Last month, the Dover-based Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs appointed Kaitlyn Dykes the first site supervisor for Cooch’s Bridge Historic Site. An accomplished historian, Kaitlyn stood out from the other job candidates as “the best choice to lead Cooch’s Bridge through the transition from private property to HCA’s sixth public historic site,” an HCA spokesperson said. Bob James of the Friends interviewed her this week.
Bob: Your degree is in criminology. How did you end up working as a historian?
Kaitlyn: I grew up in Virginia, which is where my love of history started. Virginia has a complicated, difficult history you simply can’t avoid. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded by monuments marking everything Stonewall Jackson ever did, every footstep he ever took, every word he ever said. I lived near Winchester, which has a lot of Civil War history and used to spend time at Harpers Ferry. So, I was always connected to history, particularly the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I went to school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, intending to get a degree in criminal justice, specifically crime scene investigation, and was pretty far along in my studies when I got a corrections internship. It was meant to prepare me to become a corrections officer. One day, I was standing in line for coffee, and the man in front of me began chatting and mentioned that he was about to give a talk about Jamestown. He was an archaeologist there. I said, I don’t have anything to do after school today, and went to his talk. That was it. I heard his talk and I saw the archaeology he was doing at Jamestown and said, whoa, hold on a minute—I really like archaeology! I was completely hooked and said, that’s what I want to do. I finished my degree in criminal justice and got a minor in anthropology and that was it. That’s how I ended up in this field. I interned at Jamestown that summer.
Bob: I’d bet a lot of people would say there’s a similarity between the archaeological exploration of a historical site and a crime scene investigation.
Kaitlyn: For sure! I knew a lot of the techniques used from my CSI training. But archaeology also involves a lot of mapping techniques, especially GIS mapping, which gives you 3D digital maps of the location of every artifact and feature of the site. One of the archaeologists at Jamestown pulled me aside one day and said, if you want to get a real job in this field, you need to learn GIS mapping, and he taught me how to do it. We weren’t using ground-penetrating radar then, which was the next generation of techniques, but I learned how to electronically map and put together and name all the layers and features, so you could see the way things were piled on top of each other under the ground. It’s an interesting way to wrap your head around the many centuries of history that are under six feet of dirt.
Bob: Who are some of your heroes in the field?
Kaitlyn: Bill Kelso left a huge impression on me. He’s the man who “found Jamestown,” the man who didn’t believe that the colony had washed into the James River, and that there might be things to discover under the ground there. He gave the impression of being very laid-back, and would arrive on site wearing loafers and an Indiana Jones hat, and I remember thinking at the time, he’s actually a scientist—an expert—much more than meets the eye. Whenever he started to talk, you’d realize he knew everything about Jamestown. I wanted to be like him: somebody with that extraordinary level of detailed information about a single location. I’d never met anyone like Bill before.
Bob: What’s your definition of history?
Kaitlyn: That’s a philosophical conversation. You might look at history as a linear collection of absolute facts and say, “anything outside of that isn’t history, it’s something else.” But for me, maybe because I come from a background in anthropology, history is a collection of individuals’ stories. I see my job as a historian to be collecting the different stories, putting them into context, and letting people come to their own understanding of what happened, based on all of that. I think memorizing dates and knowing “facts” is important, don’t get me wrong; but sometimes historians get too caught up in that, when it’s everyone’s version of what happened that’s important. I don’t necessarily want to tell you some absolute truth: I want to present options and ask, what do you think? What really happened here? I’d say my definition of history is people-based, and a little bit different from the traditional one.
Bob: What was it that brought you to Delaware?
Kaitlyn: I never could have guessed I’d end up in Delaware, but when I graduated with a degree in criminal justice and not in history I knew I had to move quickly to get experience in the field and figure out a career path. I tried for every job in history within a 200-mile radius of where I lived. The first one that worked out was internship at Cape Henlopen State Park, specifically the Fort Miles Historic Site. I had no previous exposure to World War II history, except what I’d learned in high school, but was lucky enough to be accepted. The job was fantastic, and I learned so much, not just about World War II, U-boats, and gun specifications, but about delivering an interpretive program that keeps people interested. The internship turned into a full-time position after the first season. That’s how I got to Delaware. I’ve been job-hopping for seven years in Delaware and Maryland since then.
Bob: What job led to your new one?
Kaitlyn: As I said, I’ve been obsessed with history since my time at Jamestown, and have been able to work at all sorts of different sites, some in different states. It’s been an absolute blast. Most recently, and was lead interpreter at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes. That site is really interesting to me for exactly the opposite reason that Cooch’s Bridge is interesting. Zwaanendael is one of those locations where not much happened. As lead interpreter, I tried to use the building to talk about stories that took place outside the building, because the history of the building itself is quite narrow. It was a challenge from the interpretive standpoint, compounded by the fact we had to go digital quickly with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those two experiences led to my new job at Cooch’s Bridge, where I face a much different situation. At my previous job, I was trying to build a lot from a finite resource. At Cooch’s Bridge, there are almost infinite resources, historically speaking. The idea of taking so much history and turning it into bite-sized morsels for the public fascinates me. I couldn’t give you the entire history of Cooch’s Bridge if I had seven hours—and I’d be skipping things just to get through the main parts. Distilling it is an exciting challenge.
Bob: What’s your first order of business on the new job?
Kaitlyn: Well, there’s so much to do. There’s work that needs to be done on the house and most of the buildings, of course, but my first big task is to come up with an interpretive plan. That will give us an approach and suggest which items to tackle first. And then we’ll start implementing the plan. That’s when you’ll start to see a lot of things changing, and quickly.
Bob: What exactly is an interpretive plan?
Kaitlyn: To create an interpretive plan, you first ask: what message do you want every single person who steps onto the property to walk away with? An interpretive plan looks at what needs to be done, infrastructure-wise, to communicate that message. It also looks at the historic resources needed—the documents and research you will require to deliver public programs. Cooch’s Bridge is so much more than a few historic buildings. The environmental resources at the site are amazing, and provide opportunities to talk about such things as engineering, economics, and science. There’s so much here, it’s such a vast resource, it’s almost inexhaustible. And then you have to ask: who’s the audience? Who’s going to visit Cooch’s Bridge? And who isn’t? How do you reach them, the people who don’t fit into neat categories of visitors? You need to something of value to attract every kind of person, every demographic. The bottom line is that an interpretive plan structures your work. You can’t build something if you don’t know what you’re building.