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WORK BEGINS ON HISTORY ENCYCLOPEDIA
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
Have a question about Union County history?
Someday you may be able to find the answer in little more time than it takes to say Cast Iron Mary. Work is beginning on a Union County history encyclopedia.
The encyclopedia may be finished in five years. Unlike Cast Iron Mary, the famous
La Grande fountain that was toppled when it was hit by a car driven by a bootlegger in 1922, the history book should have staying power.
"We want it to be a handsome, sturdy book," said Eugene Smith of La Grande. "We are trying to produce something that has scholarly credibility. We want it to be carefully researched and to stress the factual.''
Smith, the coordinator of the project, said that the encyclopedia will be the first of its kind in Union County.
"A number of partial histories have been written, but the serious work of researching and compiling an intensive examination of every major aspect of county history has not been done,'' Smith said.
The encyclopedia will be produced as part of the Union County History Project, which Smith is also coordinating. He said that an encyclopedia format was selected because "we wanted to put a large amount of information into a form that is readily accessible to many kinds of readers.''
The format was also chosen because it will allow many community members to help with the research, writing and assembling of information. Smith said this would not be possible if the work were a chapter history book written in a narrative style. Such a book could have only three or four writers.
An advantage of having a book with many writers is that it will reflect the point of view of many people.
"You have a greater chance for objectivity (with many people writing) than if you have one or two people writing,'' Smith said.
The book will have stories about individuals.
The stories, however, will not be anecdotal accounts about the everyday lives of people; instead, they will focus on the lasting contributions made by individuals like H.L. Wagner, the man who started the successful grass seed industry in the Grande Ronde Valley about 70 years ago.
The encyclopedia will have overview articles on major themes like transportation, business and agriculture. The transportation section might begin with an article on Indian trails and then move on to early wagon roads and eventually freeways and air service.
The work will also have narrowly focused articles on people, towns, buildings, events, occupations, religion and many other subjects. There will be articles on everything from Cast Iron Mary to Hot Lake to the Cove Cherry Festival.
Both types of articles will be in alphabetical order to help readers find what they are looking for. Smith expects the book to have about 250 pages, to include illustrations and cost between $20 and $30.
The length of the book's articles will range from several paragraphs to two or three pages.
"Most of the articles will be short and filled with facts,'' Smith said.
The Union County History Project is a non-profit corporation funded by donations. The encyclopedia is one of two projects it is involved in. The other is an oral history project that started less than a year ago. About 200 Union County residents are being asked to tell their life stories. The interviews are being tape-recorded, then transcribed and published. The first of these published transcripts will be released in several weeks.
Once the Union County History Project's encyclopedia and oral history works are finished, the organization will be disbanded. Should the Union County History Project have any money left it will be donated to history organizations in Union County.
Smith, who taught English at the University of Washington for 28 years before moving to La Grande, is not receiving any money for his work with the project. He has Northeast Oregon roots since he earned a teaching certificate from Eastern Oregon College in 1951 and later taught fifth grade in Milton-Freewater for two years.
Smith and retired Eastern Oregon University history professor Charles Coate are the co-chairs of the Union County Encyclopedias Editorial Committee. In addition to Smith and Coate, the committee includes Dorothy Swart Fleshman and Jerry Gildemeister, both of La Grande, and Shirley Peters of Elgin. All share an extensive knowledge of Union County's history.