Anniversaries, or How the Battle of Gettysburg Changed My Life

Gettysburg. Photo by Flickr user Andy_Myers_Esq. Used courtesy of a Creative Commons attribution license.
Gettysburg. Photo by Flickr user Andy_Myers_Esq. Used courtesy of a Creative Commons attribution license.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place July 1-3, 1863. My Twitter stream has been full of articles and photos from the commemorative events, which has me full of nostalgia — for as odd as it seems to say, the battle that was  pivotal to the Civil War is actually also a fairly significant milestone in my own life.

Really.

Here’s the story:

When I was a junior in high school, a group of students from my AP American History class were being picked to attend a week-long summer program at Gettysburg College called the Civil War Institute. I was familiar with it through a teacher who was a family friend, and — as I was already a fully formed history nerd by the age of 17 — I wanted one of those scholarships. There was, however, no application process and no information on when or how kids were being chosen, so I had no idea how to make it happen.

And then out of the blue one day, my teacher announced the four students who had been selected to go. Four students, none of whom was me. Such a disappointment!

I don’t know why I wanted to go so badly; I was interested in the Civil War, but not all that fascinated by it (yet). And while I was friendly with my classmates who’d been chosen to go, I wasn’t especially close with any of them. Looking at it in hindsight, I can’t recall any reason it seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity, but nevertheless, I went to the teacher after class to ask her why she hadn’t picked me. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, beyond a vague recollection that someone dropped out, but my initiative paid off — I was picked as the replacement and would be heading to Gettysburg in July.

Our topic that year was the Battle of Gettysburg, which was then celebrating its 125th anniversary. I spent a week listening to lectures from mind-bogglingly knowledgable scholars, touring the battlefield with a level of detail that had never occurred to me, and hanging out with new friends — both other high school students and the few adults who didn’t find a pack of teenagers as irritating as we likely were. I learned a ton, and had such a good time that I attended the Institute at least a dozen more times over the next 15 years.

It doesn’t sound like a life-changing experience, I’ll grant you. Maybe more fun than your average conference, but surely not more than that.

Fast-forward almost 10 years, to late 1997. I was planning my move from Albany to DC, but was struggling with job hunting. I was talking on the phone one night with my friend Kevin — whom I had met at my second Civil War Institute — about the trouble I was having finding good prospects and he suggested I apply where he was working at the time, the Holocaust Museum. And so I did.

I got the job.

About a year later, I was feeling like it was time to move on, and Kevin once again had the answer: his wife Donna (maybe fiancée then?) was working at the National Trust for Historic Preservation — where I had wanted to work ever seen seeing then-President Dick Moe speak at (you guessed it!) the Civil War Institute — and they had some openings. If I applied, she could let HR know I was a good candidate.

Again, I got the job.

And, 14-plus years later, there I remain, because I’ve found career path that lets me talk about my passion for old places (and for finding new uses for them) on the Internet all day long. How great is that?

And so, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg also marks the 25th anniversary of when I unknowingly put myself on my path to adulthood. Crazy, eh?

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Frager’s Hardware: Our Everything Store

I wrote this post for my work blog, PreservationNation, but as it’s probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written for work, it seemed appropriate to cross-post it here. I did, however, give it a less newsy title.

Frager's Hardware: Our Everything Store
Frager’s Hardware, c. 2008

I still remember when I learned there was more to Frager’s Hardware than its three ground-level store fronts and garden center. I had arrived in search of adjustable window screens and after wandering aimlessly for less than a minute (it was impossible to go longer with a confused expression without being helped at Frager’s), a kind gentleman led me up the stairs to the left of the cash registers into a part of the store I hadn’t known existed, and quickly found me my screens. I can’t honestly say I know where he got them from, however, because I was too busy marveling at my surroundings.

Frager’s was like shopping in my grandmother’s attic.

In 14 years of living on Capitol Hill in D.C., I only once went to Frager’s and left empty-handed. Sometimes my object of desire was in the main store in the narrow, jam-packed aisles. Other times, I made my way back up the stairs, and still others, I was escorted into the basement. I wandered the garden center more times than I can count, and I visited in every season from spring planting to summer grilling to Christmas tree shopping. I hit the paint shop with chips peeled off my bathroom door and left with a perfect match. I haven’t had a key cut anywhere else in years.

To call it a hardware store sells it short. It was an everything store. And an everyone store.

When preservationists talk about sense of place, we all have somewhere in our mind’s eye a specific spot that tells a story. For Capitol Hill — the Capitol Hill where people plant flowers and walk their dogs and have cookouts with their neighbors, not the one that makes the evening news — Frager’s was that place.

From newbies getting settled to folks established enough to have “house accounts,” every Hill resident wandered into the nearly 100-year-old storefront at some point. (And for most of us, at many, many points.) In a neighborhood full of historic homes, they would invariably have what big-box hardware stores did not: just the right semi-ancient doohickey necessary to start (or finish) a DIY project.

Frager's Hardware: Our Everything Store

Yesterday, our place that had everything was reduced to nothing by a devastating fire.

And, because they are neighbors and community members first, everyone on the Hill is incredibly grateful that no one was killed in the fire, and that the only injuries were not serious. Restaurants from our nearby Main Street have already put out word that they’ll hire displaced staff, a fundraiser is already underway, and our local government has already gotten permission to host a “pop up” Frager’s in the very same location Eastern Market used to recover from its fire in 2007.

Nothing could say more to me about the value of our historic places such as Frager’s, both before and after the fire, than this tweet:

I noticed this morning when I stopped by that, somehow, a large number of the flowers from the garden center seemed to have survived the fire unscathed. The bright blooms next to the devastated building gave me hope that, before long, Frager’s will thrive once again.

Frager's Hardware: Our Everything Store

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Note: The first picture in the post is courtesy GarberDC on Flickr, courtesy of a CreativeCommons license. Also, because he used to work for me, I assumed he wouldn’t be mad I used his photo.