Speaking up for local history

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.

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."

On a May afternoon, Mr. Bomba arrived at the Sheradon House Museum to recall those hot, sweaty days in depth with Stephen Johnson, a chemist who spent his 43-year career at the tannery. Seated at a table strewn with old photographs and recording equipment, Mr. Johnson and Bomba recalled how a trainload of sheepskins would get washed, pickled, tanned, dried, drummed, toggled, and stretched until ready for shipping to New York City and beyond for cutting into clothing. Johnson dryly described the art of tanning for the historical record. Bomba made sure to colorize the details.

"That was one absolutely terrible job on a hot day," Bomba says about unpacking train cars. Pulling pits wasn't much better: "I used to look [in the vats] for the short-haired hides because those weighed less than the long-hairs."

Securing colorful, albeit sometimes excruciating, details on tape gives Harris some much-needed grist for the mill of making local history tangible for young people. The challenge then becomes one of balancing the need for accuracy with the need for compelling narratives.

Here, technology assistant Jon Schach tightly edits first-hand voices so that each segment at www.monadnockstories.org plays for fewer than 10 minutes and requires just seconds to download, pictures and all.

"How much are people going to listen to every aspect of the tanning process?" Mr. Schach asks after the 90-minute taping session, from which he intends to keep 30 minutes of tape. Not much, he concedes, but humor and stories might keep them tuned in.

Concern for preserving local idiosyncrasies has grown in the past decade as cultural critics, such as Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, have lamented the homogenizing effects of globalization and franchising. In this context, the Monadnock project aims to be a model for other communities at risk of losing their identities when a new generation fails to learn what has made them distinct over time.

"The Monadnock stories project is a leading example in a nationwide reawakening to the importance of place," Sanders says. "[It illustrates] how any community can recover a sense of its place, its roots, and its responsibilities."

Conversations with young adults in Winchester suggest only a scant awareness of the tannery's role in town, but also point toward an interest in learning more about local history.

"My papa used to sell sheepskins, but I don't know anything about the process of making them," says Stevie Bickford, a young Winchester resident. "To know something more about it would be interesting, but nobody ever really talks about it."

The Monadnock project hopes to change that with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H. And local high school students may not even need to wait for the stories to be published.

At Keene High School, students use portions of a $100,000 project grant to find the region's stories - as well as storytellers - on their own.

Teachers encourage students to research an aspect of their town by interviewing one or more citizens who can offer a first-hand account.

The Monadnock project's multipronged attempt to crack open and retain the stories of the region's elders will continue through additional, periodic story circles even after the website and anthology are completed. And as long as young people muster a curiosity about their home and their past, Harris says, the gap across age groups in town will be continue to grow smaller.

"Students aren't too interested to go to a stories circle and hear everybody's stories," Harris says. "But if they get interested in a topic, they'll find one of the best sources is often an individual.... There's a lot happening that's valuable for the restoring of an authentic, genuine community."

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