A moving portrait of Doug MacVane standing at the ocean’s edge graces the cover of Fran Houston’s book, For the Love of Peaks. The book’s subtitle, Island Portraits & Stories: A Collection, reveals exactly what you will find inside the cover. Houston introduces you to some Peaks Islanders with stories she collected through oral history interviews. “Each interviewed amazed me. I could just sit for hours listening. I just love stories of the island”, Houston said. She affectionately refers to her subjects, elderly neighbors on Peaks Island, as “lovies”. Houston dedicated the book to Doug MacVane who passed away in 2008. She says, “Doug was a friend to many. He walked the island with his walking stick, down to the café mornings. He talked with everyone.”
For the Love of Peaks was published in 2010, along with two other coastal oral history collections, Cundy’s Harbor Voices by Elsa Martz and Remember When…(A Collection of Oral Histories) collected and edited by Susan Dyer Radley for the Vinalhaven Historical Society. In the summer of 2011, the Swan’s Island Historical Society expects to release another book resulting from an ongoing oral history project.
The term oral history refers to the recording and preservation of a person’s recollection of the past; their family, an event, an experience, a boat, a building-something that happened in their lifetime recalled from their memory. The interest in oral history is certainly not new. Since the beginning of time, stories have been passed down from generation to generation in one form or another, but accessibility to new technology-recorders, computers, transcribing equipment, the internet-all have made the work of collecting and sharing oral histories much easier today than in the past.
A few years ago, the Maine Humanities Council funded a series of oral history workshops where participants could learn basic interviewing skills and how to use the equipment required to conduct an interview. Fran Houston attended one of these workshops in 2007 with presenter Jo Radner, a folklorist, storyteller, writer and researcher. Radnor’s knowledge and expertise in the field of oral history was the inspiration Houston needed to prepare herself for the project that later became For the Love of Peaks. Houston, a photographer and writer, started out her project as an exhibit of black and white photographs and storyboards of each subject’s interview. The exhibit was funded in part by a grant from the Maine Humanities Council. In June 2010, the portraits and stories were released as the book For the Love of Peaks.
Do you know someone who has great stories to share? Wondering how you might get started? The process begins with preparation, lots of it. What questions will you ask, where will you conduct the interview, what is it that you want to find out, are you comfortable with the equipment you are using, and, most of all, are you a good listener? Respect for the storyteller is important. The memories being shared with you are very precious. Anyone is capable of conducting an interview, but in the end the more prepared you are the better the interview and recording will turn out.
Martz visited with long-time residents of Cundy’s Harbor in early 2010 and engaged each resident in a conversation. She sometimes returned a second or even third time recording the talks. In the introduction of Martz’s book she states, “These voices reveal what it was like growing up in Cundy’s Harbor. But don’t believe everything you read here. There is absolutely no guarantee of accuracy. Memories are elusive.” Martz included historic photographs throughout the book to illustrate the stories.
The style of Cundy’s Harbor Voices is different from the other two books, which profile one person and their story. Instead Martz chose to use short excerpts of the taped conversations, choosing not to identify the individual person telling the story. As Martz began the project she realized that certain themes were emerging, being repeated by the different storytellers. Martz decided to pull short stories around the common themes from the conversations and designed her book with nine sections such as; Play, School, Boats, Fishing, World War II, and several more. The storytellers included seventeen residents from Cundy’s Harbor, part of the town of Harpswell, Maine. Martz credits Christine Miller as the impetus for the book. Miller shared her own stories with Martz at the Holbrook general store not long after Martz moved to Cundy’s Harbor in 1987. Miller also loaned Martz newspaper clippings, letters, and photos so she could learn more about the community’s unique past.
The three books reveal a rich and wonderful past about the people and the communities of Peaks Island, Cundy’s Harbor, and Vinalhaven. Each book provides a look into the personal lives of the storytellers and their communities. Susan Dyer Radley conducted many of the interviews for the Vinalhaven Historical Society book, Remember When. “To have had the opportunity to meet with some of Vinalhaven’s very special and most memorable citizens and to listen to their stories enabled me to catch a glimpse into the past. These oral histories will provide a source of wisdom and experience for many generations.” There are more than 50 interviews in the Vinalhaven book, along with historic photos, poems, letters, short stories, and a list of significant dates in island history.
In Remember When, George Burton “Bert” Dyer talks about all the different kinds of fishing he did in Vinalhaven waters; scalloping, seining, gill-netting, haking, and lobstering. Bert tells the tale of the day he landed 500 pounds of lobster out of 130 old-fashioned wooden lobster traps. What a day that must have been! The story continues with Bert talking about his roles in the making of two motion pictures, Captains Courageous and Deep Waters. Bert, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, explains his role in the planned invasion of Japan. Bert Dyer’s oral history interview is just one example of “living history”-history told by those who lived it, not in a school textbook, but by your parents and grandparents, your elderly neighbors, by ordinary people living in ordinary places. Bert’s interview concludes with him saying, “I’ve got no money to leave ’em, but I’ve got history to leave ’em.” And that history is priceless!
Donna Weigle is a freelance writer on Swan’s Island who is currently working as an advisor to the Swan’s Island oral history project.