Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Researching Fullerton's “Pioneers”

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.

In the local history room of the Fullerton Public Library, there is a huge, 1,600 page book called History of Orange County, California by a Mr. Samuel Armor, which was published in 1921.  Most of the book is dedicated to short biographical sketches of notable Orange Countians.  The local history librarian explained that this book may be considered a “vanity book” because each person profiled actually paid for their own inclusion it.  Thus, the book excludes people without the means to pay for such things.  It is pretty much exclusively devoted to wealthy, white businessmen.

Also, because the entries were paid for, their tone is hilariously praiseworthy of each man profiled, carefully excluding excluding any kind of criticism which is the task of a real historian.  Thus, the book must be read with a critical eye.  It’s instructive, but also does not contain the whole truth.  For example, in describing local Fullerton doctor Danforth C. Cowles, Armor begins with these words of high praise:

“A member of the medical profession of Orange County of superior training, whose skill and conscientious attention and care to every patient has enabled him to rise to well-deserved prominence in his chosen field, is Dr. Danforth C. Cowles, who stands high in the profession, not only in California, but in the East, where he was very prominent as a surgeon, having a splendid record in Minneapolis, Minn., so that he was not long in establishing a successful practice after locating here.”

This fawning tone is characteristic of nearly all the entries in Samuel Armor’s gigantic book.  And so, in utilizing this book as a resource, I am careful to exclude overly flowery praise.  Instead, I will try to stick with the facts, which are good enough for me.

Also, as I read these sketches of what I would consider rather ordinary dentists, farmers, politicians, etc, I encounter another problem.  Who do I include in my own history of Fullerton?  Do I include everyone?  After reading dozens of praise-filled sketches from Armor’s book, I find myself, frankly, bored.  This is an impressive feat by Mr. Armor, to bore even someone like me, who is totally obsessed with local history.  But I think the reason I am bored is because, in excluding any mention of problems, faults, and failures of the local “pioneers”, Armor has stripped them of what makes them most interesting—their humanity.

And so, moving forward, I will endeavor to produce more well-rounded portraits of Fullerton’s “pioneers”.

Danforth C. Cowles, M.D. (early Fullerton doctor)

1 comment:

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