Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why I love The Office and snowy, scrappy Scranton

One of the reasons I enjoy watching The Office, aside from the hilarity, is that it is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I’m not from Scranton, but some of my ancestors lived there, and I feel that I can get a closer glimpse into their lives by getting a sense of where they lived. A sense of place, what we crave in our searching for our roots.

Every place has  its idiosyncracies--the jargon, the attitudes, the special foods, the in-jokes, and often, a certain insularity. Just as it is fun and interesting to travel and absorb a bit of culture, it is fun and interesting to try to travel to another place and time.

 I know the actors and all the events are filmed in LA, but the opening scenes are authentic Scranton, and the working mind set seems to be pretty much what I would expect to find there. Every once in awhile there is a reference to the Irish population, whether it be an actor’s name or a meeting in a bar, and the struggle to keep a dying business alive in a tough economy is certainly something one would find there.

I can’t spend lots of time trying to get a sense of place for all my ancestors, as they lived in many places and I do have other things to pursue, but when I do make a small effort to understand the geography and the culture of the time, I find it rewarding. It gives me a pleasant sense of tucking into a time and place.

Mini-versions of finding out what it was like to live in a place and time include checking into court records, reading town and county histories, finding images of locations, and reading a few local biographies. The State GenWeb is often helpful for a short imaginary tour of an area. Understanding the history of the naming of a town or county is an easy way to get into the history.

When I want a really quick sense of place I find a map image of a town (I either find the "map" designation on the toolbar, or I search for the town  + map) and then I look to see what other towns are nearby. I might be familiar with some of them. I look for water routes, as those would have been important to my ancestors. Did they migrate along them, fish along them? Then I expand the map image so that I have a good geographical context for the town. I might be able to see what attracted settlers to the area.

Given a little more time, I will look up historical maps. Sometimes I am even fortunate enough to find plat maps with names of landowners of a specific time period. The historical maps show the towns and/or properties that existed at the time of the map-making, and the writing style and artistry and accuracy or lack thereof add to the charm of sensing that I am sliding into the past for just a moment.

Shared on Storylane Oct 2012

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