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Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 17, 2018

Mike Zahs: History fanatic since his days in one-room schoolhouse

By David Hotle, The JOURNAL | Aug 01, 2018
Mike Zahs gets ready to show some of the Brinton Films Saturday at the Ainsworth Opera House.

Since the Brinton films, and a documentary on them, have become worldwide sensations, Mike Zahs has been traveling a lot, but when asked what his favorite place to go is he always answers “Ainsworth.”

The custodian of the Brinton films, which were discovered in a local basement about 25 years ago, Zahs regularly shares the historic movies with the people of his hometown of Ainsworth. Setting up for one of the shows Saturday, he said he had always known the films were significant, although he admits he didn’t know to what extent. This is the 22nd year for the event and Zahs said people had attended the 2018 screenings from as far as Alaska.

“It’s exciting and still hard to understand, but it is great fun,” Zahs said.

As a longtime Washington School District history teacher, Zahs regularly told his students that history isn’t something that is talked about, but rather something that is done. And he has been “doing history” since he was a small boy growing up on a family farm near Haskins and met many people and heard many stories of being a witness to history.

Zahs attended a one-room schoolhouse and began teaching in third grade. He said as a child he had 10 grandparents who lived nearby and that he knew people who were alive during the Civil War. While he didn’t realize the importance at the time, he now knows having connections that went back that far has shaped what he became.

“Growing up I always had very dear friends who were at least two generations older than me,” he said. “I learned from them.”

While he can no longer have friends two generations older than him now, he regularly develops friendships with people two generations younger, hoping to pass on some of the things people passed on to him.

Attending school, he remembers the seventh and eighth grades (four students) going on a field trip to a woman’s house. The students were instructed to visit with her. Zahs recalls that she remembered Indians. Looking back, he sees his interest in the woman’s stories of the past being a pivotal moment in his life.

Zahs knew he wanted to be a teacher and was the first generation in his family to graduate from college. He earned a degree at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls ... in biology. He actually has two hours of college history from a course in Iowa history he was advised not to take. He ended up writing a book on the history of Highland Township that was used in the class.

With the goal of being a history teacher, he remembers people who were hired at the time to teach history were also expected to be athletic coaches. He began teaching history in Mediapolis and coached weight lifting. After a year of teaching he saved up enough money to go back to college for his master’s degree.

Becoming a teacher at Washington, he began teaching an elective class in local history. He remembers every year the Iowa Department of Education said he had not been qualified to teach the course, despite the fact there were no set qualifications to teach local history.

“We teach history backward,” Zahs said. “We teach kids about Egypt and Europe and maybe we teach them about what happened at home. If we teach them what happened in their backyard maybe they will have a hook you can hang history from other places on. All history is local history somewhere. Starting with local history is what we need to do.”

In keeping with the philosophy that history is something people do, Zahs tries to teach in a very hands-on manner. He prefers to teach history outside the classroom. He has been known to take 15 field trips during a semester. The college courses he teaches are regularly taught on a bus. Generations of Washington students remember hewing logs or making apple cider from an antique press in Zahs’ class.

“I always tried to make things a little fun,” he said. “You can learn a lot when you don’t realize you are learning.”

Even though he retired in 2009, Zahs continues to teach history. Whether it is through showings of the Brinton movies or one of many scholarly endeavors he pursues, he wants to pass on a knowledge of the past.

“We don’t study people because they died,” he says. “We study people because they lived.”

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