Home News Local News ELDER TALES
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
ELGIN My father died of pneumonia, and my mother died of diphtheria, DeLeva Rill explained Thursday afternoon at the Elgin Family Health Center.
Rill, in her early 70s, who now lives in Othello, Wash., but grew up in Elgin in the 1920s and 30s, visited the most recent session of Elder Tales. The oral history project is sponsored by the health clinic and the Elgin Historical Society.
The oral histories have been collected in group sessions for a year now, with a different topic chosen for each gathering.
At least thats the plan.
Shirley Peters, who transcribes the cassette recordings of each session, confesses it is hard to keep the stories on track. But thats OK by the historical society.
We did one (session) on fires, and they ended up talking about roads, she said.
Peters and Ron Brand, who also try to prompt memories with questions and comments, keep the sessions very informal. The two know most of the voices of the speakers, and rely on that knowledge to transcribe later who said what.
They sometimes announce the sessions via posters and flyers around the northern part of Union County. But they also call and remind regular participants of coming sessions.
So far, the organizers have picked topics, ranging last year from Thanksgiving memories and area sawmills, to nightclubs and saloons. Thursdays topic was health and medicine.
I had quinsey, Belthel Croghan, Rills older cousin of Elgin remembered. It was a problem that many modern doctors dont even recognize, she said, but it meant that her tonsils would frequently become infected and fill up with pus. A doctor would then lance them for draining.
Eventually, as a young woman, Croghan had the infected tonsils removed by an Elgin doctor who had his own small clinic and hospital in his home.
I had my tonsils out for $35, paid for at $5 per week, she said.
That was the same price a different doctor charged in the 1930s to deliver her youngest brother at a Wallowa Canyon homestead.
Croghan laughed, remembering that it probably took until that baby was grown to pay the doctor, but paid he was eventually from her mothers cream and egg money.
Usually the Elder Tales group has nine or 10 people attending, although Thursday drew just Rill and Croghan. Fred Hill of
La Grande often attends, Peters said, and Thursday sent along a few memories of his own.
Hill, who grew up in the Rinehard area, remembers his mother curing the common cold with a chest rub of goose grease and nutmeg, along with a wool vest.
Hill told Peters, she reported, that the nutmeg didnt have restorative properties, but sure did help make the smell of the goose grease tolerable.
Hills mother was also a proponent of long, hot sweat baths, he told Peters. Old-style heavy irons were heated and tucked into the sick persons bed, and then the patient was tucked in until sweat was just pouring off of them.
During the discussion Thursday, Peters and Brand learned from Rill and Croghan of many former Elgin doctors who either had private clinics or worked out of early community clinics. There were doctors named Calame, Law, Bennett and others.
Throughout the day, a tape cassette recorder ran silently.
The historical society purchased the recorder, packages of blank cassettes and typing paper using money requested from the Union County transient-room-tax funds, Peters said. The funds are earmarked for economic development and improvement projects.
Once the cassette tapes are transcribed, they are added to the Elgin Museums public collection. The transcripts of the Elder Tales sessions are kept in a notebook, Peters said, and she is working on adding photographs of the speakers as time permits.
The historical society started the project trying to get individual recordings, Brand and Peters said, but found that the group meetings tend to get people relaxed and the recording gets forgotten as stories are remembered.
We talked about recording people on video, Brand said, but Union tried that once, and people were too nervous.
Most of those who attend and share their memories are in their 70s and 80s, Brand said, and most have grown up in the Elgin, Summerville and Imbler areas and have lived their lives here.
Rill was orphaned at about age 4, and along with her older cousin, Croghan, and an aunt, remembers spending several weeks quarantined at the Hot Lake sanitarium to be sure they werent infectious for diphtheria.
Their quarantine, Croghan said, was overseen by the county doctor. And while both girls tested positive for exposure to the disease, neither became sick. No one else, Croghan thought, ever came down with diphtheria, either among the family or neighbors.
Peters and Brand plan to continue the oral history sessions through the winter and as long as there is an interest in the project.
They cant imagine ever running out of topics. And more topics keep coming up at the sessions, from draft animals and kitchens to caring for babies and early businesses.