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Wes Cowan and 'History Detectives'

REBECCA ROBERTS, Host:

And now, for something completely different. If "CSI" can make forensic science sexy, just wait until you see what "History Detectives" can do for sociology and art history. It's a kind of "Antiques Roadshow" for American historical artifacts. "History Detectives" is a public television series featuring four investigators who track down, whether, say, a 60-year-old projection screen that was used by President Kennedy to view photographs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or whether an odd piece of paper that fell out of a forgotten book is actually a piece of Revolutionary War currency.

Unidentified Woman #1: I've never seen anything like this. So I'm not sure if it is money from the Revolutionary War.

Unidentified Woman #2: Is it authentic? Is it real?

I: I'm being interested in learning about what the symbols mean on the bill. I see a tree and looks like a pyramid in the background. It'll be interesting to find out, you know, why they chose what they chose.

ROBERTS: One of the "History Detectives," he determined that projection screen couldn't have been used by JFK, by the way, is Wes Cowan who joins me now from our New York Bureau. Welcome.

WES COWAN: Hi, Rebecca. How are you?

ROBERTS: I'm great. How did you become a history detective?

COWAN: Oh, boy. You know, I think I am one of the appraisers on the "Antiques Roadshow," and I think when the "History Detectives" show was being talked about, the - they found me - the production company found me among a whole bunch of other people from the "Antiques Roadshow." And I was tapped to be one of the hosts.

ROBERTS: So with those credentials, if anyone has a treasure in their attic they'd like to ask some questions about in American history, give us a call, 800-989-8255, that's 989-TALK, or send e-mail, [email protected], or, of course, head over to our blog, it is npr.org/blogofthenation.

Where do most of your cases come from for the show?

COWAN: You know, the cases come from a variety of different places. But I think that, by and large, when viewers watch the show, they're invited to e- mail in suggestions and ideas for shows. And the producers get about 8,000 ideas annually.

ROBERTS: Wow.

COWAN: Yeah, huge number. Huge number of people call - call or write in. I get people who e-mail me. I get letters and packages arrive on my doorstep fairly routinely, asking me to pass these stories along. And so I give them ideas, as I'm sure some of the other hosts do also.

ROBERTS: So what's a typical case? Walk me through how one of these happens.

COWAN: Well, you know, the seed of "History Detectives" is, you know, Aunt Minnie(ph) gave us this chair, and she always claimed that George Washington sat in this chair. This is the family lore. And, you know, we'd really like to see if you can find that out for us. So with that broad question, the "History Detectives" get on the case. They visit experts. They go to - do primary research in libraries and other repositories all across the United States and try to come up with an answer.

ROBERTS: So if you Aunt Minnie gave you an artifact of questionable historic importance, give us a call, 800-989-8255.

In - on the TV show, each of you and your three colleagues takes one case and it sort of takes about 20 minutes to wrap it all up. What's going on off camera?

COWAN: Well, obviously, you know, we don't have the time as hosts to do all these primary research our self, and so there's a production team that spends about six weeks on each story doing the background research, lining up people that we need to talk to, finding obscure articles in libraries all over the country. And then - so then by the time we begin filming, we have a pretty good idea, based on all the primary research that's already been done by our research team, of what's going to happen.

ROBERTS: I talked about that projection screen, which, ultimately, couldn't have been used by JFK for the very prosaic reason that the Secret Service doesn't like the president to be in the dark.

COWAN: Right.

ROBERTS: Do you - are you sort of sorry when something doesn't pan out? Is it disappointing to give that news to someone?

COWAN: Well, no, not really. Because, you know, I think that that's part of the research. I mean, we discover, yeah, you know, it either is a true story or it's not a true story.

I know that when we began in the first season, the PBS folks were sort of, you know, bummed out that we were finding most of these stories didn't pan out and there was some pressure to find one that actually, you know, hey, guys, we really need to find one that's true. But they've sensed, I think, come to discover that there are a lot of these stories floating around and not all of them are true.

I mean, one of the most common questions that I get about this - the show is, why do people like it? And it really does seem to crosscut a broad spectrum of ages and socio-economic groups who watch the show. And I like to say that they like it because it's not the kind of history that they get when they take a class in college or in high school, which is a survey class, a sort of history with a big H that looks at American history as a sort of a grand sweep, you know, colonization to the Civil War, Civil War to the Cold War.

But rather, it's history with a little H. And everybody in this country enjoys history with a little H. And that little H is a story that each family have - all of us have some story that relates us to - or some person in our family to the bigger history with the big H. I mean, you know, people saved letters from World War II, they saved letters from the Civil War, they saved Aunt Minnie's chair. All of these things, each one of us, as families, have big and small, and that's why people connect with the show, because they're enjoying history with a little H that connects them to history in the grand sweep of things.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Brian(ph) in Marion, South Carolina. Brian, welcome to the program.

BRIAN: Well, hello. How are you? Thanks for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

COWAN: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: Happy Fourth.

COWAN: Thank you.

BRIAN: My question is this. I've got this unusual item that's rolled up, sitting in the bedroom floor. It is a cow skin. It's a hide. And it belonged to my wife, who got it from her grandmother. It came down through the family. Grandmother was given it by her brother. When he delivered it to her, he said, hold on to this. This was the first Hereford Beef cow in the state of Texas.

COWAN: Wow. What a story that is.

BRIAN: Well, I've done some family history on my wife's family, and she does, in fact, descend from the Slaughter family in Texas that owned millions of acres, and went to the Chicago World Fair in 1893, and paid the - an astronomical sum of $5,000 for Sir Bredwell, a breeding Hereford.

ROBERTS: He wasn't really named Sir Bredwell, was he?

BRIAN: Yeah, he really was.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COWAN: Oh, I can believe that in a heartbeat.

BRIAN: And I've - what I want to figure out is how can I determine if this poor, tattered thing sitting in the bedroom floor is actually Sir Bredwell, who belonged somewhere in the state of Texas, I suppose, hanging on the wall of the Cattlemen's Association or something.

COWAN: Boy, now, that's a stumper. And it's one that I probably won't be able to answer in the course of this show.

BRIAN: I understand that.

COWAN: But - and my guess is it would - it's going to be one of those stories that we're just talking about, it's a family tradition...

BRIAN: Right.

COWAN: ...that you might never be able to prove. I mean, it sounds like you've done a lot of research yourself. That you've already sort of determined that your wife's family was associated with the Slaughter family who purchased this Hereford cow, Hereford bull, excuse me. But whether you're ever going to be able to discover if it's the original hide of this bull, I don't think you - I would guess you probably would never be able to find that out.

BRIAN: Well, I'm wondering, the thought came in and popped into my head the other day. There are registered lines of this particular descent among Hereford breeders. And I'm wondering if there's some sort of cow DNA that would show up.

COWAN: Well, you know, that's always a possibility. And I would suggest maybe contacting the Hereford Breeders Association to find that out. And you know what? I would just get on and do one of the things that - get online and do one of the things that Americans do every day, and type, you know, type in Google, and go to Google and look up that address.

BRIAN: Okay.

ROBERTS: Brian, thanks for your call.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

When you, Wes Cowan, are dividing up the cases that you have decided to take, do you each sort of bring interest, you know, your specific interest to a thing? I'm thinking about the episode I saw where your African-American colleague took on the "Amos 'n' Andy" recording. And there was a woman who took on a suffrage's pamphlet. And are there things that you sort of Bigfoot because it's an area of history you really want to look into?

COWAN: Well, no. You know, yes and no. When I appoint stories to the "History Detectives" producers, I try to make sure that I get to do those stories. But I'm happy to do any of the stories. And really, I think, rather than think that each of us has a specialty, it often boils down to the more mundane thing of who's got the time to do it at this particular point that they need the filming done.

You know, we all have other jobs. I'm an auctioneer with a company in Cincinnati that employs 28 people. We have an auction or two auctions every month. And I've got a company to run, so I can't get out there and do the work that I'd like to do every week with "History Detectives."

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Amy(ph) in Illinois. Amy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

AMY: Hi.

ROBERTS: Hi.

COWAN: Hi, Amy.

AMY: I have a - oh, sorry?

COWAN: I said, hi.

AMY: Hi. How are you doing?

COWAN: Great.

AMY: I have a letter from my dad's old collection. He used to correspond with the captain of the 11th Destroyer Flotilla that rammed the PT-109.

COWAN: Okay.

AMY: And he wrote my dad a letter explaining how that was a mistake. And he has - he drew a map explaining how he gave the command, and the command was misunderstood. And I'm - I've had this forever. I'm just wondering if there's anything I should do with it.

COWAN: Wow. That sounds like a really important thing. So your dad was the commander of the unit that PT-109 was part of, is that what you're saying?

AMY: No. He was actually just a fan of Kennedy, and he used to write a lot of letters. And he wrote a lot of letters to people who interacted with Kennedy. So one of the things he was interested in was that the flotilla that did ram into the PT-109. The commander of that flotilla, the Japanese commander, Katsumori Yamashiro, and my father exchanged letters. The commander, Yamashiro, explained that it was a mistake in a letter. And then my dad also got signatures from a lot of the guys who were on the PT-109 with Kennedy, and put the whole thing together in kind of a, you know, a package in a frame. And I have the letter and the first day issue stamp with all the autographs of the guys on the PT-109. And...

COWAN: Wow. That's a fabulous family keepsake. Well, you know, it sounds to me like that if there's new information there about the incident that has not been recorded by historians, that the Kennedy Library would love to have something like that.

On the other hand, if it's something that has been recounted before, and you've got autographs on the first day cover from members of the crew of the PT-109, I assume Kennedy did not sign this, then it's a great thing to have as a family memento, but not necessarily going to change the course of how we interpret the event of what happened to the PT-109.

ROBERTS: Amy, thanks for your call.

Wes, is there anything intriguing coming up on the TV series?

COWAN: Oh, boy. There are tons of great shows this season. Some of the ones that I did, that I was - and, of course, I can only speak of the ones that I was involved in, but viewers will be able to see a great story that involved Thomas Jefferson and the development of the American school system.

We - I traveled to El Paso, Texas this year to investigate a story about the Mexican Revolution, a little known event in the course of our history, that took me to a city that, I think, most Americans don't know much about, and that's El Paso. It's 700,000 people on the border of Mexico. And right across the border from Juarez, which is 2.5 million population. So there are lots of interesting stories coming up this season.

COWAN: Wes Cowan is an auctioneer and appraiser by trade, and one of the four gumshoes on the PBS TV series, "History Detectives." Thanks so much for joining us.

COWAN: My pleasure.

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.