Preservation ABCs: O is for Oral History

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.


O is for Oral History

A digital recorder for an oral history project.

A Tascam digital recorder for an oral history project.

Historic preservation can be considered an umbrella field for many related disciplines, though each field is its own profession and area of study, such as oral history. The Oral History Association defines the field as,

Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.

Being an oral historian is a profession that is very much a labor of love. It’s challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to show ordinary people that their stories are valuable to history and how their stories connect to others – that opportunity cannot be surpassed.

Oral history involves phone calls, background research, searching for interviewees, developing project goals and questions, choosing appropriate equipment, setting up interview dates, establishing trusting relationships with interviewees, listening, synthesizing, transcribing, answering questions and formulating reports … it’s quite the process. But throughout oral history projects you come to know people well. These people let you into their lives, if only a portion of it. Some offer coffee while you talk. Others need some reassuring about the recorders or legal forms to sign. And you learn people are beautiful, unique and interesting and have so much in common with each other. It’s an honor to conduct an oral history project.

Historic preservation includes oral history because preservation values places, stories and people, all of which oral history can connect. Sometimes a place lacks a known story because there is no written record, but someone can fill in that gap with memories. Both disciplines complement each other. At the simplest level, you could consider historic preservation as the built environment and oral history as the stories to fill and connect the environment.


Overhills Revisited

Overhills will forever remain a beloved memory of mine and a peaceful bubble of a world in the rural sandhills of North Carolina. I may not have lived or visited Overhills during its life as an active hunting retreat or family retreat, but I had the honor and pleasure of working for the buildings and the people who inhabited and loved Overhills. There was  a point in time when I thought that there would never be a day when I did not think of Overhills; but, years have passed since my oral history work finished and it now seems like a dream, like another world. My thoughts on Overhills are spaced further apart, but no less meaningful. The place, the people, the project have helped to define who I am. (The oral history project report can be accessed and downloaded through Fort Bragg.)

Aside from the Overhills Oral History Project, the property was documented under the Historic American Landscape Survey for the Library of Congress as the Overhills Historic District. (Read the HALS report.)Many of the records have been digitized: photographs of Overhills, floor plans, landscape plans, historical research. Not everything is digitized yet, but it is enough to trigger memories as I browse through the collection. Take a look with me.

Nursery Road, one of the roads through Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-26. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills approach road to the Hill. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-15. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills polo barn. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-16. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Croatan, a house at Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-8. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

These pictures remind me of the drive to and through Overhills, walking the grounds through the long leaf pines, exploring and attempting to learn as much as I could about the layout and landscape, piecing together historical research & oral history, visiting the houses and barns and imagining Overhills in its heyday.

Sadly, today, Overhills continues to deteriorate and/or suffers from vandalism. It pains me to hear of another building that has caught fire or to come across current Overhills pictures scattered across the internet that show the state of the place. It is incredibly sad, amplified by the fact that I know the stories and the history and the people of Overhills. Eventually, I’ll stop randomly searching for Overhills photos on search engines.

However, the HALS photographs and documents, in addition to the oral history project products, allow the good memories to stay with me. So I continue to look through the documentation. I don’t want to forget anything I know about Overhills. I’m sure my reaction time to specific questions – probably those found in the Overhills archives – is delayed from a few years ago, but that’s okay. I remember the bigger pictures. While my preference is preservation and rehabilitation instead of mitigation, I understand the importance and strength of proper and creative documentation because of this project. No matter which memory strikes me, I am reminded of the significant and unique story of Overhills, and how much I love(d) it.


Other posts about Overhills: 3 Hours in the Life of an Oral Historian. Carolina Day. Another Day in the Field. My Ode to Oral History. Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin & Kaitlin O’Shea. Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated. Overhills Book Release. Johnny. Those Unknown Photograph Subjects. Why They Don’t Let Me Outside. Time Travel Wish. Voice as a Powerful Primary Source.

Talk with a Veteran

In 2004, I had the honor and privilege to interview my uncle, James H. Robb, for the Veterans History Project. In honor of Veterans Day, I’ve been listening to the interview today. I realized my uncle explained his experiences of basic training and his time in the Vietnam War with caution and care, in the sense that he expresses the impact and seriousness of the war, without revealing anything traumatizing – things that might not be appropriate for sharing with a young relative.

Before this interview, I knew very little about the military or about the Vietnam War. My uncle is well spoken and intelligent and he taught me a great deal within this 63 minute interview. I’d recommend his interview as a good introduction to learning about the Vietnam War. Click here for the transcript or the audio.

Thank you for your service with the United States Military, Uncle Jimmy. We are forever grateful and proud.

Irish Soda Bread

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And it’s finally the time of year for Irish soda bread. According to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, if you think you’re eating “traditional” Irish soda bread, you’re probably not. And if it has raisins, then it’s definitely not “soda bread.” And soda bread made only date to the mid 1900s. The original, traditional recipes contain four ingredients: flour, baking soda, buttermilk, and salt (nothing else)!  It certainly does not include yeast.

While the Society aims to provide everyone with the truth about traditional recipes, it is not insinuating that people are making soda bread improperly. They say that a family tradition is a tradition, that recipe is worth being passed down generations. Simply, do not claim that your modern recipe is a true traditional cultural recipe.

With that said, some modern recipes are delicious!  Everyone is allowed to modify recipes. My family tradition (not traditional to Ireland) includes sour cream and cream of tartar and lots of raisins. My great-aunt passed down the recipe to my mom, and that’s what we use and will keep using. This year I tried some variations (muffins and no raisins) but also stuck with my favorite recipe and method.

Soda bread goes well with a bit of butter (though it’s just as good plain) and nice cup of coffee. Enjoy!

Soda bread muffins anyone? (Paper muffin cup not recommended.)

Soda bread that ended up looking like a clover.

Soda bread in a cast iron pan, my family's tradition.

Preservation Photos #16

The haunted Gimghoul Castle (originally Hippol Castle) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Click on the image to read the ghost story.

Thanks to Maria Gissendanner for sending the photograph and the link.

A Life in the Trades: October 2009

Read series introduction.

By Nicholas Bogosian

El Dorado, AR (’92): Though established in Union County in 1843, it wasn’t until the 1921 oil boom that El Dorado gained the historical character it is known for today. With a historic district that comprises nearly seventy brick and masonry structures, the star is clearly the Union County Courthouse – a four story Classical Revival style building of cut limestone block.

My family moved from Houston to El Dorado in 1992. I was nine then, and had never really known of a life that had a town square at its center. Living in Houston sprawl created the perfect antithesis to a historic home across the street from the funeral parlor, the Episcopal Church, and the gas station.

The Rialto Theater on East Cedar Street. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The Rialto Theater on East Cedar Street. Courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

My zeal for dinosaurs was met in all its glory when I saw Jurassic Park at The Rialto – the oldest operating Art Deco theatre in the state (gold-plated popcorn dispensers, the ghost of Greta Garbo, plush seats, red velvet drapes…you get the picture). The town came to life every year with the advent of Music Fest. Zydeco street musicians, high school marching bands, crawfish broils, all zipping up and down Main Street into the early morning hours.
El Dorado Main Street. Source: Preservation Nation

El Dorado Main Street. Source: Preservation Nation

I grew quite comfortable with this new life and the rehabilitation of our 1904 home on the corner of Madison and Shepard. I still keep the few pictures we have from that time. Though we’ve moved on to other places, my mother has a picture of the façade of our house in a frame which reads “HOME.”

Claremore, OK (’94):

In the many boutiques lining Claremore’s main street (Route 66), one can always count on a slew of Will Rogers tourist goods. The iconic political satirist was raised there. My parents took me to his birthplace in Oologah, OK on the shores of Lake Oologah.

Dog Iron Ranch. Photo source: Stock photo from The Will Rogers Memorial Museum.

Dog Iron Ranch. Photo source: Stock photo from The Will Rogers Memorial Museum.

The ranch home was built in 1875 and is considered a vernacular interpretation of the Greek Revival style. Here was history out in the wide open. Built with 10-inch logs hand-hewn from indigenous oak/hickory/walnut, encased with clapboard siding – inside, sitting in a glass display, Will’s typewriter (retrieved from the Alaskan plane crash) that was abandoned mid-page: “death.”

Houston, TX (’08):

In my last semester of college I developed an insane Talk Radio addiction while making the thirty mile commute to school every day. And when I was fortunate to catch Houston traffic, I was often able to listen to whole hour-long radio shows before I even made it home. I was about to be bestowed with a degree in Theatre and I had recently come to the conclusion that the theatre wasn’t for me anymore. Like Mark Twain realized in his Life on the Mississippi, “…the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river.” And even more than that, I wanted an occupation in life which was useful, in a practical sense, and tangible. How nice it would be to see the results of your own labor.

While visiting family over Thanksgiving in North Georgia, I discovered the umbrella term “Historic Preservation.” I had exhausted my Google searches on career placement sites by this time. Soon, I got wind of North Carolina being a beacon state for Historic Preservation. “Historic Preservation? What is that?” I can’t tell you the frenzy of excitement that rushed through me when I realized that something I had intuitively loved and understood for so long was a viable career choice for me.

St. Clairsville, OH (’09):

Many have lamented that preservation trades training is dead, and that there are few skilled laborers left to carry out the work of preservation. Some have argued that the Whitehill Report of 1968 unnecessarily limited preservation training to graduate level students and created a barrier for those either in the building industry already or kids fresh out of high school. Others claim that it’s a moot point: “the trades are alive and well! What ‘lack’ of skilled workers?”

Regardless of the current state, I was happy to find one such institution alive and well in its training of skilled preservation workers: Belmont Technical College. Fully accredited through its partnership with Eastern Ohio University, the Building Preservation & Restoration program is typically a two year program and awards an Associate of Applied Science Degree in “Preservation Technology.” Nestled in the Ohio Valley eight miles west of Wheeling, WV and one-hundred-and-fifteen miles east of Columbus, OH, the school attracts students from all over the nation and from wide-ranging academic backgrounds.

Just skimming the curriculum can cause one to drool: Chemistry for Conservators, History of American Architecture 1 & 2, Preservation History & Theory, Building Interiors, History of American Landscapes, Ceramics, Plaster, Masonry, Building Pathology, Documentation Field Techniques, Model & Mold Making, Roofing Fundamentals, etc.

The Benjamin Lundy House. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

The Benjamin Lundy House. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

I have been fortunate to lease from a local landscape architecture firm the Benjamin Lundy Home on Main Street while I am here attending school. Built in the early 1800s, it is a house of modest style – a two-story brick row home. Its true significance lies in it being where the first substantial abolitionist society in the country was formed – The Union Humane Society. Benjamin Lundy would go on to incite some of the greats that we often associate with the leaders of the Abolitionist movement, but would sink into obscurity and die before emancipation ever became a reality.

Plaque near the front door. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Plaque near the front door. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Though the home is in decent shape, it has absorbed many alterations through its time and has lost a lot of its integrity. The prospects for the home becoming a museum someday are still in abstract form.

Lundy House first floor fireplace (possible parlor room). Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

Lundy House first floor fireplace (possible parlor room). Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

In the coming year, I look forward to being able to utilize the Lundy space in many of the challenges that one faces in preservation work in conjunction with my training. I will have 24/7 field lab access here to ruminate, investigate, uncover.

Next month on Preservation In Pink, I will be focusing on the historic Quaker Village of Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, eight miles north of St. Clairsville. Though it is a registered national landmark and has a significant history attached to the underground railroad, it has fallen by the wayside and many of its structures have not been properly maintained. Meanwhile, a very large and expensive Underground Railroad Museum has been established in Cincinnati.

FYI – Turns out the NTHP awarded El Dorado, AR in its Great American Main Street program this year along with four other cities across the country!

A Favorite Quote

“Folk culture is nothing if not continuous. Of course all of human culture is constantly changing, but it is the thread of history and tradition that keeps us creatively linked to each other and to our pasts.”

–Meg Glaser, Andrea Graham. Different Hairs of the Same Dog: The Work of a Public Folklorist. Elko, Western Folklife Center, 1999.

Voice as a Powerful Primary Source

As the Overhills project comes to a close, I spend my time organizing files, editing the report, planning its distribution and doing the last few weeks of work and necessary communication that comes with closing a project. I have catalogued over 700 photographs from Overhills, and most of the time I feel it is sewn into my memory. How could I possibly squeeze one more Overhills fact into my brain? Yet this past week we have added two new interviews (i.e. more facts, stories, and memories), one of them a second interview and one a new interviewee that we had never able to find during the interviewing phase.

Prior to this week, the last of the 30+ interviews took place in January 2008. I hadn’t transcribed an interview in its entirety in just as long. This project phase of writing and editing brought me to view Overhills in another angle, in a more reflective, analytical way. Yet now that I am transcribing a few more hours of Overhills stories and memories, I return to that first world of Overhills that I entered.  Listening to these interviews I am reminded of everyone’s love for Overhills and of how this place truly was their home or second home. Listening and transcribing has that effect. I am studying someone’s words, the tone of his voice, and actually seeing what he is saying. It is in his words, spoken and then transcribed, that I am drawn back to Overhills, to the buildings, the people, the day to day life, and the voices that I’ve met and become familiar with throughout this project.  It’s a comfortable world that I’m visiting; I know the peoples and places to which my interviewee refers and I’m content to listen, type, and absorb.

And while I can’t say that, in the past, I have made an effort to pay attention to the audio exhibits at historic sites and in museums, I can say now that if you want to truly understand a place or an event, the best thing to do is to listen to a primary source. A few minutes of an authentic voice sharing history with you, the listener and learner, and you’ll be transported to the scene in history. Reading a transcript or reading an exhibit display does not compare to audio of an oral history project.  The next time I want to truly visit a historic site, event, or landscape, I will eagerly consider the audio tour or exhibit that features audio recordings.

The World of Interviews

During high school, I worked on the school newspaper every year.  My junior and senior years, I enrolled in the journalism class.  I loved everything about journalism and newspaper production: interviewing people, coming up with story ideas, writing, editing (or sometimes slashing), layout, proofreading, captions, terminology, teaching the younger students, and of course, the brand new, hot-off-the-press stack of newspapers.

In college, when I participated in the Veterans History Project through my folklore class, interviewing a subject came naturally to me. My professor told me that my experience in journalism had definitely given me a step-up over people who had never done such a thing. I loved this project. Of course, this foreshadowed my future in oral history.

Yet, despite the lessons I learned in journalism and folklore, the similarities, and the root of wanting to know the story, the fields are incredibly distinct and interviewing for journalism is an entirely different task than conducting an oral history interview.  [By journalism, I mean am referring to typical newspapers, which is not necessarily every facet of journalism].

Generally, news interviews are short and to the point. A news interviewer asks direct questions about what she needs to know.  There isn’t a need for a relationship and extended communication between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Contrarily, an oral history interview is extended, often hours and sometimes multiple meetings. Establishing trust is essential. Following the interview agenda is important, not entirely expected. Most people will address topics irrelevant to the researcher’s goals.  Open ended, but guided questions are the best type to ask. After the interview, according to oral history ethics, the interviewee has the opportunity to review the transcript and any product. The interviewee can retract statements. In journalism, the interviewee has no idea what will appear in the paper.

I make these statements based on my own experiences. Keep in mind, my journalism days are limited to high school and my oral history methods may vary slightly from those of others. But, I mention these basic, stark differences because on a few occasions, potential oral history interviewees have been very wary of the oral history project, or have even refused because they had been misquoted in news articles. Therefore, they no longer trust anyone who uses the word interview.

That’s a fair enough reason, and often people’s fears are soothed with further explanations of the project and the interview process (recording, transcribing, interviewee review).  Many people initially dislike the idea of the interview being recorded, until they fully understand the transcript and availability to review and have a final say.  It’s commonplace in oral history work.

However, the fact that so many people feel they have been misquoted in newspapers in disheartening.  Indeed, I know how they feel. When Jeff and I were interviewed for our book, Overhills, we had no idea what would be in the paper or what snippets would be used, since the reporter barely wrote down anything. I imagine it’s a skill to remember interviews without an audio recorder. As it turns out, the article was fine, but until we were able to read it, the fear of misquotation lingered.

Of course, I imagine people have been misquoted in oral history projects, sometimes accidentally. Transcriptionists may not understand every word and therefore, unknowingly invent entirely new phrases and statements. (Sometimes, this is quite hilarious).  Or a transcript (accuracy unknown) can be the only product used, and extracted passages are not what the interviewee originally said.

Both journalism and oral history have their benefits and disadvantages and the quality from each will depend on the person conducting the research. For instance, a simple, local news story does not require hours of interview time and transcription. A few questions are all that is necessary.  On the other hand, the history of a house or of a town cannot be answered in a few journalism style interviews. Depth is necessary and the human memory works best with time to recall the past.  One field cannot replace the other.

I’m grateful for my time in journalism and oral history, both of which I enjoy. There is great value in both, when done properly. I’d have to say that oral history is much harder and more rewarding than journalism, but of course, that’s to me, since I love history and almost forgotten stories.  Now, if only journalists and oral historians could develop different ways to say “interview”, because I haven’t met anyone scared away from interviews by oral history projects, only those scared away from interviews by newspapers.  

And, call me a creature of habit, but I always prefer to be the interviewer rather than the interviewee.  To me, it’s easier.


Time Travel Wish

Some days I really wish I could travel back in time. Today I wish I could travel to Overhills, North Carolina in the 1920s or 1930s. I want to be an observer for just a little while, to see the daily happenings, the people, the country club days. I cannot imagine 40,000 acres of open space and rural solitude, fox hunting, or wealthy New York business chatting by the fire. I can easily picture the steam engines pulling into the Overhills station and postal workers tossing mail bags off the train, and the endless miles of horseback riding trails, and the golf course. Mostly, I want to see the houses that have since been demolished (the Clubhouse and the Covert) and the elaborate Hunt Complex of dog kennels, horse stables, and an elaborate “Circus”.  If I could choose just one building to explore, it would be the Clubhouse.

Luckily, the oral history interviewees have wonderfully described their years at Overhills, hundreds of photographs help to tell their stories, and I have set foot on Overhills. But you know as well as I do, that with the setting altered since the 1930s, some pieces remain missing. I suppose that is why many of us found historic preservation and history: we love the eternal mysteries of places and enjoy the search to find answers, and then the challenge of adequately sharing the past with others.  It is a profession but it is also a hobby; we can’t help it.  Still, while the unknown is always fascinating, we cannot help but wish to see the true story for ourselves.

This is not an Overhills horse, just a North Carolina horse. But when you imagine Overhills you should imagine horses leaning over fences like this one with the green pine trees and Carolina blue sky in the background.

This is not an Overhills horse, just a North Carolina horse. But when you imagine Overhills you should imagine horses leaning over fences like this one with the green pine trees and Carolina blue sky in the background.

I don’t own any photographs of Overhills for my own use [to post here], but if you are interested in Overhills, see the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources website or the Overhills book.  On the website there is a slideshow of Overhills photographs and a brief history. The oral history project will be completed in a few months and parts of it will be available for viewing on the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources site. (I’ll keep you posted).

To where do you wish you could time travel?