How to Delve Into the Dark: An Opinion on Interpreting the Harmon Farm

Photo credit to Philip Pane ’17.
Harmon Farm lands, photo credit to Philip Pane ’17.

By Matt LaRoche ’17

A number of weeks ago, I put out a series of pieces focusing on some of the goals and hitches that come with the territory of historical preservation (see “A Vision for a Place: A Commentary on the Rehabilitation of the Harmon Farm” and “Stewarding Our Lands: Historical Preservation in Gettysburg”). To make these topics more bite-sized, I pared my focus down to the recently-preserved Harmon Farm property on Gettysburg’s outskirts. A commenter later asked for my thoughts on the matter of how to present what’s just been preserved in our backyard, so I will try to do that issue justice in this post.

Firstly, the changes that Andrew L. Dalton, the Harmon Farm’s leading scholar, recommended must be made. Decades as a country club/golf course/resort hotel have altered the topography of the place, especially with the addition of that honking water feature. Whatever was brought in must be taken out. But beyond those obvious changes, the question of how to shape the site for presentation to the public becomes open to discussion. Often the debate over how to present a site falls along two distinct lines that can be summarized with the question, “Do you want more or less human intervention at the site?” For this particular site, I say more. I want to see the golf cart paths repurposed to lead people around a circuit of explanatory waysides and perhaps stone outlines to mark the foundations of the actual buildings of the farm, where applicable.

This approach stands in opposition to another interpretive trend which emphasizes letting the place speak for itself as much as possible and which tries to avoid breaking the natural lines and contours of the land with new structures. The end result of this approach is often a gorgeous, sylvan setting, but one that doesn’t always relate what I think a battlefield should relate—a sense of tragedy, confusion, momentousness, the possibility of no-win scenarios, and important metaphysical weights that all too often leave horrid physical as well as mental marks.

Put simply, more human intervention seems necessary at a place like the Harmon Farm because the story of humans—and the things they make and break—is paramount on a battlefield. To understand why people charged a portion of ground, chose to raze a building, or built a breastwork, it is crucial to see what they saw as much as possible. Wherever we still have the ground as it was, or the ruins, or the breastworks, their presence is invaluable. But these sites are few and far between. We must admit that enough has changed that we will never see the sites quite like our predecessors did. The best we can do is impressionistic—we can give visitors an environment that feels right even with its imperfections. I believe that with waysides to relate the story, and a landscape returned to the original as much as possible, a meaningful impression of the Farm could impact visitors.

Work on sites like the Harmon Farm is important. It is unfortunate, but I believe as Megan Kate Nelson argues in her book Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War that the nation lost something when it chose to pretty up its battlefields by burying the disappointing ruins of its past under green fields and new constructs that spoke of progress without the need for reflection. There is a plethora of reasons as to why people bury their history, but I am convinced that sanitation is never the best answer in the long run. As I see it, the reason for this is simple—ruins remind people of the fragility of life. War reveals our fragility like little else, and while the evidence of rebirth that one sees in as beautiful a place as Gettysburg’s fields and forests offers a poignant metaphor, the metaphor loses some of its power without fully experiencing the dark backdrop that a shattered place—a broken home like the Harmon Farm—can provide. It takes effort to see and feel darkness unimaginable. Despite the difficulty, each generation must learn the lessons left to them, because terrible things happen when a generation forgets their duty to be their brother’s keeper.

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