I am researching a feature story for my local paper about an historic wildfire that blackened more than twenty square miles in three adjoining states in our region back in 1930. It is the sort of project I might easily have decided to publish here at Walking the Berkshires rather than in the Lakeville Journal, although I will certainly link to it here once it comes out at the end of December.
I am intrigued by the choice of the newspaper over the blog, and by the choices I continue to make in the course of my research about the associated costs and benefits of following various leads. These choices impact the kind of story and the version of history I will ultimately produce, so I choose to make them explicit here (even those that make me uncomfortable).
The primary reason for researching and writing the story itself is that it has engaged my curiosity. The great wildfire was a momentous occurrence in its day that has all but faded from modern memory. And yet there is fertile ground here for an historian to synthesize events that took place, and the choices made by participants in the context of their own time, that still inform the patterns and processes that shape the landscape of our communities today.
Clearly this is too long a research topic for a single blog post. As often happens with my research, I can envision at least one road not taken that could lead to a book, or more graduate school. For now, serializing the story in blog format feels like a constraint that weighs against the challenge of crafting a full-length newspaper feature, especially when my editor has embraced the project. It lends itself to some boots on the ground reportage as well as electronic data mining. There is certainly a local audience for what I will write, and for personal recognition, which I readily admit is balm for a battered ego.
My reasons are certainly not pecuniary. I do this as an amateur and on my own time, and for this am compensated by the paper at a rate of $2/column inch. Being thorough is very important to me as a writer and researcher, yet the cost of doing the research itself, both in terms of time and money, does come into play and will ultimately shape the direction of the story and availability of sources. The challenge is to do enough research, and follow enough leads, to produce good and accurate work that adds insight and does not perpetuate errors. That is a pretty high bar, even for a piece in a local paper.
I have decided to let the needs of a 1500 word story define the research questions. I want to provide a perspective on the fire as it was experienced in all three states, where it is known by different names. I want to place these events within the larger context of the environmental and social conditions of the day. I want to be able to determine what parts of the mountain forest burned, and how this may affect their condition today. And I want to make the past come alive for residents today, to reawaken interest in the narrative and stir latent memory.
There are two research avenues open to me. I can search for archival material online, some of which is only available for a fee or through an institutional affiliation. I can search the microfilm records of the local print media that covered the story, and interview residents who may still remember those times of the stories of those who were there. Good reporting, let alone good history, requires that I follow leads in both these areas. Indeed, the Lakeville Journal archives for this period are available on microfilm in a local library, and the opportunity costs to me in consulting them are very slight. Following the local angle of the story in adjoining states, however, takes a greater commitment in time and money.
The Poughkeepsie Journal archives are available on microfilm at the Adriance Memorial Library: an hour's drive to the west. For the Berkshire Eagle I would need to travel north about the same distance to Pittsfield's Berkshire Athenaeum. The New York Times and Hartford Currant both make their archived articles available online but for a fee. In the case of the NYT this has become frustrating for me because judging from the first paragraph of the stories that I can view without payment, there are at least a couple of articles that contain information about the topic not available in other print media. Is it worth it to me and to my research for this project to shell out $3.95 per article, or buy a bundle of 10 at a reduced rate but perhaps more than the story requires?
For now, I have resisted. Instead, I am engaging local contacts in the communities that experienced the fire in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut to see what leads they can provide. Already an elderly resident of Mt. Washington, MA, has been in touch and recalls that several annual town meeting reports from the years after the fire included payments to those who helped to fight the flames. I have spoken with the forester responsible today for the core area in CT that was burned in 1930 who says that there is still evidence of natural disturbance from around that time in certain forest stands and species composition in these woodlands. I have found a number of AP stories online about the fire and the many other blazes that raged across the Northeast during that dry spring in 1930. At least for Connecticut, there are historic 1934 aerial photographs of the affected landscape, though whether of not the path of the fire can be discerned from them is still an open question to me. .
My graduate thesis adviser gave me some very good advice about research; you will never be fully finished with it, but there comes a time when you have done all that it requires of you. If the story cannot be told or understood without my going the extra mile and paying the NYT the equivalent of 4 column inches of my compensation, then so be it. If not, then I will leave that for other researchers.