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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 01:16 pm

Voices of the people

Ambitious oral-history project seeks to capture a disappearing Illinois

Untitled Document Ray Ackerman, who farmed in Tazewell County as a young man, talks on video about his early farming days: “No one wants to go back to the hard work they did in the past.” Ackerman talks about having to haul and spread manure on his fields but notes that now farmers use artificial fertilizers that leave dangerous residues. “We are going a step backwards,” he says. “We gained on one side, lost on another.”
The interview with Ackerman is one of just 50 that Robert Warren, curator of anthropology at the Illinois State Museum, and Mark DePue, director of the Oral History Project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, hope to complete in the Oral History of Illinois Agriculture project. Warren is the principal investigator, DePue the co-principal investigator. The agriculture project is one of six in the larger one that DePue directs, called Capturing the Voice of Illinois. Before DePue started as director, on Sept. 1, 2006, the library’s Audio-Visual Department was collecting histories on cassette tapes donated by institutions and individuals from around the state. Most of those histories, however, did not come with transcripts, and cassettes have a shelf life. When DePue inaugurated the library’s oral-history program, he says, “I was brand-new in oral history.” He is, in essence, self-taught, having recently published Patrolling Baghdad, a book based on 80 interviews he conducted with the members of the 233rd Military Police Company, an Illinois National Guard unit based in Springfield that was the first MP unit to patrol Baghdad in 2003.
DePue’s program primarily uses digital audio recordings, but for the agriculture project, conducted in conjunction with Warren and the Illinois State Museum, interns and volunteers are interviewing on digital video and transcribing and editing the interviews with the help of an outside firm. “It’s a pretty ambitious goal,” DePue says. “Once you get into it, it becomes more complex. It’s a great project to work on.” Transcription and editing are painstaking and take much more time than the actual interviews. Every hour spent on an interview requires about 40 hours of preparation, transcription, and editing. For example, DePue recently had to study the operations of the Board of Trade to prepare for an interview with a grain farmer. “There is nothing more exciting than a good interview,” he says. What oral historians want are people’s firsthand experiences. “Our volunteers must be passionate about the topic,” he says. “It’s something they fuss about.”
Warren received a $564,651 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the project. Once the two had the grant money, they asked Charlyn Fargo, formerly with the State Journal-Register and now with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and Steve Simms of the Illinois Farm Bureau for the names of possible interviewees. Between them they submitted 160, from which the researchers picked the 50 on the basis of geographical spread and diversity. Warren hired Mike Maniscalco to help with interviews. DePue has also turned to Cullom Davis, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, for advice. He describes Davis as “one of the pioneers in oral history.”
Warren says he likes to do a sit-down interview first, then a walk-and-talk during which the interviewee demonstrates what he or she does. Oba and Lorene Herschberger are among the people he’s interviewed. Oba is a retired Amish dairy farmer in Moultrie County who breeds Belgian draft horses. Others include Lloyd Johnson, a gospel singer who has retired after a career spent on the farm his family founded in 1850, and Geneva Sweet, who has kept many of her late father-in-law’s pictures of the family farm, stretching back to the 1890s. Most interviews run an hour or two, but one with Jacqueline Jackson of Springfield — professor emerita of English at UIS and a regular contributor to Illinois Times — took eight hours over two days. “She’s a fountain of interesting stories and information going back to the early 1900s, when her grandfather established a farm in Wisconsin,” Warren says. Jackson recounted how her grandfather made his first milk delivery (six quarts) on May 1, 1907, and in 1911 built a round barn, about which she has written two books, with a third on the way. He later built a concrete silo with the aims for the farm printed on it, the last being, “Life as well as a Living” — her family’s philosophy. Ackerman describes his farm’s beef, dairy, and grain operations during the Great Depression. “I know we can’t go back to the 160-acre farm,” he says, “but if I had a choice that’s the way I’d want it.” His nephew John Ackerman and John’s wife, Yvette, found a way to stay on a small farm, discovering that people wanted to buy their ornamental pumpkins and gourds. Then they converted an old farrowing barn into a shop where Yvette sells gifts, home décor, and her handpicked food products. “I have quite a following,” Yvette says. “It’s growing into a sustainable business,” John adds. Although agriculture is at the top of the oral-history efforts, other programs are continuing.
For example, one effort involves interviews with historians who have written about Lincoln or Illinois. Allen Guelzo, a noted Lincoln scholar, was the subject of a recent interview for the Historians Speak program. For the presidential library’s Statecraft Project, former Gov. Dan Walker and several key aides from his administration were interviewed. Veterans Remember is focused on Illinoisans who fought in World War II and the Korean War. “They all have great stories to tell,” DePue says. By the end of 2008, the library hopes to begin posting the interviews online.

Linda Hughes of Springfield is a regular contributor.