School Project Inspires Blog, Book on Homewood’s Past
By Emily Williams
Jake Collins, a part-time history buff and full-time Homewood Middle School teacher, has created a history blog that tries to infuse Homewood’s past into his students’ daily lives.
Three years ago, after being approached by students with the idea, Collins began seeking out historic Homewood locations and posting photos of them outside of his classroom. Students would then hunt for the location and take their own pictures for extra credit.
Through a collaboration with long-time Homewood resident Martha Wurtele, Collins is co-authoring a book about the history of Homewood.
When Collins, a Homewood native, moved back to the city to teach eighth-grade social studies, he wasn’t sure how to get his students interested in the subject.
“When I first looked at the curriculum and saw Ancient World History, I thought, ‘How in the world do I make this fun for kids?’” Collins said.
Collins consulted a book of Homewood history. After reading the book, he said, he began to see a “link between the development of ancient civilization and the development of Homewood.”
He took old photos of historic areas, supplied by Wurtele, and asked his students if they could find the same spots today. The kids responded well and began asking if they could Instagram pictures of themselves in these historical sites for extra credit points, Collins said.
A year later, Collins and his fellow history teachers at the school began integrating the extra credit opportunity into their classes, setting up an Instagram account to keep track of students’ pictures.
“Last year, we probably had close to 1,000 kids posting using the hashtags on Instagram,” Collins said.
In August, Collins started the blog Homewood History Hunt and has since posted a new historical site each week for his students to find.
“Three years into it, I’ve even noticed how much parents of students know about the history of Homewood,” he said. “Most people weren’t aware that there used to be a lake right around here, and now it’s becoming common knowledge.”
What began as an extra credit opportunity has turned into a book deal with Arcadia Publishing. Collins and Wurtele will co-author a book on Homewood for the company’s Images of America series, set to be released in December.
Wurtele has a vast quantity of historical photographs which she has been building for years, she said. In the late 1980s, she began heavily researching the people and places in each photograph while expanding her collection.
“I focused on the period before we ever became a city, up until Edgewood was incorporated,” she said.
Wurtele found that before incorporation, the area that is now Homewood was made up of dairy farms. The original ordinance was used as a means to confine roaming cattle.
“Farmers actually start the cities,” said Wurtele, quoting Daniel Webster’s belief that “when tillage begins, other arts will follow.”
When Collins first approached Wurtele asking to use her pictures for his Historical Hunt, Wurtele said she did not hesitate to open up her entire collection. Both share a strong passion for local history and favorite historical hot-spots around Homewood.
Wurtele said her favorite piece of Homewood history is her own home.
“It was built in 1899,” she said. “When I started doing my research many years ago, I interviewed the granddaughter of the people who built it.”
Due to more than 40 years of interviews and research, Wurtele is able to name each person who belongs to the family responsible for building her house, she said.
Collins’ favorite spots include the old site of Oxmoor Furnace, Edgewood Lake and the electric car line that ran through Homewood to the lake. Unlike Wurtele’s home, none of Collins’ favorite spots are in use today, but signs of their existence can still be found.
“If you go over to Central Park in Homewood, where Manhattan T’s into Park Ridge, you can actually still see some of the tracks that go into the woods,” Collins said. “People drive by that every day and don’t even notice it.”
The two soon-to-be authors are always on the lookout for more information and call on the community for help. They have hosted two library days, during which local history enthusiasts were invited to bring historical photographs and stories. More than 100 people, including 30 children, attended the last library day.
Wurtele said it’s important to share local history for two reasons.
“First of all, so it doesn’t repeat itself, but it’s to encourage love of community, I think,” she said.
Collins attributes much of their success to his own students’ creativity. Without the input of his students, the Homewood History Hunt would not exist, he said.
“The great thing about this is that it was all student-driven,” he said. “I didn’t come up with any of this. I just worry so much that in public education we try to stifle that kind of creativity.”
Collins and Wurtele said they will continue gathering information and asking the community for help. They hope to finish collecting information by March. The book is due in July.
All the while, Collins will keep on trying to inspire his students to find pieces of history through the Homewood History Hunt.
For more information, visit www.homewoodhistoryhunt.blogspot.com.