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Speaking up for local history

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2003



WINCHESTER, N.H.

When Scott Russell Sanders worries about American communities becoming too much alike, he pinpoints what he sees as a major problem: towns that are so overrun by national franchises that they lose their identities.

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Townsfolk hand down little of their distinctiveness to upcoming generations. Mr. Sanders is convinced that communities should counter this by preserving the stories of elders and pass those stories on.

"To reawaken to our places, we need to recover stories, tales, and songs from our home grounds," says Sanders. "And we need to invent new ones."

Saving history by collecting long-hidden, local stories proves to be more easily said than done in an age when storytellers must compete with busy schedules and slick media for even a small measure of attention. But here in the rolling hills of southwestern New Hampshire, a handful of committed archivists is stirring up tales and storing up the best material in formats intended to catch and keep a restless audience's attention.

Since 1998, Monadnock Stories project director John Harris has been handing microphones and memory-jogging photographs to whoever can put a voice or an anecdote to bygone days in the Monadnock Valley.

In town halls and historic buildings, they've chuckled with thoughts of the horse that got away or cried over the machine operator whose arm was cut off. Dozens of hours of archived tape attest to the stockpile of memories.

Now the Monadnock experiment is reaching its day of reckoning as a prototype for regional-identity projects nationwide. Within the next year, organizers hope to find a publisher for an anthology of 30-plus stories and to complete a multimedia series for Internet users to hear voices and see images from the past (see www.monadnockstories.org).

Without doubt, those doing the recording have preserved the details of a few nearly lost arts from this region. But the big question still lingers: Can a catalog of remembrances succeed in teaching a fast-moving new generation about its past, its locale, and its neighbors? If knowledge of the Lawrence Tannery, Winchester's primary employer for more than a century, is any indicator, project organizers have their work cut out for them.

"I couldn't tell you where it was or anything about it," says Darcy Silva, a 20-something resident. "I'd rather focus on the buildings that are standing than on the ones that aren't."

Mr. Harris's team is aware of how hard it can be to interest teenagers and young adults in the details of how hides were tanned 50 years ago. Yet those involved are pinning their hopes to the very real, firsthand accounts of those who worked inside the plant that made the Ashuelot River run orange or purple with chemicals and inundated Winchester with a head-spinning stench.

The first stories compiled for the project "didn't have a gritty enough feel," Harris says. "We had the journalist and the professional writer ... but [we didn't] have the voice of one who went out and 'pulled the pits'... [who was lively enough] to interest someone who's never been here."

For the "gritty" voice that would be the project's lifeblood, Harris found the perfect guy at an April "stories circle" where 30 participants reminisced about the tannery. Among the crowd was Chet Bomba, a son of Polish immigrants who told of working in the early 1950s on the lowliest jobs at the plant. He brought maggot-covered sheep hides down from train cars and hauled chemical-soaked hides out of 750-gallon vats, a process called "pulling the pits."

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