Bill Peterson is the Northern Division Director of the Arizona Historical Society based in Flagstaff, Arizona. He is responsible for all operations and management of that division.
1) If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?
This is a problem for me, impossible to answer; it is like having to choose a favorite record to have on a deserted island to listen to for eternity. It’s like asking a loving parent to choose a favorite child, or for me, to choose my favorite Labrador Retriever! Do they have to be recognized sites, or just there without an interpretive sign telling us all how important they are? Or can they be like an old geographic friend, one that you return to from time to time in your life to seek solace, or feel closer to nature or history?
My number one would be a stretch of beach on Lake Superior’s southern shore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There is one nearly invisible, barely recognized site, the Vermillion Point Life Saving Station, at the West end of the place, and the widely popular Whitefish Point Lighthouse and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum eight or nine miles to the east. I spent my summers there at a family getaway, on the lake, in between these two places. During those youthful summers I spent time with an elderly woman named Janice Gerred who was a retired school teacher from the Lansing area. She too had grown up there, and she knew every bit of history of the ships that had passed by, and more importantly the ships that had sunk on this part of Lake Superior. Mrs. Gerred spent hours telling me these stories over and over. Her father was in the Life Saving Service (U.S. Coast Guard after 1915) and her family operated a cranberry farm that is today one of Michigan’s only centennial cranberry farms.
The stories that Janice told me as a child somehow stuck and I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on the United States Life Saving Service. That place and my childhood experiences there, which included finding wreckage from the Edmund Fitgerald, helped launch my career as a historian. I don’t get to the Great Lakes much anymore, but I miss them and they are always on my mind, like an old friend. One of the places I find very special is the Sleeping Bear Point United States Life Saving Station. The National Parks Service interprets the Life Saving Service there and I have always appreciated that.
Other historic sites that have had and impact on me range from an uninterpreted and quite private buffalo jump in Montana; numerous archaeological and Native American sites in the West where I call home now, and places like Arlington National Cemetery.
2) Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?
My first paying history job was as part of a field archaeology crew for a contract archaeologist. We worked on a native site that is probably a campground or something now. But then I also got a job for the then Michigan Bureau of History at Fayette Townsite on Lake Michigan. I joke now that my job was “ urinal cigarette butt and chewing gum remover,” but really I was a tour guide. Now we call them interpreters. I have also worked as the Curator of Education and Interpretation for the Montana Heritage Commission in Alder Gulch, Montana. I currently hang my hat as the Northern Division Director for the Arizona Historical Society in Flagstaff, where I where I work with an amazing team of people responsible for the 1908 Coconino County Hospital for the Indigent and Riordan Mansion Historic House. This juxtaposition amuses me to no end, we tell the stories of the poor farm and the richest of the rich in early Arizona.
3) If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?
There is a lot they don’t teach you in museum school. There are the average challenges we all face in this industry that involve managing our cultural, human, physical, and financial resources. Most people are somewhat surprised how “corporate” this work really is. IT is probably my number one challenge at work, behind money, visitation numbers, personnel issues, IT has become so important and rapidly changing that it is difficult to keep track of, but we keep our smoke signal machine in working order just in case!
4) What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?
Again these are too numerous to mention. I would like to go to England, Ireland, Germany, and Norway, just to visit the lands of my ancestors. But there are a wide range of sites in the U.S. that I haven’t been able to get to either. I still have ten or twelve states to visit as well as a couple of Canadian provinces that I hope to get to as well. All of my visits would include historic sites and museums.
5) Why do you think people should visit historic sites?
There is very little I can say here that won’t sound cliche, but here goes. Visit a historic site for inspiration.