Until recently, my vision of historical research consisted of a pile of dusty books, a cup of coffee and a comfy chair tucked away in the marble halls of the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Then, I came to the Cranberry Isles.

As an Island Institute Fellow, my project is to work with the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society and College of the Atlantic to research the history of agriculture on these islands. And that is where things get complicated—because in a town like the Cranberry Isles, the past is jumbled with the future, which is jumbled with the present, and history doesn’t remain neatly in the past as I expected it to.  On these islands history is brilliantly alive in the everyday stories that have survived and seeped down into the present, and that are told today with relish.

Previously, my tools for historical research have mainly been textbooks and microfilm. On the Cranberry Isles, I have found that the best tools are an empty notebook and an open ear.

These islands are simply bursting at the seams with stories that often tumble out in surprising places: in discussions at the general store, during conversations on the ferry, or over potluck meals at the Ladies Aid building. These stories haunt the landscape—what to my naïve glance simply looks like an empty field is known as the site of Elwood Spurling’s old barn, and the bare stump at the end of one road is the remnants of what is remembered as one of the best apple trees on the island.

It’s incredible to be conducting research in a place where I can read about milk production in the archives that morning, and then troop down to the general store for lunch only to hear the story of how Carl Hardy used to lead his milk cows up the main road every day into the 1940s and ’50s. History here also resides in the faces of people I pass every day, such as when I spotted my neighbor’s exact grin beaming up at me from a photo of his great-grandfather I’d discovered in the archives. Historical research on these islands is the ability to look at a photo from a hundred years ago and recognize the individuals in that photo by name and family.

This may sound like wizardry, but I’ve seen it done over and over again by island residents. The documents and the artifacts in the historical society are incredible resources in my research, but I find that they primarily serve as evidence of the stories I hear on the island everyday. Unsurprisingly, many of the best sources I come across in my research are family genealogies that were painstakingly collected and documented on typewritten sheets in massive binders. In a place where residents joke about a “family wreath” and some residents can trace their earliest on-island ancestor back hundreds of years, it’s no wonder that family stories are so integral to the history of the islands.

The opportunity to engage with these stories and the remembered characters so cherished in island lore is what makes doing historical research on the Cranberry Isles thrilling, fascinating and wonderfully unique. On the other hand, the personal nature of this history is also what makes my research challenging. When history is held this closely and dearly, everyone has their own version—versions that often conflict with one another’s.

Ultimately, it’s not up to me to decide which of those versions is the most correct. As a researcher, it’s my job to honor those tales by finding the common ground and working from that place. While doing historical research on an island can be messy, complicated and sometimes contentious, the personal nature makes it all seem to matter in an immediate way that is rare, beautiful, and utterly unforgettable. 

Jessica Duma is an Island Fellow through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute, working on the Cranberry Isles.