Live! from a drive-in movie theater

It’s a warm summer night in southern North Carolina, the stars are out, the sky is clear, I’m happily perched in a camp chair sitting next to friends, and I’m watching one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  (If you need to know, the movie is Tropic Thunder.)   However, I can overlook the factor of an awful movie because we are at a drive-in movie theater. 

For anyone who is not aware (or couldn’t have guessed): I just love drive-in movie theaters.   I have an independent study research paper from college to prove that statement.  Drive-ins have had their ups and downs throughout American history, but they remain a unique summer excursion for the few Americans who are lucky enough to live close to one.  The drive-in movie theater first began in Camden, New Jersey and then spread throughout the country.  We know their heydays to be in the 1950s and 1960s before their popularity faded in the 1970s. 

There are many contributing factors to the decline of the drive-in movie theater ranging from the value of real estate in suburbia, the rise of indoor movie theaters and television sets, the quality of movies released in the drive-in, and general interests of the population, among many other factors.  Once numbering in the thousands, only a few hundred remain in operation in the United States.  Fortunately, they have once again become family friendly.  It is still an affordable outing for a family.  For four adults to see two movies, it costs a total of $20, whereas in the movie theater it would have cost us $80.  Drive-ins allow you to bring any food you’d like, kids can run around before the shows (or play on the playground), opening a bag of pretzels won’t disturb the neighbors, you can still talk to the people you’re with, and you can control the volume through your radio.

Maybe you’re wondering why I have my laptop at a drive-in?  Well, on the website they advertised Wi-Fi.  I thought it would be fun to write a post while at the drive-in.  Offering Wi-Fi reminds me of the services that the best and biggest drive-ins offered in their heydays.  Services ranged from baby bottle warmers next to the car (since children usually fell asleep in the back seat), grocery shopping while people watched the movie, laundry services, bellhops to bring your snacks, and carnival rides or beauty pageants for children before the show.  The drive-in movie theater simply tried to keep up with the times and fulfill their claim that it was an easy evening out for the family.  Mothers and wives didn’t have to get dressed up to go out or cook dinner for the family, they didn’t have to find a babysitter, and it was a group activity for the family. 

Now, the drive-in still caters to families, but seems to be marketing to the generation of young adults living on their own: people like me who find Wi-Fi always thrilling.  Unfortunately, I cannot get the Wi-Fi to work, which takes away from my excitement; but, maybe I’m just sitting in the wrong spot. 

While drive-ins will probably never reach their heyday of the 1960s, hopefully they will continue to attract people who like movies on the big screen and can appreciate the history of the drive-in while accepting it as a piece of modern times.  For the record, I have seen some of my favorite movies at a drive-in theater, including Cars, which is probably the best movie to see at a drive-in (except for maybe Grease.)  To find a drive-in theater near you, check out or or   Enjoy the show! 

Reading List

We all have those preservation books that we want to read, but once school and/or work get in the way, these books remain distant longings.  It’d be a guilty pleasure to read something other than our assigned readings, even if it were preservation related.  Of course, I have not been in school for two years now, so I should have been able to read all of these books.  Some I have, others remain on my bookshelf just waiting for me. 

Aside from preservation books, I love historical fiction.  Growing up I read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and learned a great deal about the late 1800s and pioneers. I read the Dear America series and learned about all different time periods in diary form from fictional girls my age.  And the American Girl series (you know, those with the dolls) taught me even more, from colonial times to pioneers to the early 20th century to World War II. However, I’ve since risen above that reading level, just not the adoration of learning history in the first person voice (which echoes my current field, oral history.) 

A recent book purchase of mine was The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. It is about the Great Depression and seems like a wonderful book.  I haven’t read it yet, but be sure that there will be a review of it when I do read it. 

This next book I’ve wanted to read for three years or so. In fact, fellow preservationists will be shocked to learn that I’ve never read it:  The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It is the quintessential book of preservation combining with other fields and what we should do in the future.  See what I mean? I’m almost ashamed. How could I not have read this book?  Well, we were going to in class but somehow the syllabus got out of order and we were just never assigned the book and as much as I wanted to read it, I had many other readings to do as opposed to something that would not be assigned.  And then I did try after college, but found the introduction to be so slow that I would fall asleep reading it.  Someone told me to skip the introduction and just start with chapter one.  If all else fails, I’ll do that.  No matter what,  I WILL read this book before graduate school. 

Please share with me a list of reading I should do before graduate school (next year.)  I’ve been told I should read anything by Daniel Bluestone, who loves to write about sense of place, quality of life – that sort of thing. It sounds good to me!

Thank you…

“…for reuniting people with their past, for preserving America’s hometown history…”

In the mail the other day, I received a postcard from Arcadia Publishing with the above text.  It brought a smile to my face, offering an extra this-is-why-I-do-what-I-do moment, something that is always appreciated in the beginning of the week. I thought all of you fellow preservationists, historians, archaeologists, etc. would appreciate it just as much.

Porches & Halfway

In lieu of a post at the moment, I thought you might enjoy some photographs from my recent trip to Loudon & Fauquier Counties, VA. 

1. Who doesn’t love a good Southern front porch? 

Grey Horse Inn, The Plains, VA

Grey Horse Inn, The Plains, VA

2. And who doesn’t love a “town” with a funny name?  I couldn’t resist. There are only a few houses on this country road and one big empty building here.  I wouldn’t even call it a crossroads.
Halfway, Virginia

Halfway, Virginia

3. This photograph below is a picture of the building right next to the Halfway sign.  I peered inside the windows and it looked like some sort of shop, but one that hadn’t been used in a long time. Other than that, I don’t have any guesses.  Anyone?
In Halfway, Virginia.

In Halfway, Virginia.

More travel stories to come soon!

The Iron Horse

Despite the unpopularity of long distance train travel, I love traveling by train. Maybe it’s how I get caught up in the American west. Maybe it’s because my dad always talks about living with the train tracks right behind his house in Queens, NY.  Maybe it’s those few times I traveled via train back and forth to Mary Washington.  Maybe it’s because Overhills had its own train station and to me it evokes visions of the wealthy 1920s travelers getting off at the passenger station marked Overhills with trunks in tow.  No matter the reason, it feels truly American to me (maybe it should feel European, but I’ve never been to Europe.)  Someday I want to travel cross-country by train. 

There is something classically romantic & nostalgic about train travel.  Maybe it’s because train travel traverses so many generations.  The Iron Horse recalls images of great American progress (also a complicated issue for another time) and the great American west and tales of Jesse James.  People took the train to escape to the ocean beaches and the countryside, to get out of the city for a while.  Movies set in the 1940s have done a clever job of portraying soldiers leaving and arriving from war.  A train ride served as more reliable than car travel and prior to planes.  Trains could be wonderful for mass transit and the environment, if done right.

After a recent work trip by train, I am happy to report another pleasant experience with Amtrak. Normally I fly or drive my own car.  However, a drive alone that extends beyond 4 hours leaves me tired and lonely, so driving was not an option.  If I want to fly, I still have to drive 75 minutes to the airport and then go through the whole process of flying and I’d still have to rent a car to get where I was going.  Instead, I chose to travel by Amtrak.  I could catch the train right in town and then ride up to Washington D.C. with the freedom of relaxing, reading, writing, doing whatever I needed to do on the train.  Granted, I still had to rent a car to get to Middleburg, but the peaceful train ride that didn’t require the use my own car for anything, was very nice.

Traveling by Amtrak is a new experience. I had done so before, but not in a few years.  I had been dying to take the train somewhere.  The benefits of Amtrak are clear: the seats are way more comfortable than a plane with lounging room and leg room. The train cars are not nearly as stuffy as planes and you can get up and walk around, go to the dining car, etc.   Depending on how close to your travel date, you book your train ticket, it can be more expensive. However, if it depends on flying with all of the added costs of gas, parking, etc vs. driving with the gas prices now vs. taking the train, the train is more affordable.  And depending on your destination, it may be a longer trek, but it’s a stress free, comfortable, longer trip. My only downside was spilling coffee on myself, but that was entirely my own fault, not the train’s fault.

Traveling by train is also very environmentally friendly.  I wish that the USA were designed for train travel.   It is also an excellent way to see a good slice of America.  Typically trains travel through towns, for obvious reasons.  Here in these southern towns, the train sometimes travels the middle of Main Street.  You’ll travel by farmland, quarries, industrial areas, and large sections of nothing but natural landscape.  Some towns still seem to value their train stop with pretty, maintained passenger stations.  Others have since gone by the wayside.  Main streets that face the train tracks show what the town was, whether thriving at some point or always a small, two-horse town.  Of course, passing these dying and defunct industries like mills and factories is a sad view of past American lifestyles. 

Take the train somewhere; I guarantee you’ll have an enjoyable ride and get lost in the view of America.

Five Stages of Small-Town Preservation Induced Grief

Sleepy, little towns with a small main street, railroad tracks, a school, and church always appear just so picturesquely American. The pace of life is slower and people don’t have to lock their doors, kids run around barefoot in the summertime, and people just have a good time. That is the general romanticized notion, isn’t it? Is that the reality? Not having lived in a sleepy, small town, I cannot say for sure; however, I would guess that no, romanticized notions are never the reality. They are what they are: romanticized with a mixture of nostalgia and Norman Rockwell.

As a preservationist, sleepy little towns bring mixed feelings, about five stages of emotion every time I drive through a small town.

1. Heartache. My heart aches for this town that has clearly past its heyday. Main street stores are closed and sprawl encroaches or it’s just smack in the middle of nowhere. Either way, its future does not look bright.

2. Imagining. I imagine what revitalization could do for this particular town and everyone near it. Imagine a bustling morning with all of those utopian elements that we love: hardware store, bakery, coffee shop, a few professional businesses, restaurants, everything! I always figure that there must be a way.

3. Wonder. Once the aching and imagining passes, I have to wonder: who lives here? Where do people shop? Where do they work? Truthfully, the answers to these questions will affect any chance of revitalization. The people who live in a town have to want to change things; but, just because preservationists may want to change things, maybe not everyone else does. Preservation is not about creating utopia, but allowing people to love where they live while appreciating the past and respecting the future.

4. Scheming. This is where advocacy comes into play. From here, I scheme about collecting all of my fellow preservationists to develop a plan that would show citizens of a community just how great preservation can be and how much it would help their quality of life.

5. Realization. My thought process has likely extended far beyond the length of time it took to pass through this sleepy town, but the thoughts keep coming. I have to admit that I love sleepy little towns. In an odd paradox, what would we do without them? What sort of a town could get me to ponder new plans with fellow preservationists and reinvigorate my soul? These towns allow my imagination to create stories of their heydays, filling in the present gap. Never short of images in front of our faces in the modern world, don’t you think that it is important to create our own images once in a while?

Part of the draw of Americana and nostalgia, is the fact that they are decaying and of some bygone era. Abandoned buildings and lackluster towns serve to remind us what could happen to everything if we’re not careful. In the same fashion, new developments on top of old farms and demolished-now-shiny-sparking-new city block stand as stark reminders of what we are trying to avoid.

Maybe very few of us could live in one of those sleepy towns, but that’s the point. We need to protect them, but, of course, revitalize some as well. Not every town needs to become a tourist destination, but it should be efficient for the residents. When that is the case, people passing by on a road trip just might stop in one of the restaurants or stores.  And then only some of these towns will cause the fives stages of small town emotional preservation induced grief.

(*Disclaimer/Clarification: ideas in this post refer not to the thriving small towns, but rather those experience severe economic decline.)

Thousand Island Park, NY

Thousand Island Park is an ideal summer vacation community that sits on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York.  Canada is four miles away and there are signs on the island that direct you back to the “U.S. Mainland.”  However, what makes Thousand Island Park so special is its character and history.  Imagine street after street of perfect Queen Anne, Shingle, Stick style houses (most people would say Victorian but as a preservationist, I try to avoid that term.)  The houses are breathtaking and at least on the outside, have not changed much since the early 1900s.  



In the center of Thousand Island Park (TIP) there are tennis courts, a soccer field, a playground, a small library, and a large town green all overlooking the St. Lawrence River and the docks where everyone swims and enjoys the pavilion. The entire community is only as large as a 10 minute run around its perimeter.  About two streets are paved, while the rest are dirt and gravel.  Hardly any fences exist and dogs are everywhere, but obedient.  Children ride their bikes to the “Guzzle” to get candy and ice cream.  Everyone goes to breakfast here, which is delicious.  It’s an idealistic place, almost unbelievably so.  It truly is one of those places where you don’t lock your doors.    (Of course there are quirky rules as well, like only 2 cars per driveway in the town, but it’s a minor puzzle to solve.) 





Had one of my beloved preservation girls, Ali, not grown up here in the summertime, she would not have decided to get married here and none of us would have heard about this wonderful town.  It was a Mary Washington preservation girls (i.e. flamingo lovers) reunion; we had a great time jumping off the dock into the unbelievably clear river water, eating at the Guzzle, and of course, attending the wedding.   The weekend included a preservation presentation to the Landmark Society from Kerry and Ali, but I won’t give away the details.  (The next issue of Preservation in Pink will include an article about TIP.  No one is more qualified to tell you about this place than Ali.)  But, three cheers for TIP’s interest in preservation efforts and Mary Wash grads!


Happy Birthday, part 3

And the wishes continue…

Happy Birthday to Elyse Gerstenecker!  Elyse shares my love of road trips (though she is way more hard core) and cheesy roadside architecture.  But she doesn’t drink coffee. Bummer.

And a special happy birthday to my mom, Linda O’Shea!  My mom takes the credit for me finding historic preservation, which is credit I’ll give to her.  She instilled my adoration of historic buildings, abandoned houses, and appreciating the past.  My mom has a preservationist’s heart indeed.  She continues to love all of our preservation efforts and continues to encourage me with things like this:

Wherever all of this takes you, it will always be of your own making and not something you “just fell into” like so many other people’s careers.  I think this was the perfect field for you; this mixture of the past and the future can be a very fulfilling combination. 

And my mom even fuels the flamingo thing by buying me plastic flamingo lawn ornaments, a flamingo crossing road sign, and converse sneakers with flamingos all over them. (I’m not kidding.)

Here is photograph of me, my mom, and my sister Sarah on our big road trip two summers ago.  We are in the Black Hills of South Dakota with Mount Rushmore in the background.  Now that was a road trip.

Black Hills of South Dakota

Black Hills of South Dakota

An Implicit Responsibility

Theories about saving the world (or at least one town) and ideas on integrating multiple disciplines in order to improve quality of life through historic preservation, spread like wildfire between preservationists and like-minded individuals.  Everything seems so simple when we are all in one mindset, supporting each other and developing our plans.  Life is great amongst preservationists.

However, what happens when we converse with people of complete opposite opinions?  Our ideas are often scoffed at and ignored.  Disbelievers in preservation exist everywhere.  Of course, developers come to mind, as well the corporate world.  Or maybe it’s a neighbor who just doesn’t understand or someone who just doesn’t care.  Even worse, sometimes we encounter people in our profession who are jaded by this uphill battle.  The conversations are no longer easy and entertaining. 

Conveying preservation ideals becomes a challenge.  Terms like historic integrity, sense of place, quality of life, National Register, view shed, etc., are not colloquial terms.  Amongst colleagues, we can toss these words around without having to explain them. But, out of our comfort zones, our terms and ideas often require explanation and proof.  And it is not always an easy task.

Maybe everyone does not have this problem, but, often when someone asks me what I do, I have trouble formulating a concise response because I know that this person does not want a long explanation.  It’s the kind of question that someone asks to be polite, because I am the new person at an event to which I’m accompanying Vinny or my family.  Historic preservation is still not very well known and oral history is even less known.  When trying to explain my profession I have developed a typical response, although I never feel like it does justice to what I really want to say.  What I would like to do is to sit down and explain historic preservation or the benefits of oral history, for example.  That, however, is not realistic, so, what I do say usually goes something like this:

I have a degree in historic preservation and right now I’m doing oral history work.  Fort Bragg owns an old Rockefeller estate that dates to the early 20th century as a hunting club when wealthy businessmen would travel down from New York. I am interviewing people who have lived there and worked there in order to learn about the history.  In the end we will be creating a cd-rom that is essentially a virtual tour of Overhills with clips of interviews and historic photographs and documents.

Basically, that is what I do, but it’s a sub-par explanation.  So why do I use this reflex of a response?  Well, people who aren’t interested in history and preservation will not want a longer explanation.  If they are interested, they’ll ask me additional questions and then I can elaborate.   I’m still relatively unsatisfied with my response. Does anyone have a solution?

The skill of effectively discussing and explaining historic preservation is one that we all need to have and to practice.  Of course we understand each other, but getting preservationists on our preservation side is not what we need to achieve.  The people who we need to effectively talk to are those who remain unfamiliar with historic preservation and its various fields.  Whether our audience is people of complete opposite professions or just someone who has not yet been exposed to preservation, nothing is more important than articulating preservation as an interesting and important field.

When people are willing to listen, this is not a difficult task.  However, when someone could care less and your statements are challenged, it is another skill to stay calm, collected, and coherent without becoming frustrated.  Sometimes these situations are easier to avoid; I’m sure I’ve avoided such a conversation in the past.  Maybe we are not always up for the task of defending (as that can be the case) our passion and livelihood.  If we think of the task as defending and explaining all of historic preservation it seems impossible.  Instead, think of a smaller goal.  Who are you talking to?  There is something in preservation for everyone; we know that.  Maybe you can mention tax credits, local festivals, a historic site that children will love, a farmer’s market, a cultural event.  (This is a very short list so feel free to add more to share with everyone.)

This method of sharing preservation is easiest in steps or intervals, one step at a time, one piece at a time.  The truth is that not a single one of us can interest everyone in all of preservation. It is a slow exposure, but a duty that we cannot avoid.  It’s not always easy and it’s not always fun, but aside from doing our day to day jobs, we have to introduce people to what we do and share the best parts.  Without more people, historic preservation will not grow.  I hope everyone will join me in resolving to practice my historic preservation explanations, catering to my audience.  By taking a deep breath (not a visible one, that would be weird to the person I’m talking to) and getting my thoughts in line (quickly) I will do my best to introduce an interesting piece of historic preservation to that person.  And one by one, all fields will combine and work together and we will improve everyone’s quality of life, thereby saving the world.

More Candles

August is just a preservation birthday month.  Happy Birthday to Laurel Hammig!  Have a wonderful birthday in our favorite town of Fredericksburg!