacts, with a related photo nearby. A young black man visiting the museum wanted to know why a cross was burning “on that white man's lawn?”
He was surprised to learn that the KKK disliked Catholics, Jews, and foreigners, as well as blacks. On a more pleasant note a member of Royal Oak's Historic District Study Committee visited several times and spent hours, wearing archival gloves, flipping through old issues of the Daily Tribune. He was looking for information about the bridges on Vinsetta Boulevard.
Sometimes, places themselves interest people. Visitors love to look at old photographs of Main Street, Washington, and Woodward, especially if a building is still standing. I learn quite a bit about local history when I listen to two seniors challenging each other's interpretation of a photo from the '20s or '30s. There are times when something historical provides a direct bridge to the present. For example, think of all the talk about the need for a hotel in Royal Oak. Well, the museum owns an 1872 map which shows a hotel at what is now Main Street and the I-696 service drive.
Once the museum has relocated in the Webster-Crooks Fire Station this fall, I will be working with Royal Oak Schools to involve students in cataloging and recording historical artifacts from the several demolished elementary schools. Those pictures and banners and trophies are currently in boxes in our storeroom.
Current and former residents continue to contribute artifacts, like an 1895 chair, a fare box from a Royal Oak streetcar, an 1870's wood lathe from John Benjamin's farm, and an elementary school desk. We are always looking for written or oral history from residents. In fact, I'll be interviewing an 80-year-old woman who is living in a house that was her grandfather's. We have pictures of her grandfather's garden and I know she'll tell us much about the house and garden.
Feel free to call for an appointment to visit our current museum at Churchill Community Education Center. There is some disarray, because the collection is between recovering from water damage last year and partial packing for the coming move to the Fire Station. Please call if you'd like to volunteer to write descriptions of items to be cataloged.