Eastern Illinois University - Studies for a Better World
A special section of the Journal Gazette & Times-Courier.
By CINDY RICH Director of EIU Teaching with Primary Sources E ach family has a box of keepsakes gath- ering dust in an attic or basement. Some items, like those at the Library of Congress, have historical signifi- cance and are shared electronically with the world. Some are private, like a letter shared within a family or a photo passed through generations. Sharing these items offers a glimpse into our daily lives and local events that may not be pre- served in other places. Primary sources are original items that have sur- vived from the past, such as documents, letters and photographs. They were part of a direct personal experience of a specific time or event. Every object has a creator, and every creator has a unique per- spective. Sharing primary sources with future generations connects them to our personal histories. Teaching with Primary Sources is an initiative of the Library of Congress that celebrates the power of teaching with primary sources — engaging students by show- ing them that history is REAL and that the people, places and events of the past impact who they and their communities are today. This spring, 11 former railway post office clerks came to Eastern Illinois University to share person- al stories and artifacts. For more than 100 years, Railway Post Office cars carrying clerks cancelling, sorting and loading mail were found on American railroads. RPO clerks were considered to be the elite of the mail service, in constant motion, spending days away from home working the mail into pouches and slots at 60-80 mph. They spent time off studying schemes to learn exact locations of thousands of towns, villages and connecting communities. Clerks were held at the highest level of accountability and took great pride in their work. When we think of mail trains, we imagine black- and-white film showing gun-wielding bandits or gnarled piles of wreckage. While these images may reflect early days, this project studies mail by rail in the mid-1900s — a time of growth and change. Long before cell phones, text messages and e- mail, it was the U.S. Mail that connected the nation. As recently as 1950, 93 percent of non-local mail was processed over 600,000 route miles daily with clerks working and sometimes catching and delivering “on the fly.“ The end of the RPO is linked to growth and changes in the entire country. In the 1960s, post offices were built in communities off the railway, being developed on new highway systems. Passage of the 1956 National Defense Highways Act led to affordable automobiles and the develop- ment of interstate highways and rail passengers decreased sharply. Because mail cars were part of passenger trains, the number of trains available dropped. The U.S. Postal Service knew it was time for a change and skilled RPO clerks were transferred to other assign- ments. The goal of this project — titled “Constant Motion: The Job of Railway Post Office Clerks” — is to create a collection of resources to help educa- tors teach about the jobs of RPO clerks at a fasci- nating time of American history using primary sources. Products being created include a website of digi- tized resources such as short videos and collections of digitized primary sources like photographs, docu- ments and tools. A documentary being produced by WEIU-TV will feature highlights of the interviews; it is to air in May. Now through the end of May, an exhibit at EIU’s Booth Library features personal items shared by some of the clerks. These resources will be shared beyond EIU. The Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program reaches educators throughout the nation. The Smithsonian Institute National Postal Museum has expressed interest in the materials for their Railway Mail Service division, as has the United States Postal Service Archival Programs, Railway Mail Service Library and various local his- torical societies and associations. Originally the idea of EIU Teaching with Prima- ry Sources team, Cindy Rich and Melissa Carr, the project became a reality with support from aca- demic departments, Booth Library and WEIU. Students of Jay Bickford in the Department of Early Childhood, Elementary and Middle Level Education participated by researching railway post offices and roles of the clerks, interviewing clerks and digitizing primary sources. Students experienced firsthand the power of teaching with primary sources and will hopefully engage students in their classrooms through oral histories, personal artifacts and local history. Lori Casey and Kate Pleasant, producers with WEIU, assisted Department of Communication Studies students as they directed, filmed and edited recorded interviews. The project website is currently being developed, but is available at http://www.eiu.edu/~eiutps/clerks. CONSTANT MOTION JOURNAL GAZETTE & TIMES-COURIER PAGE 10 | STUDIES FOR A BETTER WORLD | APRIL 2010 Team tasked with documenting tales, artifacts of Railway Post Office clerks