Saturday, January 17, 2009

Epilogue: Presentation to the Brewer Historical Society on Developing an Oral History Project

In my efforts to create some educational resources that The Curran Homestead can use in its outreach to local schools, I have been developing a relationship with some local historical societies and soliticited willing participants to share their personal experiences and histories. In addition to the material culture we have at the Homestead, we have struck on the idea of attaching a voice to both the farm and its holdings of tools and equipment. An ice saw, for instance, doesn't have much educational value unless we can demonstrate how it may have been used and attach some voices of experiences to it.

The idea is that The Homestead's holdings will contribute much more and be more attractive to audiences if we can attach story to them. Using free downloaded software, inexpensive digital recorders, and free website space like blogspot. com and, I have discovered a means to further disseminate our message and our resources to greater numbers via the Internet. This in no way will subordinate the things we already do, but it will add to it. Such digital and Internet resources, as current scholarship tells us, will only increase the desirability of visiting real sites like our own the more.

I have started recording conversations with local people who have a story to tell about the area's past. Some of these are directly linked to the farm, the Currans, Fields Pond, and Orrington of yore. Some are not connected specifically with our site or to the family farm but of life as it was in rural Maine, and The Homestead has and will continue to serve as a steward of that more generalized history too and make the knowledge of that time and place available for new generations and our time.

To start the ball rolling, I recently taped some three hours with Henry Wiswell of Orrington. Mr. Wiswell has a wealth of knowledge about the area's past and farm life of the 40s until the present. His memories also include stories handed down to him from his own elders about life as it was beyond his own lifespan. Much of our recorded conversation made a connection with his own extentive collection of antique tools and farm implements and his life on a family farm in Orrington. These memories have a direct connection with our own holdings of material culture and the identity of our site.

I plan on making an edited version of my conversation with Henry Wiswell available online with photographs of the material culture he speaks of. The longer unedited version ( that will be slightly "cleaned-up" excluding background noise and interference) will be also be available upon request by those wishing to use it for research or further educational purposes. In addition, Mr. Wiswell has worked in recent years to create a printed text that includes his recollections of Maine farm life. These vignettes include such titles as "Skunk Scare," "Soap Making," "Chores," "Potatoes," and the like. I recently spoke with Mr. Wiswell about the possibility of having him read these so that I will have these rich in educational value resources in his own voice. These too would be valuable for the proposed online resource.

As you know, we recently completed two Maine State Archives grants. One of these is an oral history project that includes proposed conversations with Bob Robinson of the Split Rock Forge in Stockton Springs. The grant application we submitted is below on this blog for your perusal. What this will entail is some 25 hours with Mr. Robinson at his forge. He will talk about the tools and equipment he uses in his forge. These conversations will include such things as how, for example, he lights the forge and brings it to the desired temperature to bend and shape metal, among other valuable details about how forges function and how they served the public of the past. Mr. Robinson is thoroughly knowledgeable of the history and application of blacksmithing in general and locally. These conversations will connect with our own holdings of blacksmithing tools and equipment, and, if we get the desired funding we have applied for, our own onsite blacksmithing shed that we have proposed to construct during the summer of 2009.

Our planned "Ice Harvesting Step-Back" is an activity designed to create a situation whereby we use the ice harvesting tools from our holdings in a hands-on learning experience. In our preliminary discussion at the recent board meeting we proposed that we drill several holes in the ice on Fields Pond the night before we meet using a drill auger. We will use these holes as the starting point from which we saw an ice block using one of our two ice saws. we will use a pair of ice tongs to lift the block from the icy water.

Included below is an article that appeared in the July, 1894 edition of DeMorest's Family Magazine recounting how commercial ice harvesting was done. Commmercial ice harvesting was an integral part of worklife in 1890s Orrington. Mr.Wiswell's family had a stake in a major commercial ice harvesting operation, and the Currans or their forebearers of the farm likely had their own smaller enterprise, given the sizeable ice house structure extant on the property. Because we lack all the necessary equipment to recreate how commercial ice harvesting would have been done as detailed in the DeMorest's article, we hope to merely recreate an approximation of how a smaller operation may have realized a block of ice for refrigerating purposes. It will not be of the quality required by urban consumers in the 1890s.

The plan is to cut a block or two and transport them up to the kitchen of the Curran House where one will be placed in the period ice box donated by Cathy Martinage. We will remove the block at that time, for it is only to demonstrate the action on videotape for educational purposes. We will videotape the whole experience and samplings of it will be made available online through one of our blogs, our facebook account, or our website.

Having mentioned the ice harvesting project at the January 13, 2009 meeting of the Brewer Historical Society where I recently spoke, one member offered some information about his own memories of ice block refrigeration. Apparently, there were still some ice harvesters and block suppliers right up until the 1950s in our area. There was one, according to this source, by the name of "Hanscom" who ran such an enterprise in the Brewer area in the 50s. My source knew that the family was still in the area, and that there is a potential for a recorded oral history there if one were to make the overtures to the family.

I was very excited by the BHS meeting, for I was privy to much history that I should have recorded in the past. Having such a learning experience, it is my intention to regularly attend future BHS meetings because there is so much potential for off-the-cuff discussions with those who experienced history first-hand. A formal sit-down for the purpose of taping an oral history requires preparation, planning, and often delay that threatens this resource from ever being realized. So it is my intention to try to do both the taping of conversations at meetings in the future and one-on-one sit-down recordings.

One BHS member was intrigued by the idea, and its potential contribution to already existing projects in the area. He mentioned the work Galen Cole has been doing in regard to World War II veterans speaking with area school children at the Cole Transportation Museum in Bangor. This has been a high profile educational project as many of you have seen the press coverage. The BHS member suggested that an effort might be made to record some of these conversations between kids and the veterans; they presently are not recorded. Irv Marsters had also recently explored this idea in a conversation with me. I met Lawrence "Bud" Lyford at the meeting who, in addition to his experience as a local hardware store owner for 40 years, served in battle during WWII. Our ten minute plus conversation should have been taped for it was stuff that good oral histories are made of, but I plan to meet with Mr. Lyford in the weeks to come.

The record of the family farm in twentieth century history is seemingly incomplete given its prominent role in the lives of so many and the threat of their increasing disapearance from the landscape in our own time. it is still possible to add to the historical record about the role of the family in The Great Depression and WWII through oral history gathering, but given the age of those who experienced it first hand the next five years in critical to such a project.Farmers were not required to do military service during WWII, for example, because it was believed that food production was just as important as military service during wartime, first-hand accounts of the farmer's service during this era is one that has been understated.

In my own experience, I remember stories related to me by my maternal grandmother about my own grandfather's desire to join the Navy as a pilot trainee during World War II. The thought created tensions between my grandparents at the time; the argument being that if he were to go off to war he would be giving up the profitable dairy that both he and my grandmother had worked to acquire and maintain in their 6 years of farming up to that point. The idea was eventually abandoned after much argument. My grandfather developed his dairy during these wartimne years, while my grandmother worked at a DuPont Wartime Production Factory in Pompton Lakes, NJ inspecting the primers on artillery shells in order to save money to buy more cows. They eventually bought a large farm of 280 plus acres of their own after the war in 1947 from a Brooklynite ( who wasn't a farmer) who had seemingly purchased the farm in 1943 to take advantage of military dispensation.

In addition to the above circumstances which were by no means extraordinary, many veterans of World War II were the sons and daughters of farmers. This theme might be worth fucusing on if we were to develop a project to record the stories of surviving veterans from rural eastern Maine in particular. The themes explored in such a project could also connect to other occupations like ice harvesting, logging, maple sugaring, and bee keeping, to name a few, particular to this region. In one oral history interview recently done the interviewee shared his experiences ice harvesting weeks before being shipped off to the Pacific for active duty in 1942. Such interconnectedness of the lives of veterans with rural Maine heritage would be paramount to this project.

Lawrence "Bud" Lyford, who I met at the BHS meeting, was very interested in the idea of sharing his experiences as a WWII veteran and as the owner of a local hardware store for some 40 years. My argument is that access to the octogenarians that would make up the existing pool of WWII veterans participating in Galen Cole's project, which includes bringing area children with veterans for one-on-one question and answer experiences at the Cole Transportation Museum in Bangor would give us access to the earliest first-hand accounts of our community that we would ever hope to capture in an oral history project. The fact that veterans are sharing these stories in a situation already makes the next step of recording them a logical response especially when these numbers specifically with World War II experiences are declining. Such a project would allow a perpetuation of the sharing process between this "greatest generation" and succeeding generations.

What do we do with with these recordings once we have them? My idea is to eventually run a workshop at one or several schools for teachers. I have taught a course for teachers that focused on the use of primary source materials in the classroom through the State Archives and Records Administration in Albany, New York. I would like to introduce strategies for using oral histories in the classroom, and then allow teachers access to the oral histories we have created. Ideally they would pick one of these and create a series of lessons that relate to their current curriculum. I will be creating several model examples for teachers to understand and experience the concept, and how such a project can be applicable to theior classroom. The teachers would have lessons that they have created that make use of these primary source materials. We would make their lessons available in conjunction with the digital recordings online through our Internet presence.

We already have many oral history recordings that were done by the University of Maine in the 1990s on tape cassettes. These include cassettes with Alfred Curran, one of the museum's benefactors himself, as well as others that knew the Currans. I think it a safe bet that not many have or are listening to them, given that cassette players are on the technological wane (and this was recently confirmed by the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences who anticpates the need to digitalize much of the collections spearheaded by Sandy Ives). I am in the process of listening to all of these recordings. I plan to digitize them in the months to come and use them for the models for realizing some direct connections for their use in classroom curriculum for elementary, middle, and high school.

Jean (Schmick-Hopkins), my wife, has had experience with oral histories as a teaching tool as well. Jean was a co-recipient and a facilitator of the S.A.R.A Summer Institute grant with me, and she has some great ideas for realizing such a project with elementary school students having been a teacher of 4th and 5th grade for nearly 15 years and currently a 4th grade teacher at Fairmount Elementary School in Bangor.

David Hanna of the Brewer Historical Society recently sent me the following letter in response to my discussion about all of the above at the January 13, 2009 Brewer Historical Society meeting:

Bob: It is nice to meet with you last evening. You provided us with some exciting ideas. I do a newsletter for the historical society and plan to use this article. Would you please let me know if there is anything you don't like or would change. I am hoping that your oral history project will be successful, and that we can get some of our members to participate. I also would like to see local students somehow involved. Our students are just not adequately educated as to the history of our community. I have also written to Jeff Hamadey, our president, and Phyllis Scribner, our accessions clerk at the Clewley Museum, with the opinion that we could benefit from your expertise in using technology to help promote the museum and the society. Thank you again.

What is your Story??

Dr. Robert Schmick addressed the January 13th meeting of the BHS at Brewer Auditorium. Dr. Schmick's expertise is in developing new technologies for museums and is presently the Director of Education at the Curran Homestead Living History Farm and Museum. Presently he is obtaining oral histories of individuals in the area and will incorporate taped interviews with pictures into internet accessible programs. This means that an important link to the past will be made available to everyone. Students and members of the community can use present day technology to obtain information from those who have personal recollections of Brewer during the twentieth century and before. Dr. Schmick is willing to tap the history of our members as well as those in the community that have a story to tell.

An Opinion

I would hope that each member of the historical society would reflect on the legacy that could be left to the community of Brewer by contacting Dr. Schmick and discussing the possibility of being recorded for posterity. I am sure that each of you has a recollection of Brewer's past, be it of one of the industries such as lumbering, ice harvesting, brick making, ship building, Eastern Manufacturing, milling, or the myriad of other businesses. In addition you have recollections of events, and stories that could be passed down to future generations. I encourage you to contact Dr. Schmick at 843-5550 or reach him online at

-----David Hanna

Cc: Jeff Hamadey

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