Young local historians qualify for National History Day

PINEDALE – History is more than memorizing dates and places. Students at Pinedale Middle and High School learned that momentous historic events from decades, even centuries ago, shaped today’s world.

“There is just so much leading up to the point that we are in now,” said seventh-grader Kristian Ruch. “That’s what makes history so cool.”

Ruch, seventh-grader Charlie Irrgang and sophomore Wyatt Griffin brought the past to life in exhibits they prepared for the 2022 Wyoming History Day State Contest sponsored by the Wyoming State Historical Society and University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center on April 24-25.

Students presented their exhibits and research findings to a panel of judges, including University of Wyoming faculty members. Pinedale’s budding historians passed with flying colors.

Griffin, Irrgang and Ruch each earned top honors at State and a ticket to the National History Day Contest this summer.

Irrgang snapped up first place in the individual category for her research into the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City.

Ruch examined the history of the League of Nations and took second place in the individual category.

Griffin picked up silver in the high school division for his study about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Griffin also received a $250 award for best use of primary sources.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, flames engulfed the top floors of the Asch Building in New York City.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company operated a garment factory employing hundreds of workers – primarily women and girls – on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors. The fire spread rapidly, fueled by cotton and paper waste, and employees found themselves trapped.

“The (Triangle Shirtwaist Company) managers would lock the doors, so the girls had to use the elevator. But the elevator broke and they couldn’t get out,” Irrgang explained.

The fire claimed the lives of 144 women and two men, Irrgang said. Anger and grief over the avoidable tragedy touched off a wave of protest. Women like Rose Schneiderman led some of the demonstrations, Irrgang said.

The fire spurred debate about “women’s discrimination and (worker) safety laws in New York City,” Irrgang added.

A grand jury indicted the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, for manslaughter. A jury acquitted both men, but survivors and family members filed civil suits.

“The owners of the factory tried to pay off girls to say it wasn’t the facilities’ fault that so many people died,” Irrgang said.

Despite pressure to give in, the lawsuits continued, including a case brought by a 16-year-old girl Irrgang studied.

The horror at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company highlighted dangerous working conditions across the city.

“A hundred people per day died in New York in factories in the early 1900s,” Irrgang said.

The protests that followed the tragedy resulted in significant reform.

“There were 36 new laws that the factories in New York had to follow, or else they would have to be shut down for awhile,” Irrgang explained. “The workers also got more money – from $6 per month to around $24.”

Issues like workplace safety reverberate today, even if they are not on the same scale.

The League of Nations

World War I left Europe bleeding. Countless people died during four years of carnage in the vast networks of trenches. The United States entered the war on April 2, 1917, suffering 323,000 killed and wounded.

World leaders met in Paris following the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. In an effort to avoid future bloodshed, the idea for an international organization was hatched.

The result was the League of Nations, “basically what came before the UN and NATO,” Ruch explained.

The League’s guiding principal was “to combine nations and eradicate wars in general,” Ruch said.

Countries in Europe joined the new organization, including Italy, a country where fascists were gradually taking control, a fact that surprised Ruch.

The democratic United States, on the other hand, did not join the League of Nations, largely due to a concept Ruch called “isolationism.” The American public hesitated to jump into an international organization, concerned that membership might involve the U.S. in the religious and ethnic divides that led to war in Europe, Ruch said.

President Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt led support for the League of Nations, Ruch said.

The League of Nations dissolved after World War II on April 19, 1946.

“The United Nations took over the central position of peace enforcement after the League of Nations fell,” Ruch explained.

The League of Nations formed the basis for international cooperation, a theme still relevant today.

“Definitely with the whole Ukraine-Russia incident, central unification, or peace enforcement, would be well appreciated,” Ruch said.

The Berlin Wall

Millions of people around the world sat glued to their televisions on Nov. 9, 1989, as jubilant Germans smashed their way through the Berlin Wall – a Cold War symbol of division between the East and West.

The fall of the Berlin Wall spelled the beginning of the end of the Cold War, a period in history Griffin found particularly fascinating.

Griffin dug into primary sources, including accounts from people who were in Berlin in November 1989.

“It was very emotional,” Griffin said. “(The Germans) weren’t expecting the fall and they were finally getting to see people on the other side. They were seeing real change in front of their eyes.”

Former President Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall!” speech sparked protests demanding unification in Berlin, Griffin said.

“Over the next couple of years, there started to be something called the Monday Morning Protest where groups of people would gather to protest the Wall,” he added. “At one point, there was over a million people there.”

Months before the Berlin Wall came down, the Communist Government in China murdered dozens of protestors in Tiananmen Square.

“Government officials in Germany and the Soviet Union didn’t want something like that to happen,” Griffin said. “They didn’t know what to do. The wall was bound to fall, eventually.”

On Nov. 9, East German press secretary Gunter Shabowski accidently announced the gates were open, Griffin explained, spurring Berliners to flood across the boundary between East and West.

The fallout still affects nations in the region today.

“The USSR now is Russia, and with everything going on in Russia – it seems like they are trying to gain that power, that land, back,” Griffin said. “That’s the interesting part – learning the background behind today’s events that shaped the world.”

Ruch and Irrgang both thanked Pinedale Middle School social studies teacher and History Day advisor Mitch Irrgang. Griffin gave a shoutout to his parents and sister for their help in the research process.


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