Student story: Gibault students become historians

In an unconventional turn of events, students at Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo are being given a unique opportunity in their Saint Louis University 1818 American History class — to become “supporting authors on a published historical work,” as teacher Matthew Schweizer puts it.

The junior class of Gibault, who are all 16 or 17 years old, are writing new historical plaques that will be mounted on approximately 50 centennial buildings in downtown Waterloo.

The idea behind the project was part of a plan to “revamp” the city’s historical district and to get more people interested in the past of Waterloo; however, doing so is a time-consuming task for historians in the city. This is where the juniors come in — Schweizer volunteered the class to complete the plaques after hearing of the project from Mayor Tom Smith over the summer.

“The plaques are going to be sort of a biography of these buildings. The first step is to find out who owned the building and when, and the second part is figuring out its use,” Schweizer said.

These “biographies” are still going to be time consuming, as the final round of biographies aren’t due until May.

The project is replacing the annual 16-page research paper for the year. Students enrolled in the 1818 course typically have to write this essay, as well as other smaller ones; however, Schweizer thinks this project will be equally beneficial to the students.

“There’s a real service component to this. It’s a really cool thing we’re doing for Waterloo,” Schweizer said. “In addition to that, it is a life skill that people know how to look up property deeds and things like that. You should know how local government works and this gives them a really good view of that.”

The students also agreed this project is one of the more interesting, educational projects they’ve worked on.

“It feels like another time, another place, and it’s great to be able to look back and almost experience what your life could have been like in your own hometown 50 or 100 years ago,” said Abby Mueller, a junior at Gibault. Abby and her group are looking into the past of what is currently the Bean Tree Café.

When they began researching, Abby’s group got a special treat. After setting up a tour with the owner of the Bean Tree Café, they were surprised when that tour included a trip to the cellar, which had a few interesting stories they didn’t expect.

“I really like nostalgia like that. Especially since it’s so old, there have been so many people that owned it,” she said. “Just to be able to see the entirety of the building, especially things like hearing legends of the building like hiding the Underground Railroad people in it. It’s just really neat.”

While anything sounds better than writing a research paper to most high school students, it isn’t as easy as one might think, as the students are finding out.

Jeff DeMond and Laura Kimlinger, who are part of a group working on the plaque for the Thouvenot, Wade & Moerchen building, say they spent several hours researching to find just a few of the previous owners of the building.

“Originally we were like, ‘Oh, this should be easy’ but then you get to the courthouse and you spend two hours there and you only find one person from a family they sold (the building) to when they were six,” Jeff said.

Laura continued, “And (the document) isn’t in alphabetical order; it’s by date. You have to scan and go through every single name until you find your (building), and it’s handwritten. It’s really messy, because they’re all smudged, scribbled there.”

Schweizer hopes to have all 50 biographies finished by the end of the 2014-2015 school year, with students completing two biographies — one biography as a group due in December, and one due in May that the students have written on their own.

There are about 50 plaques to be completed before the end of the school year, and Schweizer is even taking on a few of his own buildings to research and write a biography on in order to complete this large, yet rewarding, task.

Everyone helping to compose the biographies will be known as supporting authors on a published historical work, quite an accomplishment for these students who will soon be applying for colleges.