Matt Thorenz has previously worked as a historic site educator and is now a librarian. His article “Substitutes, Servants, and Soldiers: African American Soldiers at New Windsor Cantonment” appeared in our Spring 2015 issue of the Journal. This summer, we created and published two lesson plans utilizing the article and his research.Links to those lessons appear in the interview below.
1. What influenced your entrance into the field of history?
I was always curious about where things came from, and how we got to where we are today. Growing up, I remember my parents taking me to Gettysburg and other historic sites that fueled my interest in the past. When I entered high school, I started participating in Revolutionary War reenactments and realized I wanted to make a career out of history education.
2. Are you a native to the Hudson River Valley?
I grew up on the East End of Long Island and moved to the Hudson Valley 10 years ago when I started my undergraduate studies. Living in both places has given me a great opportunity to see how different regions of New York identify what is historically important to them.
- Can you describe your typical work day?
I’m the Head of Reference and Adult Services at a busy public library, so every day is different. My duties involve collection development; making sure we order materials that are diverse, and relevant to our patrons needs, scheduling programs for our adults, answering reference questions, and making sure that our local history materials are organized and accessible. I always say: “I wear many hats, but my archivist one is my favorite”.
- The content of your article, “Substitutes, Servants, and Soldiers: African American Soldiers at New Windsor Cantonment” is fascinating; what inspired you to write this piece?
When I was working as a museum educator at New Windsor, I was curious as to how many African Americans served in the Continental Army while stationed there. My supervisor encouraged me to research and prepare a presentation for the site in honor of Black History Month. I am also interested in the lives of the common soldiers of Washington’s army, who never left as extensive a written record as their commanding officer, so this project fit in well with my personal interest.
- Follow up question: How long did this project take to research and construct?
The project took approximately six months, to a year to put together. Our site had a great research library, so I dedicated at least 2 hours a day to research, whether at work or in between classes.
- I am not sure if you have had a chance to look at the lesson plans created based on your article, using the following links please share your thoughts on how you respond to your article being converted into lesson plans to be utilized in a classroom?
I’m honored to have my work used in lesson plans that will help students think critically about the past. I hope it will create a dialogue that leads to increased interest in this topic and inspire future research.
- Based on your professional experience, can you explain the differences between education within the classroom environment versus historic site education?
In my experience as a museum educator who has worked with school groups one of the main differences is the flexibility. Where classroom teachers have to teach to a set curriculum, historic sites can focus on a specific individual or event that ties into what the students are learning in class. The best history teachers I had were ones that either took us on field trips or did something unique in the classroom that made the lesson more meaningful.
- What is your favorite historic site that you have visited?
One of my favorite historic sites was the Benjamin Franklin House in London. It offered a unique experience in that, unlike other house museums, there was barely any furniture or objects. Instead the focus was on how Benjamin Franklin’s stay in London between 1757 and 1775 shaped his political views. The creative use of lighting and surround sound gave the feeling that the house was still occupied as you went on the tour.
- Do you have any previous projects related to the content of this article, or prior works that classroom educators may benefit from using?
Two years before undertaking my current project, I conducted research on Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas Gee of the 2nd Continental Artillery. I was able to uncover Gee’s “Orderly Book” during the time he served during the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition in 1779, as well as some of his records relating to his prior service in the 3rd New York Regiment in 1775. I think his orderly book can tell students a lot about what daily life was like as a soldier garrisoning a frontier outpost during the American Revolution. The fact he lived in Orange County, NY might be of interest to local schools.
- What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment?
To date, the project I am most fond of is the conservation and reproduction of the 1709 land patent for the Hamlet of Wallkill in Ulster County. It was my first project after receiving my Masters in Library Science, and involved working with conservators and archivists to preserve a piece of history that had basically been forgotten. A digital copy of the patent was made and is currently on display at Wallkill Valley Federal Savings and Loan in the Hamlet of Wallkill.
- Can you describe your current project, and what your goal is?
My current project is the creation of a special collections unit for the Moffat Library of Washingtonville. Our current goal is to organize a storage space, and put policies in place that allow our collections to be shared with our patrons, and preserved for future generations. I would eventually like to use our collections to educate our patrons about the unique history of our region, and what effect it has on our lives today.
- With all of this hard work how do you prefer to relax?
I am a perpetual learner, so I enjoy picking up new skills, like mountain biking and gardening. I am also an avid horror movie fan, and enjoy going to punk concerts. When I’m not at my day job, you can still see me volunteer at New Windsor Cantonment for special events.
-Emily Hope Lombardo, Marist ’15