The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 12, 2013

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Smithsonian exhibit celebrates 150 years of American worker, sparks recollections in visitors

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni

FRANKLIN, Kan. — Every day we do what we do because we like it or we have to. Teachers teach, doctors prescribe, lawyers defend.

Electricians wire, artists create, musicians perform.

We clock in and clock out, and hope that, in some way, what we’re doing is making a difference and earning us a paycheck.

Occasionally, journalists find a worker who has a compelling enough story that we want to share it with others, and he or she becomes a headline. But the rest go largely unnoticed, until our power goes out or our garbage stacks up, and we realize how much we need them.

It’s been that way since America began, through industrialization, urbanization, immigration, labor unrest, wars and economic depression.

We toiled in mines and on tractors, got backaches at typewriters and on assembly lines, overcame challenges dealing with immigration and ethnicity, slavery and racial segregation, wages, technology, gender and class.

Luckily, along the way photographers — another vital job — captured images to document those everyday moments. Those images are part of the Smithsonian exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” on display for the next six weeks in a new museum built, appropriately, by a group of dedicated people on the site of a former miners’ union hall.

On Friday night, I was among a group of 150 guests who got a sneak peek.

There is an image of some fishermen harvesting herring off the Maine coast in 1969. And one of some row croppers weeding sugar beets in 1972. And one of workers on the first moving assembly lines at the Ford Motor Co. in 1913 in Michigan.

There’s also an antique typewriter, a miner’s helmet, a cowboy hat. And there are modern components, as well: iPads with touch screens and phone numbers to use with cellphones to hear recordings of local celebrities, who tell more about what you’re seeing.

There also are two incredible works of original art, “Working for the Man” and “Outspoken Persistence,” created by Oklahoma natives Antonio and Holly Boyd-Martinez especially for the museum as an homage to those who built Southeast Kansas.

But to me, the most interesting part of the exhibit was the recollections it sparked from others in attendance Friday night.

People like Gi Gi Sachetta, a retired coal miner, who near a replica coal shovel told stories of his days on a real one. And Jack Alvested, who remembered in college using the antiquated computer punch cards now on display behind glass. This was their history. They lived it.

Pittsburg resident J.T. Knoll, whose wife, Linda, has played an integral role in the museum’s development, stopped at the coal mining display I was looking at and shared a little family history. His father’s father, Matt Knoll, began working in a Chicopee coal mine at age 12, and would spend the next 50 years in the industry. Six of his seven descendants completed college, four with master’s degrees.

J.T. was emotional when I asked what the exhibit meant to him.

“It means,” he paused for a moment, swallowing tears. “It means you hear them whispering in your ear, ‘Thanks for not forgetting about us.’”

The Smithsonian exhibit is free and now open to the public. It will be on display through June 23 during museum hours, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. To schedule a group tour, people may call 620-249-9333.

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