Get to know Grand Rapids (and the world)

Jared Yak, historian

Bartending is one of the reasons I decided I needed to start a project like this. I’ve met a boatload of interesting people in just three months.

Today, I found out why it’s going to be my life saver for the duration of the project. I had planned on just talking with one of the guys from the kitchen today, but within three minutes of starting my shift at the Mitten Brewing Co., I was talking with a patron about putting a new roof on Grand Rapids’ oldest building, the Caulkins Law Office.

The building, built in 1836, now sits across from Jared Yak’s office, the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s collections building. He plays the role of a “forensic historian,” sorting out the crud from the truth that has built up over the years.

Yak said the museum’s collections building has more than 250,000 items in it, and some of it sounds awesome. He said they have glider wings from when Grand Rapids made gliders in World War I, and Bissell has donated one of every vacuum the company has ever made. There are thousands of vacuums. They even have a hearse from the Civil War.

It was clear Yak is passionate about his job. He sat at the bar, talking about the lessons of history and the things he loves about his job. He just applied to Western Michigan to get his Ph.D so he can be a professor.

What he talked about most was the importance of learning about history through immersion and getting out and doing things. It makes a lot of sense, as we started our conversation talking about the roofing job at Caulkins Law Office. The work was an active restoration, and they had to order white cedar from out of state, and had to keep the work as authentic as possible. But as they worked, they came across the old nails and various pieces of construction from the time it was built.

Yak is contracted to speak at schools and teach kids with living history lessons, and the museum recently held a Night at Your Museum, modeled after the movie, “Night at the Museum,” where different exhibits came to life to teach kids about history.

Yak dressed up in his homemade armor, and he and a coworker beat each other up with real swords. At full speed; sparks flying from the metal.

“It didn’t hurt, it was like playing hockey,” he said. He’s a recreational hockey and soccer player.

The armor was hammered over an anvil, and modeled after the real deal. He’s a hands on historian. Using more than just your eyes and ears are important to learning history, and that’s what he thinks everyone needs more of.

He said kids remember more when they’re fully surrounded by the sights, sounds, smells and feel of history. (Side note: my History of Michigan Class at Michigan State was awesome because the professor brought in all sorts of food).

We talked a little bit about his school years, and why I wasn’t a history major (language requirement.) He didn’t need to take any language classes, because he passed his proficiency exam. Why? Because of his study abroad in Germany on an archaeological dig.

The main points of my talk with Yak that I came away with were: Immerse yourself and you’ll learn a whole lot more than just reading or listening. And care about history, “It’s where you come from.”

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