Looking for teams

CALUMET – Stereotypically, teenagers spend a lot more time thinking about the future than the past. But given a chance to compete against their peers, their knowledge of local history can grow to encyclopedic proportions, and spawn an interest that can last a lifetime.

That’s the point of the Keweenaw National Historic Park’s High School Local History Smackdown, and the park has opened registration for its April 24 Smackdown at the Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University.

According to Brian Hoduski, KNHP’s chief of museum and archival services, the Smackdown is similar to a spelling bee, with teams of up to four students quizzed on names, locations and events in local history. Teams are allowed one mistake, then eliminated from the tournament with their second missed question, and question difficulty increases the longer teams survive.

“It’s a lot of fun, and we get lots of good feedback,” Hoduski said. “A lot of students involved have gone on to work for the Park Service after high school.”

That’s exactly the sort of result organizers were seeking when they held the first annual Smackdown in 2003, when the event was created as an extension of the park’s monthly Fourth Thursday local history lecture series, Hoduski said.

The lectures, which travel throughout Keweenaw, Houghton, Baraga and Ontonagon counties, weren’t drawing young attendees, he said, and park workers didn’t see many teenagers working at or visiting local historical sites.

“We wanted to put together a local history event that was fun and students could get engaged in,” he said.

The rest, as they say, is history. Hundreds of local students have since participated, with last year’s Smackdown drawing 12 teams.

Last year’s winning team was the Diamond Match Devils, from Ontonagon Area High School, continuing a six-year dynasty for Ontonagon, where history is serious business.

According to Bruce Johanson, one of Ontonagon’s coaches, many of the school’s winning team members have been former summer interns with the Ontonagon Historical Society, which hires students to work with artifacts, archiving and answering questions for visitors.

“We’re used to getting kids who hit the ground running,” said Johanson, who’s also prominent in the historical society. “Those kids actually have a little leg up.”

In the next few weeks, all of Ontonagon’s participants will begin training once or twice a week after school at the society’s museum, and will be split into teams shortly before the Smackdown.

“Bruce will tell stories about what happened, and then he’ll ask questions,” said Ontonagon senior Logan Graff, a returning member of last year’s champions. “We’ll go over them repetitively sometimes, kind of like a group study.”

Ontonagon’s regimen may be intimidating, but there is hope for other teams, even newcomers to the Smackdown, Hoduski said. Normally, because creating them is time consuming, questions are rotated back into use after four years. Students will never see the same question in their high school career, but longtime coaches might begin to know what to expect.

But this year, the Smackdown will be focused on the Copper Miner’s Strike of 1913-14, and the majority of questions will be brand new.

Also, about 80 percent of questions will come from predetermined sources, which KNHP has provided to the school libraries of traditional entrants, and has on hand to give to any other schools that register.

For Graff, the Smackdown is an opportunity to test his own abilities and to show school pride. But his knowledge of history is also something more meaningful.

“I think it’s important to learn about history, especially of your local area,” he said. “If you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know who you are.”

Public and private schools from Keweenaw, Houghton, Baraga and Ontonagon counties are invited to register, and multiple teams from each school are welcome. For more information, or to register, call Hoduski at 906-483-3026, or email