By Sarah Auerbach
Did you know that a Utah developer once shipped a forty-ton building brick by brick through the U.S. Postal Service?
No? Neither did many residents of Utah, until they heard it on the Beehive Archive.
The Beehive Archive is a weekly radio broadcast on Utah Public Radio and Salt Lake County’s KCPW radio station. A snippet of lively fiddle music sails across the airwaves, followed by the voice of Megan van Frank, the archive’s program manager and reporter. “Welcome to the Beehive Archive,” says van Frank, “a two-minute look at some of the most pivotal and peculiar events in Utah’s history.”
What follows are brief, lively narratives highlighting the people, events, and themes that make Utah’s history rich. The program has won two awards: In 2007, it was named the best mini radio show in the Salt Lake City market by the Deseret News, and in 2010 it was touted by the SLC History Examiner as number one in its top five podcasts about the past.
Five years ago, Brandon Johnson, who preceded van Frank at the Utah Humanities Council, developed the archive. “He was looking for a creative outlet for his own writings about an interest in history, and also trying to figure out, ‘How can we get Utah history out there in ways that aren’t dry and curmudgeonly?’” van Frank says.
For Johnson and van Frank, making history accessible also means making the archive, which numbers nearly 150 episodes, widely available. Johnson developed a blog to accompany the archive; it’s defunct now, but you can still read scripts of episodes from Johnson’s era there. The archive is at www.utahhumanities.org/BeehiveArchive.htm, and about fifty episodes are downloadable from iTunes. Van Frank sends transcripts of the episodes to the Utah Press Association, which distributes them weekly to member newspapers.
I curled up on my couch with my iPod and discovered that three years before Charles Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight, a Utah aviator, Russell Lowell Maughan, flew from New York’s Mitchel Field to San Francisco’s Crissy Airfield in 21 hours, 48 minutes, and 30 seconds. He flew solo in his Curtiss Hawk, beating the sun in a dawn-to-dusk trip that averaged 150 miles per hour. A newspaper of the time noted: “A little over 70 years ago, the covered wagon of pioneer days took 11 months to do what the modern airplane accomplished today from dawn to dusk.” In fact, Maughan’s own grandfather, a Mormon pioneer who settled Cache Valley, made that wagon trip.
The archive stories come from all over. Van Frank finds them in books, in her own family history, and on her travels through Utah. While strolling the streets of Vernal, she spotted a plaque that told the story of how William Horace Coltharp shipped all the bricks for the town’s bank through the postal service. After Coltharp’s misuse of the service, the USPS issued the following statement: “It is not the intent of the United States Post Office that buildings be shipped through the mail.”
There’s a piece on the history of African-American slavery in the state, one about the now-defunct Salt Lake City Chinatown, and stories that highlight the accomplishments of other minorities. And there’s plenty of majority culture too—stories about the Mormons and their role in Utah’s founding and development. Prominent visitors to Utah, including Mark Twain and John Muir, get their two minutes of fame.
Tracking the archive’s success is not easy: 45,000 listeners can tune in, but judging how many do is challenging. Van Frank depends largely on anecdotal evidence of the archive’s appeal, often in the form of comments on the website. One listener wrote in about the segment Plum Alley: Salt Lake’s Once Vibrant Chinatown, “Very cool. I had no idea there ever existed a Chinatown in SLC.”
I hadn’t known about Chinatown either. And I confess, I had no idea that Utahan Philo T. Farnsworth had invented television, nor that the children of Salt Lake’s Ridgemont Elementary School fought for two years to convince Utah legislators to place Farnsworth’s statue in the National Statutary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. When their first year of campaigning came to naught, those kids enlisted the media—and won over the public. That’s what the Beehive Archive is all about: the power of the media to teach us about history and our role in it.