Friday, October 10, 2008

You've got (really old) mail

Today is the final day of another vehicular reenactment—a 24-day pilgrimage along the 2,800-mile route of the Butterfield Overland Mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. Wells Fargo’s extensive public history program has been sponsoring the rolling commemoration of the arrival of the first overland mail coach’s arrival in San Francisco in the small hours of October 10, 1858. In addition to its network of corporate museums, which stretches from Anchorage to Minnesota to San Diego, Wells Fargo maintains a fleet of reproduction stagecoaches that it considers its “living logos,” but for this trip, it supplied the curator of one of its nine museums with an RV from which he’s been blogging and vlogging his way across the western half of the country.

Founded in 1852, Wells Fargo has a particularly long corporate history to chronicle. It’s interesting to speculate about the intangible value of the Wells Fargo name (and heritage) in its acquisition in 1998 by Minnesota-based Norwest Corporation, which then took on the more famous name. To quote the New York Times on the merger, “No bank in America has a more storied history” (and am I the only one who thinks that the word “storied” is overdue for a rest? Ever since that storied franchise the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, I seem to be hearing it everywhere. And in this “historic” election and financial cycle, the word history itself has gotten similarly overworked, in this anthropologist’s humble opinion.)

If I’m sounding testy, it’s probably because I’m ready for a vacation—and in fact I’m hitting the road myself this coming week. Destination: oil heritage country in western New York and Pennsylvania. In case you didn’t realize it, that’s where this whole petroleum thing really got started. I’m not travelling in an RV, but lest fingers still point (“You said you were trying to find ways to use your car less!”), I should point out in return that despite the cooler weather, I’m using as high a proportion of biodiesel in my tank as I figure I can get away with. And my first tour stop is going to be Liberty e-Bikes in Knoxville, PA, to try to buy myself an electric bicycle.

But I realize it’s still problematic to drive for hundreds of miles to go and contemplate how we got so mired in a petroleum-driven economy. Heritage is full of interesting contradictions. Stay tuned.

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