As a resident of Mt. Vernon, I was shocked to learn about the June 16th fire at the Dan Emmett House, one of Mt. Vernon’s most important, if modest, historic properties. Every August the town celebrates the legacy of Dan Emmett with its annual arts and music festival which takes over the town center with lots of music, festivities and family fun. So Dan Emmett is hardly an unknown name! Like many people, I’ve been asking myself, How did this happen?
More than any other piece of American music, Dan Emmett’s Dixie shows how complex, challenging and yet historically rich was the Civil War era. Emmett’s I Wish I Was in Dixie forces us to consider many complex topics—the genre of blackface minstrelsy, the meaning of slavery in the popular American imagination, Ohio as a crossroads of North and South, copyright and authorship in the 19th century music industry—all wonderfully encapsulated by the title of Howard and Judith Sacks’ scholarly study about the song’s origins, Way up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem.
The story of Emmett’s Dixie mirrors the history of Mt. Vernon, where Emmett was born and where he is believed to have drawn the inspiration for the song. Mt. Vernon has its own mixed heritage of early settlement from northern and southern states, and this history provides the perfect context for understanding Emmett’s famous song and its complicated legacy.
The job of interpreting this history just became more difficult, following the June arson attack. The Knox County Historical Society owns the building and used it to present copies of historic Emmett memorabilia and—luckily—only one historic artifact. The Historical Society was taking advantage of the location of the house nearby the new Erie to Ohio bike path and entrance to the Ariel Foundation Park to welcome visitors with scheduled tours. Following the fire, the Historical Society is planning next steps to rescue the building. Donations may be directed to the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon and Knox County, mvkcfoundation.org.
The Dan Emmett House fire offers a chance to reflect on the meaning of community history and the material—such as historic properties and artifacts—that turns history into a living heritage. So here’s the question that this issue brings up for me, and a possible solution.
What’s worse: if the criminals who vandalized the historic home were aware it was the birthplace of the community’s most notable historic resident or, if they set fire to the structure WITHOUT knowing its significance? Mt. Vernon is not alone in facing this kind of mindless vandalism of a historically significant building. In 2008, a group of teenagers broke into the Vermon home Robert Frost summered in for twenty years and caused $10,000 of damage, without knowing the house’s importance—or anything about the poet. Their punishment? A class on Frost’s poetry. Arson is a serious public safety issue and it will take much more than $10,000 to restore the Dan Emmett House now. I hope the authorities find who’s responsible and that the punishment fits the crime. The sentence should including hundreds of hours of community service to care for—and learn about!—local heritage properties.
For information on Emmett’s I Wish I Was in Dixie and the question of its authorship: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixie_(song)
For Dan Emmett and local history: http://www.danemmettfestival.org/index.php/events/dan-emmett-house-tours
On Dixie’s continuing controversy: http://www.localmemphis.com/story/d/story/home-of-dixie-composer-burns-in-possible-arson/19861/Od92BBQOakmPLny9EIgMYA