Over 50 Years, CGP Students Gather 1,800 Oral Histories

Over 50 Years, CGP Students Gather 1,800 Oral Histories

By LIBBY CUDMORE•The Freeman’s Journal

Edition of Thursday, Sept. 25

Professor Will Walker currently oversees the Oral History collection, compiled since the CGP’s founding in 1964.
Professor Will Walker currently oversees the Oral History collection, compiled since the CGP’s founding in 1964.

From maple sugar to folk songs, from farming techniques to pierogie recipes, over 1,800 recordings have been collected by the Cooperstown Graduate Program since its founding 50 years ago.

“There’s all kinds of incredible material,” said Will Walker, the associate professor of history who oversees the student research. “These are people’s lives.”

The Oral History collection has been part the Folklore concentration since the CGP opened in 1964 – the 50th anniversary will be celebrated the weekend of Oct. 10-12 by, among others, prominent alumni from across the country – and is now gathered as CGP’s Community Stories. “It’s a community-based project to capture the whole community,” he said. “Doctors, lawyers, farmers, teachers – the list is quite diverse.”

First-year students select an interview subject from suggestions Walker collects through a network of former subjects and interested parties. “It’s very organic,” he said.

Students also have a chance to reflect on previous interviews. In the 1970s, a group collected recipes from Utica’s Italian and Polish communities. “One of my students recently went back and found family members of those original interviews,” said Walker. “Some of them had moved away, but they still gathered at a church and made those same recipes 30 years later. She brought back the most delicious pierogies I’ve ever had.”

Other students went back and interviewed ice fishermen on Otsego Lake, just as students before them had done. “It’s interesting to hear what students recorded 30 years ago and now.”

The Ingalls family in Hartwick has also been the subject of interviews over the decades, tracing their history from a dairy farm to a roadside farm stand and u-pick on Blueberry Hill.

Former student Henry Glassie, now a “legend” in Folklore studies and a professor at Indiana University, did his oral history on Jesse Wells, a hop picker just as the crop was beginning to decline in the early 20th century. “He was also a musician, so Henry recorded all these songs,” said Walker. “He took these stunning photographs and pasted them on loose-leaf paper in his report.”

The original document is now fragile with age, but photocopies have been made and scanned for preservation. The interviews themselves, from reel-to-reel tape to mp3, are also logged, and many are available for listening on the Community Stories website.

CGP’s founder, the late Louis C. Jones, even told his tales of collecting stories in one student-conducted interview. “Some of those recorders weighed 50, 75 pounds and had to be plugged in – I’ve carried them up mountains, only to find there were no plugs!”

And as the fall semester begins, students are already starting to pick their subjects and practice their interviewing techniques. “So much history is not preserved in the written record,” said Walker. “The only way to capture this history is by talking to people.”