I have had the honor over the past month of speaking with an array of people with connections to Voyageurs National Park. We have sat down in an office, in their place of business, or over the phone. Some have shared their memories with a dose of caution, not sure if they can trust me, not sure how they will sound on the tape (it’s easier to write “tape” than “digital recording”), not sure if what they say will come back to haunt them later. Others have been a bit more forthcoming, even saying, “Take this out of the transcript but keep it on the tape.”
Oral history interviews are one of my favorite aspects of doing history projects. I get to sit down and ask questions and learn about people and what they have done with their lives. Sure, they focus upon the subject at hand, but, if I am lucky, they go beyond and delve into so much more. Why they love national parks and believe in the mission of the National Park Service. Or why they question the value of tying up land and keeping progress at bay. Why Civil War or American Revolutionary War battles deserve attention and their battlefields deserve preservation. Or why they raise the question, “When is enough land preservation enough?” Some interviewees have extraordinary abilities to define issues at their core and suggest solutions. Others focus upon themselves and their immediate concerns, helping me to understand a range of viewpoints.
What is astounding to me about these interviews is that I get convinced. I will come into an interview with a host of questions, based upon my research. I try not to have any preconceived notions about the person to be interviewed, nor their possible answers to the questions. But, I know that I have my own thoughts about an issue, and I must admit to myself that I am one of those liberal tree-huggers and historic preservationists who probably wouldn’t sit down on my own with half the people I interview for these projects. We just wouldn’t circulate in the same venues.
But I am also not an investigative reporter, out to uncover the big story, expose people, and make a name for myself. I truly want to hear what people have to say. I want to learn from their stories.
And I get an inkling into their own perspectives, their own motivations. Take “Sue”–she had lived by the battlefield most of her life. She had a nice house, her husband worked in the local community, she had served as a volunteer for many charitable organizations. The battlefield, in her mind, had been marked and preserved and interpreted for the public. What more did the Park Service want? More land? More money? But what about the people living there, who had to pay higher and higher taxes because more land was being taken off the tax rolls? What about the jobs that new development would bring? I remember Sue looking me directly in the eye and asking me, “Why more land?” I could not answer. I was simply being the funnel to capture her views. Plus, I had to admit she raised important points. When would there be enough preserved land?
Then there was “Bob.” Bob had had a family business before the national park’s establishment. Some members of his family had been all for the park, others were skeptical or even downright against the park. The Park Service bought out the land and improvements associated with the family business. The family members became concessionaires. Bob remained devoted to the park. He knew that park visitors wanted to immerse themselves into the park and all it had to offer, and his business contributed to that desire. He had many stories to share about those visitors and what fish they caught, how many family reunions his place of business hosted, why the park mattered. He made me laugh when he described the bear that got into the kitchen or the kids who maybe got a little too brave for their own good. His stories brought life and energy into the documents and reports I had studied. He helped reassure me that the park did matter.
I have done close to 200 oral history interviews for my history projects. I have listened and learned from each one. I have been convinced by their viewpoints, and I hope I have captured their perspectives fairly in my writing. I thank them for their time and trust.