By Peggy Rosen
Pull out a sepia-toned photo from the 1920’s of my Great-Aunt Bess. I’ll take delight in sharing the stories that have become family legend, about an adventuress ahead of her time. Equally comfortable on rock, snow, or ice, and as tough as her hobnailed boots, Elizabeth (Bess) MacCarthy became one of the most accomplished female climbers in North America. She scaled many peaks in the Canadian Rockies, making first ascents of formidable climbs such as Bugaboo Spire in 1916. In 1917, she climbed the challenging Mt. Hungabee, the first woman to stand on its summit.
Show me an image of my college-aged-self suspended on a ropes course high in the treetops. The smell creosote-soaked timbers, sweat, mosquito repellant is overwhelming. The sound of the whistling wind takes me back to the wilderness camp in the heart of New York’s Adirondack Mountains –- an experience that influenced the course of my adult life. I might even tell you, with a grin, about seeing the hit movie that summer that everyone was raving about — “Star Wars – A New Hope.”
Photos serve as a strong and effective trigger for memories. The immediate reaction of recognition and remembered experience can get us talking right away, prompting descriptive details that make a life story vivid. And beyond eliciting sensory specifics that enhance our story, the visual experience of a picture can take us down a reminiscence road full of emotions.
Written personal stories and heirloom books frequently use photos to illustrate a narrative. Often, the initial step in a personal story project involves interviews with one or more story narrators who respond to questions posed by a personal historian. The personal historian assists the narrator in elaborating on their responses, then transcribes and organizes the information into narrative form. We may already have specific photos to incorporate into a final product, adjacent to the story text. At other times, after the story is written, we comb through photos to pick the best one that “goes” with the story.
What if we turn this around and start with photos, before diving into story questions? This approach can be a fun way to launch life story sessions. In lieu of a list of questions, start with a sheaf of photos, or an album, or even stock photos of an era. The “photos first” strategy can be helpful for those who are having trouble deciding where to begin their memoir or life story project, or for personal historians working with reluctant narrators. Using photos as a memory prompter lends itself to “digging deeper” into the perspective of the viewer. The details that emerge in describing a picture and its backstory enhance discovery. Let pictures do more than sit beside story. Let them help tell it.
To try working from a photo as a starting point, begin with these tips:
Peggy Rosen came to personal history work in 2017 from a background in Nursing and Healthcare Administration. She focuses on written story, helping clients share their stories as books, legacy letters and in Guided Autobiography classes. She’s passionate about the potential for personal connections created by written life stories.
By Abigail Epplett
While taking a “Museum & Digital Technology” class at Tufts University last fall, I was tasked with creating a system that utilized new technology and was beneficial to an organization in my community. I live in the Blackstone River Valley, a national park with a rich history whose story has not been fully told. I began thinking about the difficulties of collecting the oral histories of lifelong residents and being able to share them with the public. I realized that I could create an easy-to use interface that would allow personal historians to gather stories from millworkers using their computer or mobile device, along with spreading the stories online or through social media. (You can look at the process here.)
The Blackstone River Valley has a long history as the “Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.” At the southern end of the valley, Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket, RI became the first water-powered mill in the United States in 1793. From then on, hundreds of mills in all shapes and sizes were built on the Blackstone River and its tributaries. Local people left their farms to work in the mills, while immigrants came from Europe and Canada to run the machines. Amazingly, this millworker lifestyle continued until the 1970s, when the last of the mills closed down. Because this way of life continued for so long, some of the former millworkers still live in the Blackstone Valley. The youngest are in their mid-seventies, while most remaining mill workers are older. Within a few years, the last of the millworkers will be gone, and their stories would be lost.
When working alone, I didn’t have any funding to create a completed product. That’s where Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Inc. (BHC) came in. When the COVID-19 restrictions hit, I connected with BHC to begin a summer practicum under the supervision of Volunteer Coordinator Suzanne Buchanan. After pitching the idea to her, she arranged a Zoom meeting for me to seek support for the project. An initial meeting with BHC and National Park Service staff and volunteers was highly successful, and I was given the go-ahead to build the project, thanks to funding found by BHC director Devon Kurtz. I have been working with media expert Brad Larson to put my interface over his StoryKiosk framework, along with local historian and PHNN member Marjorie Turner Hollman to create a list of interviewing questions to guide the storytellers.
To find millworkers who want to tell their stories, I hope to turn to a few different sources. During the early stages of recording, as I find the best way to interview millworkers using this new technology, I will collect the stories of local community members whom I have known for most of my life. Many local historical societies are run by the very same people who once ran the mills, and they have kept in contact with their fellow workers. The Rhode Island Manufacturers Association is another resource, as they connect the industries of the past to those of the present.
I’m excited to begin collecting stories from the former millworkers of the Blackstone Valley. All of the stories will be held in a database that can be made accessible to other organizations related to the Blackstone Valley, like the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, RI. Selected stories will be shared on the BHC social media, including their Facebook page, Instagram feed, and YouTube channel, along with hopefully appearing in future exhibits once restrictions are lifted. If you know anyone who worked in the mills of the Blackstone Valley or had close family that worked in the mills, feel free to send them my way! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abigail Epplett is a MA candidate in Museum Studies at Tufts University, focusing on informal education and American history. She recently completed a summer practicum with Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Inc., a non-profit organization affiliated with the Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and continues to volunteer with the National Park Service.
Members and invited guest writers are welcome to submit posts, which will be approved, and edited. Personal business promotion will disqualify submissions. Author attribution with brief (50 words or less) bio and headshot is required. For information, email Marjorie Turner Hollman.