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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow UNION COUNTY HISTORY PROJECT


Focusing on Union County History: John Turner interviews Genevieve Carter for the Union County History Project. Turner and Carter both live in La Grande. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
Focusing on Union County History: John Turner interviews Genevieve Carter for the Union County History Project. Turner and Carter both live in La Grande. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

English novelist Virginia Woolf once wrote that "Nothing has happened until it has been recorded.''

Eugene Smith of La Grande agrees.

"Everything that happens is transitory. If it is not recorded it soon evaporates except in people's memories,'' Smith said.

Smith is helping start and will coordinate what may be the most expansive oral history project Union County has ever seen. At least 150 people will be interviewed.

Union County residents will be asked about their life stories and the interviews will be tape recorded and later transcribed and published.

The project reflects the fact that oral histories are perceived as much more valuable than they were several years ago. The old school of thought was that oral histories were not useful because memories are sometimes inaccurate and many things people say cannot be documented, Smith said. In recent decades there has been what he calls a "remarkable change'' in this attitude.

"Historians have greater respect for oral histories today because they tell us so much about daily life and the texture of the day,'' Smith said.

An oral history, for example, may reveal a lot about the type of fashions that were popular during an era and much more. Information like this is missed when historians focus only on the rich and famous.

"They (oral histories) represent a better balanced approach of the historical record,'' Smith said.

Diaries and letters once provided much of the type of information that oral histories provide. Unfortunately, the popularity of both faded in the 20th century, Smith said.

At least 10 copies of each interview will be printed and distributed to libraries in Union County.

Many of the people to be interviewed are at least 70 years old and have lived in Union County at least 25 years. However, people as young as 50 may also be interviewed.

Everything published in the oral histories will be confined to Union County.

This is one portion of the larger Union County History Project Smith is coordinating. The second segment will involve the publication of a Union County community encyclopedia. Topics ranging from Hot Lake to the Sacajawea Hotel and prohibition will be covered in the book, which will present the history of the community.

The Union County History Project will involve the county's history societies and volunteers.

Volunteers are needed to help with interviews for the oral history project. People from high school age on up are encouraged to participate.

Most interviews will take about five hours and many will be spread out over several weeks. Some people, for example, may be interviewed an hour at a time.

"We don't want to push people to exhaustion,'' Smith said.

Interviewers will be be trained by Smith before they begin and the interviews will be be typed by transcriptionists who will be hired by the project.

Smith, who is not affiliated with a history organization in Union County, taught English at the University of Washington for 28 years before moving to La Grande. He has Northeast Oregon roots though, since he earned a teaching certificate from Eastern Oregon College in 1951 and later taught fifth grade in Milton-Freewater for two years.

Smith is writing a book about the history of Seattle's Montlake community, south of the University of Washington.

Smith emphasized that the Union County History Project "in no way replaces or competes with any activity of the county's four historical societies.''

He said that as soon as the oral histories and the community encyclopedia are published the project will cease to exist. The projected publication date of the encyclopedia is 2007.

The Union County History Project will be funded by local donations. Grants for the project will also be sought.

A meeting for people who want to learn more about the project will be from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday in the meeting room of Island City's City Hall. Interviewers and others who are participating in the project will be present.

Anyone who would like to be an interviewer can sign up at the meeting. People can also suggest individuals who would be good interview subjects. Presently the names of 70 people are on the interview list and more are being sought. For information call Smith at 975-1694.

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