I never imagined myself to be an oral historian, although Professor Stanton always made it sound devilishly interesting. He told of folk festivals and cowboy coffee and remote places in Nevada; I was, and still am, enthralled by the wild Wild West.
Here I am now, an oral historian in North Carolina, which is not quite the wild west, but still a new environment to me. I love oral history, despite the days that cause me to complain. I would never have guessed that I’d somehow become an “expert” on a remote Carolina estate of the Rockefeller family. Every detail has seeped into my brain; 1.5 years of studying something will have that effect, I suppose.
Today I’m reading through the gigantic binder of interview quotes that I have organized into topics, according to the research design goals. And as I read these, I can hear the voices of these people, imagine their faces and the scenes they describe, and I just can’t help but smile with them as my love of Overhills beams. I have fallen in love with their stories.
Oral history invites me into the lives of these people; not only do I know the forty or so people I have interviewed, but I know everyone they mention in the interview. I hear their childhood memories, loves, regrets, and random anecdotes. And before we’ve finished, they point me in the direction of an Overhills friend who also has a story to share. It is a relationship building profession and of a truly unique nature.
Overhills is a unique place; oral history has the power to bring that out in every place. Everywhere you go holds a story to tell and a cast of characters and a setting. The history of who we are and how we got to where we are is embedded in the tales that people tell. And sure, oral history is just that – a story. But so is everything else, whether a newspaper article that didn’t quite get all the facts correct or an older written history that hadn’t solved a mystery. Oral history is powerful and important; it serves to capture a fleeting story, one that will eventually be lost for one reason or another. These are the stories not in documents. These are the stories that talk about daily life and how we lived. These are the stories of the common man and sometimes the uncommon man.
I had always figured that I’d be more in the mainstream of preservation, rather than in a tangential field like oral history, which connects to anthropology – the class (not the subject) I least enjoyed in college. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being an oral historian (or at least doing my best to be one and collecting the oral histories) is an honor. I will never forget these people, their voices, and this place called Overhills.
[*Note: I still have one year of Overhills work remaining.]