Walking Box Ranch

A morning at the ranch

A morning at the ranch

How do you teach public history when it’s mostly about doing? Project-based is the name of the game. Hands-on? Collaborative? Interdisciplinary? Yeah, that too.

In this graduate level colloquium on public history, we’ve read Clifford Geertz, Jackson Lears and Georg Simmel. We’ve reviewed some of my favorite books that use public history methodologies and learned about each other’s favorites. I’ve shared dozens of real- life experiences of when what you have to do is not exactly what you should do. Example: Smashing a dozen opera capes into the only four archival boxes you have. These readings, discussions, and “lessons learned” provide students with the knowledge to make informed decisions about preserving and presenting our collective past.

“Doing” public history is about working with what you have, double dipping on research, and—-in the case of the Walking Box Ranch—-touching stuff.

Walking Box Ranch fell into my lap an afternoon in late August, about the time I told my husband that the heat of this desert might drive me to drink. “Hey, maybe your grad class can get involved with the Walking Box Ranch,” chirped professor Andy Kirk, as he rustled into his office. “It was Clara Bow’s ranch, about an hour southwest of here. The public history program has worked with them before.”

The greatest face of the silent screen owned a working cattle ranch in the middle of the Nevada desert? I guess that sounds kind of interesting.

The Ranch’s transition from a place of work and residence to a historic site has been an ongoing collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management and UNLV’s Public Lands Institute. We’ve dealt most closely with professor Jean Cline and research scientist Paula Garrett, a biologist by trade and educator by nature. They may be more inclined to science than social history, but they get it—and gave us the freedom to create and implement a three-faceted project to survey and preserve the material culture of the ranch.

A team of students developed an educational agenda for the Ranch, complete with lesson plans and a historic walking tour. Another group researched and devised a storage plan for several Navajo rugs owned by the ranch. A third group catalogued the property’s material culture. What a whacky collection it was–water jugs from the 1920s, branding irons from the 1940s, and some weird twists of metal we only recently identified as a snake catcher.

This is a cattle tagging set from the 1930s.

This is a cattle tagging set from the 1930s.

In early December 2011, our class hosted an event at the ranch where UNLV faculty and fellow grad students mingled with Searchlight Nevada locals, a silent film buff, and a few random passers by. Public history in action.