UROP in History: Documenting Historic Homes in Thomasville, Georgia

Wed, 04/19/23
Laina Leslie

Laina Leslie, a freshman, is working under the guidance of Dr. Kurt Piehler and Ms. Anne McCudden of the Thomasville History Center on a survey of the historic homes in Thomasville. Historic houses are moved, renovated, added on, or pulled down all the time. The THC decided to survey Thomasville every five years to record the changes. This UROP project is the first step in that plan.

Laina received a spreadsheet with the houses listed by street. She decided in which order to photograph them. There is no expectation that Laina completes photographing all the houses on the list, especially as the list keeps growing. The aim is for her to become comfortable with the independent nature of her assignment, understand what is important to include in the pictures she takes, and know how to label her images and upload them to the museum’s database. Laina sees the backstage processes necessary to create a useable and retrievable museum or archival object.

This is the first time that the THC has been involved in mentoring a UROP student. Dr. Piehler, however, has previous experience directing UROP projects.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Laina: I am a freshman majoring in Psychology. I find the human mind fascinating. I have always enjoyed listening to podcasts and reading books on psychology, and then during my first semester at FSU in the Exploratory Program, I realized that that was what I wanted to study.

How did you find out about UROP and what made you apply?

I knew very little about research when I came to FSU, but then I received emails telling me about the UROP opportunity, and I thought I would try it out. I applied to quite a few UROP projects in the humanities or psychology. I realized that I liked History, and I also like photography. I have my own camera. When I read about this project, it stuck out. It takes me to another town, has a photography component to it, and I work all by myself.

What is your project about?

I am photo-documenting for the first time in a systematic manner the historical structures in Thomasville. I am the guinea pig for this project. That means that in the future people will look back to my work and use it to assess the changes that have taken place since.

Tell us more!

I photograph historical houses in Thomasville. I take three pictures of each house, usually, one from each side plus the front. Sometimes, I get a picture of the back too, but that is rare. I can document quite a few houses in one day. When I am done, I take the photos to the THC and upload them to their computer and label the pictures.

The THC gave me a list of the houses they wanted me to photograph. As I started my work, I realized that some of the structures on the list were no longer there, they had been knocked down or moved. When I counted all the listings in the beginning, I think it came to 380 structures, but in the end, there might only be around 300 houses left on the list.

Most of the houses I am documenting are from before 1915, and some are substantially older.

The houses are spread-out all over Thomasville. Often there is one old home surrounded by a lot of newer houses. Some neighborhoods have these very nice, well-preserved historic homes, like Dawson Street. The houses have signs stating when they were built, and who owned them. In other streets, the older homes are less well marked and less well maintained.

What sort of guidance did you receive?

I already knew a bit about photography before I started with the UROP project. I had got a camera while I was in high school. My THC mentor gave me a sheet of instructions on what parts of the house to take pictures of, to make sure that I include the unique features of homes in the pictures.

 I usually go to Thomasville once a week. I walk around the town by myself. Since I go during the week, most people are at work, so I don’t meet many homeowners. Sometimes I have had house owners come out and ask me what I am doing. The THC gave me a letter that explains what I am doing and, overall the encounters have been positive.

We have a UROP seminar class that meets every two weeks in which we can share our project experiences and find out more about doing different kinds of research. Currently, I am also working on my posterboard for the research symposium that the UROP students get to present at. That is both exciting and terrifying at the same time!

What was the most challenging part of the UROP project?

Definitely, staying organized. With around 300 properties on my list to be documented, I found that it is easy to forget to take a picture of the house number or a side of a house. Then I have to go back and redo it. Back at the THC, I have to organize the pictures of the houses according to their street addresses. But that is not information I can record on my camera. When I gather information from multiple streets, it is really important for me to go and upload the pictures right away, so that I don’t muddle things up. Keeping track of all the pictures is the greatest challenge.

What is your favorite part about the UROP experience?

I really enjoy being an explorer. I get to walk around a town and explore different neighborhoods. That is so unlike much of the other research that one can do. I meet and talk with people. I enjoy the outdoors and adventurous aspects of the project.

Also: I love driving to Thomasville along Thomasville Road. It’s a long trip, but the countryside is so pretty!

What is your advice for students who are interested in UROP?

First thing: do your research about UROP and the different projects. Figure out if this is something for you.

Secondly, keep in contact with your mentor. I did not do that in the beginning, and I fell behind in my project because of that. Once I started consistently communicating with my mentor, things fell into place.