(This is a continuation of previous posts that tell the story of the oral history project about the La Farge Dam Project that came to be known as “The People Remember”.)
Raw emotion can take many forms. As the local history class students from La Farge High School and their adult volunteer teammates soon found out as they set out to conduct interviews on the La Farge Dam Project. The interviews were going to be filled with lots of emotion as people remembered a very difficult time in their lives.
In the fall of 2000, the students and adult volunteers were trained in proper interviewing techniques and learned about the history of the La Farge Dam Project. Tape recorders, microphones, audiotapes and cameras were purchased (with money from a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant) and the interview teams practiced using the new equipment. A list of names was compiled of potential candidates for the interviews. As the training came to completion in late October, phone calls and personal visits were made to potential people to interview about the project.
Fritz Cushing, the project coordinator, made most of those contacts for interviews and I helped with some on the list. We both found that the people we contacted had some hesitancy about being interviewed, but after explaining what the purpose of the project was – to save people’s stories about the dam project – many set up times and places to conduct the interview. Others turned down our requests outright because of their unpleasant memories associated with the dam project. Some people did not want to dredge up the painful memories of that time in their lives.
I received one phone call from a longtime friend explaining the family’s decision not to be interviewed. We both ended up in tears over that conversation as the heartbreak of those times of losing the family farm to the dam project once again was remembered. In the end, that family was never interviewed for the project because the hurt was still too deep for them.
Before sending out the student/adult volunteer interview teams, we had to be sure that everyone understood the emotion that they might face. The interviews were going to generate feelings of heartbreak, bitterness and other strong emotions as the peoples’ stories were being told. As the interview teams set out to get the stories, they understood the seriousness of their task.
The adult volunteers usually contacted the person or people to be interviewed by phone to set up the interview. Most interviews were conducted in the home of the people being interviewed, a setting that would be comfortable for telling the story. Interviewees were encouraged to have photographs, documents and other artifacts about the dam project experience with them for the interview. In the second week of November the interviews were begun. Times for conducting the interviews varied from morning until early evening. The local history students were excused from school to ride with their adult volunteer partner to the homes for the interviews. The students and volunteers gave up their time after school and on weekends to make connections and get the interviews recorded.
By the end of November a dozen interviews were completed. After each interview, the student interviewers returned to the classroom and discussed their experience with their classmates. All of the students related how much emotion was evident in the interviews. Some students told of how people being interviewed would have to stop and leave the room to gather themselves to continue. Tears were shed in the process, not only by the people being interviewed, but by those recording the story as well. The interviews continued on through December and January without letup.
After each interview, the students were asked to fill out a reporting sheet that included a place for the students to record their personal observations. Here are some of those personal observations as written by the students after the interviewing process:
“This interview went very well. I noticed that when you just let them tell what they want to say, they say a lot more about their feelings and the project’s impact itself.”
“Mary was afraid of bringing it all up again, but she did so everyone could hear her stories.”
“They shut off the tape through half of it because they were afraid of letting out too many feelings.”
“I found her very interesting to listen to, and her account of living at Pott’s Corners touching. I felt sorry that she had suffered, but I was also glad that she had that time in her life to remember. She didn’t actually lose the land, it belonged to her parents and she was living in town by the time the government took the land away, but she felt as if she was losing it also because it took away her sense of community and belonging.”
“He was angry the whole time we were there.”
“She told of life at Weister Creek, and what she described for us was a small town, with close friends. There were over 20 families in the surrounding area, as well as a school, church, and a few businesses. The woman lost a great deal, and yet she was only mildly bitter. She said that she was bitter, but mostly what she described to us was shock. The people in Weister Creek were shocked, and didn’t know what to do or where to go. Also, she told us a unique perspective, and that was that people of her generation all went along with the dam project idea mostly because they didn’t feel they could challenge the government. They were from the World War II era, and they believed the government was always right and they refused to challenge their authority.”
Another task that the students did after each interview was to listen to the tapes and make a log or outline of the topics discussed. Each audiotape held an hour of conversation, thirty minutes per side, and some of the interviews used up two hours of tape. As the student played back the interview, they made notes on the log sheet on what topics were being discussed in the interview and wrote out name and places with the correct spellings. This was done for the transcribing team to use at UW-La Crosse when the interviews would be transcribed for archiving.
The students also listened for particularly poignant or personal recollections given in the interviews. They listed parts of the interviews that they felt were powerful and dramatic. These parts of the interviews were noted so that Stuart Stotts could find them and listen to them as well. Stuart was listening to all of the tapes in preparation for the public presentation, scheduled for the spring that would serve as a culmination of the oral history project.
More on that next time as we continue to look at this unique oral history project that gathered the people’s stories about the La Farge Dam Project.
ALL-SCHOOL REUNION NEWS!
Save the date!! The weekend of July 3-5, 2015 will be the time of gathering for La Farge’s All-School Reunion. It happens every five years and the school reunion committee is busy planning a fun weekend for those returning to their hometown and school. We need to get the word out to everyone who ever attended or worked at the school here in La Farge. We need volunteers from every class at LHS to help us update addresses and contacts. Look for a new Facebook page that will be all about the reunion – “LIKE” it and stay in touch!