Here at The Filson, the majority of my day-to-day responsibilities – on paper at least – revolve around increasing membership and growing the annual fund. But while searching through the stacks for a replacement issue of a past copy of Ohio Valley History, I stumbled upon a book that caught my attention. There sitting next to the back issues of the OVH was a copy of The Filson Club and Its Activities. I am not sure if it was the dark, forest green binding, the fact that the author’s first name was Otto, or my general intrigue with old, odd looking books that led me to pick up the edition, but for whatever reason I did. Let me stop here and say that while I did major in History, I do not consider myself a historian. Most days I believe The Filson somehow found me rather than the other way around, but if I could spend days in an archives or library just reading interesting material and get paid for it, I would. It was always the “now it’s time to analyze and think critically about said ‘interesting material’” (i.e. write 20+ page term papers) that gave me anxiety and lead to my demise as a student.
Nonetheless, back to Otto’s thoughts on the club and its activities. The formal title of the book is “The Filson Club and Its Activities 1884-1922. A History of The Filson Club, Including Lists of Filson Club Publications and Papers on Kentucky History Prepared for the Club, Also Names of Members.” I think Mr. Otto A. Rothert, Secretary of the Filson Club, enjoyed using the term ‘club’ to an excess and if this is indicative of all the members at the time and throughout the years, it may shed some light on why The Filson Historical Society does not resonate with very many people in the general public today.
The book is broken down into six sections: history, publications, papers, officers, members, and index, and it was the first section, “History of the Club” I found to be the most interesting, detailing the early years of The Filson’s existence. While reading history in college, there were typically common questions and statements that would follow upon telling folks that is what I was studying: “Well that’s nice, so what are you going to do with that?” “Oh, so you’re going to go to law school or possibly teach?” Or “You know history is important; I never liked memorizing all those dates and names, but too many people don’t know their history and that’s why it’s always repeating itself.” As for history repeating itself, I would suggest that it doesn’t. Common themes and ideas tend to be cyclical and do often reappear in different time periods, across cultures, and in varying environments but historical events do not, and did not, take place in a vacuum. Regardless of a person’s bias when reading, analyzing, or discussing history, there is a reason why events unfold as they do – even if you do not like the outcome or agree with the decisions made to reach said outcome. The opinions of the revolutionary or civil war 50 years after versus 150 years after are going to differ even though the dates and names do not. History is fluid and I am embarrassed to admit that I did not realize this fully until after graduating.
So why does this have anything to do with Otto, The Filson, and the blog I am supposed to be writing? Glad you asked. Truthfully, I have never been good at rambling off dates and names on the spot, and typically I never thought they lead to interesting dialogue, so their memorization was not my top priority – especially now since we have this thing called the internet. But contrastingly, I have always enjoyed those common historical themes that may define a person, institution, or culture over time. And here at The Filson, one of our themes/issues has been – and still is today – space. How we use it, how we currently need more of it, and how it allows us to function in the community at large.
Enter Otto. Two quotes from Mr. Rothert in the 1920’s could very easily describe our current situation and potential future. When reflecting on the organization prior to 1922, he says that the Filson’s lack of substantial archival growth “is due to (the) lack of sufficient space for the preservation and display of a library and museum, (a) display in turn would have resulted in the acquiring of more books and relics and other material bearing on Kentucky history. When the Club has procured a building of its own, it will be in a position to increase its activities, influence and usefulness.”[i] And from the Annual Meeting in 1928, he states, “The Club has long felt a need for a building suitable for its purposes, and its failure to have one has resulted in much valuable historical material relating to Kentucky, going elsewhere when it should have remained here.”[ii] Otto, I never knew you, but I could not agree with you more.
The Filson has come a long way since these statements were inked to paper, and I hope that the Ferguson Mansion, our third floor gallery space, the second floor library, the carriage house with our recently updated Civil War exhibit entitled “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” would make the members of the 1920s and before happy to see how far we have come. From Durrett’s original personal collection and library which left Kentucky because of a lack of sufficient fireproof space, to R.C. Ballard Thurston’s substantial contribution and foresight in allowing us to move to Breckinridge street where fireproof space could be delivered[iii] (I find it somewhat humorous how a fireproof facility to house rare, one of a kind documents and artifacts was so hard to garner support for), to moving in our current location here at the Ferguson mansion in 1986 with another much need archival addition. Over time, The Filson Club or Historical Society (whichever you prefer) has always needed more space. Kind of reminds me of the adage my grandfather, a life-long farmer, once remarked, “If you are going to build a barn, build it twice as large as you originally think.”
And here we are again – the need for more space[iv]. If you have ever been to a program lecture at full standing-room only capacity, you understand. If you have been to the archives, it makes sense. And if you have chatted with any members of the board of directors or full-time staff, they will tell you all the same thing: we have been very successful for over 125 years, but now we are at another crossroads and need more space if we are going to continue to progress and function in Kentucky and the Ohio Valley in the future. Really it should not be that surprising though, because historically, needing more space is just a part of who we are.
[i] Otto A. Rothert, The Filson Club and Its Activities 1884-1922 (Louisville: John P. Morton & Co., 1922), 13.
[ii] Otto A. Rothert, The Filson Club Building Fund (1928), 41. Reprinted from The History Quarterly, vol. 3 n.1 Oct. 1928, (41-7).
[iii]Rothert, The Filson Club Building Fund, 47
[iv] If you were not aware, we a currently in the process of expanding our campus; more details on the plans can be found here: http://www.filsonhistorical.org/about-the-filson/campus-expansion-plan.aspx