Monday, April 6, 2009

Military History and Whiskey

Military historians at a whiskey tasting

This past weekend I was in the Boro volunteering on a number of fronts, and one of those was working at the Society of Military Historians conference. I am not a military historian. Actually, the reason why I have a BS in Psychology is because I wanted to study people, but thought that history was only the study of wars and I had absolutely no interest in that. My MA is in history and I love the work that I do in the field of public history, but I still find that I avoid anything faintly military or war related. I almost fanatically focus on social history. My work with the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area focuses on homefront/occupation stories during the war but my real interest is in Reconstruction (to me the Civil War is the "what" and Reconstruction is the "so what" that contextualizes what the war meant and how it shaped lives). I was heartened to hear at the SMH conference that the new military history is more than just strategy and tactics, but it is also about the social history that contextualizes the wars.

This meant that even though I was volunteering in order to help a friend and colleague (who was in charge of the conference), I was able to interact some with the participants. Friday I was in charge of a busload of folks who did a field trip out to Jack Daniel's Distillery. On the trip there I was able to talk through the geography of Tennessee, talk about the mystery of red bud trees (their buds are purple and folks not from the region always ask about them, I figure that they were named by some poor color blind man), and then discuss the Tullahoma Campaign during the Civil War, which went through that area, and the WWII story of that region. Tullahoma had a CCC camp called Camp Forrest (before that it was a National Guard post called Camp Peay), which later became a training camp for the WWII maneuvers, and then became a POW camp for Nazis. Tennessee hosted several WWII training camps in order to train soldiers before they went to war in Germany, and the rationale was that the geography in Middle Tennessee was similar to what they would find in Germany.

In some ways it was similar, and in some ways it wasn't. The German POWs were rented out to farmers who used those men as farm hands for bringing crops, particularly tobacco. There are some great oral histories where POWs are either talking about the grueling work or farmers are talking about what it was like to have Nazis working on their farms.

So I was surprisingly able to talk about some of the military related history of the area and had a lot of social history information that tied those stories directly to the landscape we were traveling through. Once there, we did the standard tour of the distillery (which is free and fabulous). I was telling my crew of people that I am a frequent visitor to the distillery because I love what they do so much. In terms of marketing, ecological sensitivity, and public history, Jack Daniels does it better than just about anyone. They know what they are doing and they do it extremely well. They work in affiliative marketing techniques throughout the tour, it is authentic and very personable, you get a ton of local history related to the area and the operation of this National Register site (the first registered distillery in the country), plus you learn how they recycle nearly every part of their operation. Seriously impressive and well worth the trip.

Inside a barrel barn at Jack Daniel

But what made this trip exceptional was that we had a whiskey tasting with the Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett. I have a new found appreciation for whiskey after being led through the tasting by a professional. After that we did the usual browsing around the square in Lynchburg and then on up to BBQ hill, which is just above the distillery. We had amazing food and heard good music. But what made the experience up there truly exceptional was that the view was stunning and every once in a while, the wind would shift and the sweet smell of the mash from the distillery would waft over to you. Incredible.

Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller

It is the full Jack Daniel's experience. And the time spent with the military historians has given me the opportunity to rethink my super sensitivity to military history. I'm never going to be a military historian, but I see some opportunities for bridging some gaps between what I do and what they do.

View from BBQ Hill above Lynchburg, TN

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