March 8, 2014

History by the Side of the Road

Traveling around the country, I often encounter historical markers by the side of the road. These are usually brass plaques, painted to increase legibility, commemorating an event or explaining area history. These markers can be quite interesting, but they are impossible to read while speeding by in a car. Many of them stand by the side of highways with no parking area or sidewalk nearby. Who is expected to read these markers and how?
Historical marker
A typical Pennsylvania historical marker

What has me thinking about historical markers is one particular sign I pass often but which I have never fully read. I have been able to make out its title and a line or two as I pass by, but there are probably 10 or so lines of text on the plaque. I have no hope of ever learning what the marker is intended to communicate.

Historical markers are often the product of extended lobbying by interested groups that believe that some event, activity, person, or people should be memorialized. The erection of a plaque seemingly is the consummation of such a campaign. Ironically, the resulting marker may almost never be read after its installation ceremony simply because it is poorly located.

Burma-Shave sign set
Typical Burma-Shave sign set. The final sign always
said “Burma-Shave.”
Along highways where it is impossible to create a place where cars can pull off the road to read a marker, there may be another way to communicate information to passing vehicles. Why not chop up the text of a marker into small pieces and place them like Burma-Shave signs by the side of the road. (Readers who are too young to have encountered instances of the iconic Burma-Shave signs should read the Wikipedia article on Burma-Shave.) The standard brass plate could be preceded by a series of signs providing the full text of the historical marker.

To illustrate this idea, consider the Pennsylvania historical marker illustrated above. A set of signs could be created that could be read in sequence as the actual marker is approached:

  • HISTORICAL MARKER AHEAD
  • BURNING OF CHAMBERSBURG
  • OVER THIS ROAD
  • GEN. GEORGE McCAUSLAND’S
  • CONFEDERATE CALVARY
  • MARCHED NORTH ON JULY 29, 1864.
  • BY WAY OF MERCERSBURG,
  • THEY REACHED AND BURNED CHAMERSBURG
  • NEXT MORNING, AND WERE AT
  • McCONNELLSBURG NEXT NIGHT.

That’s 10 signs, of course, and many markers would require even more signs. That may seem cumbersome, but this scheme could make accessible information that is now hidden in plain sight.

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