Home > Uncategorized > Not Just Digging Up Dirt

Not Just Digging Up Dirt


Last week, a small but interested audience braved a wintry snowstorm to listen to environmental historian and Great Lakes author, Dave Dempsey, on the value of researching White Lake’s environmental history.  One major point that Dave made is that the research is not all about “digging up dirt.”   He said, “Dirt may be found, but so will heroism.  Both are part of any history.  Reality is complicated.  There are very few unadulterated villains in environmental history.  Much damage was done to the environment by people who didn’t know what they were doing.  And good was done to communities by the same people who were doing so much damage.”

We are finding this to be true.  One of the more recent oral history interviews was of Dexter King, a former manager of the Whitehall Leather Company.  He speaks of how the tannery in its heyday provided 175 local jobs and about half of the tax base for the city of Whitehall.  Dexter recalls how a gymnasium was built, attached to the tannery, and served as a center of many community activities.  There were dinners and family gatherings in the gym.  Both Whitehall and Montague high schools held their basketball games at the tannery’s gym for many years, until they were able to build their own gyms.  Dances were held and bands played.  Dexter recalls one was a nine piece orchestra!  Tannery employees could stop in the gym after work and play informal games of basketball, ping pong or volleyball.  Kids would arrive on the weekend days to play their own athletic games in the community gym.  The Whitehall Leather Company also donated 200 feet of shoreline to the city of Whitehall, to be added to the100 feet donated by the Svensson family, for a city park.

This is the story that our history tells us.  And it’s important to acknowledge. See the video here (scroll down) at the:  White Lake Environmental History website

Your comments?



Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Terrie
    March 3, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Yes I think it is important to acknowledge the benefits that companies like the tannery brought to this community. It’s easy to forget the “good” when the damage looks so overwhelming. Video taping Dexter was a lesson in finding this balance. I think Dexter will appreciate your acknowledgement of him as a storyteller who is willing to face both sides of our story and unabashedly describe the good that happened simultaneously. Thank you!

    • March 3, 2013 at 10:20 pm

      I agree, Terrie, that is essential that we are able to understand the entire story. That’s why I am so excited to be able to work on this project with the library — this is important for our community! Thank YOU for your volunteer help with the interviewing and for your interview of Dexter. Nice job!

  2. Greg Means
    March 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I believe many of these industrial companies were not completely aware of the damage they were doing to the environment. Some were relying on past practices and some were in new technologies. Also, water resources were not valued as highly as they are now. That’s not an excuse, just maybe an explanation for the damage caused by companies who otherwise contributed greatly to our community. One huge problem is when they did realize the problems, they often ignored them or attempted to hide them. That’s why residents and local governments concerned about their environment are important.

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