As a proud new team member of Recollection Wisconsin, I’ll be writing a series of dispatches from my travels all over Wisconsin to find oral history collections at libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and other memory organizations. I have this rare opportunity thanks to our NEH grant-funded yearlong project, Listening to War: Uncovering Wisconsin’s Wartime Oral Histories. You can read more about it by visiting recollectionwisconsin.org/wioralhistory.
My first trip was to the city of Eau Claire. Two kind institutions were willing to be my “test run” – or rather, my first time in the field inventorying oral history collections with 20th century wartime experiences. I knew these would both be learning experiences to give me a taste of the wide variety of situations and collections I’ll be meeting in the coming year.
I drove up to Eau Claire from Madison on a beautiful Tuesday, warm and sunny but not too humid. That night I met Susan McLeod, retired director of the Chippewa Valley Museum and a member of the NEH grant Advisory Committee.
The next morning, I went to the Chippewa Valley Museum for the first time. The Museum is located in Carson Park, a tree-covered peninsula in Half Moon Lake. It’s such a unique, relaxing location. Inside, there’s an ice cream shop full of kids to the right, and to the left is the start of the exhibits. Susan walked me through the exhibits before we got to work, and it was just like walking through the history of the area – especially impressive was an accurate animation of the effect of the disastrous 1884 flood.
Then we headed to the library, a small room in the middle of the building, which holds reference materials and a vault for the archival material. Susan introduced me to Carrie Ronnander, the current museum Director, and the three of us talked about the project and the archives.
With Susan’s help, I spent the day inventorying the Museum’s oral history collections. A majority of their collections are on cassette tapes, but more recently interviews are recorded and stored digitally. The early interviews are with notable Eau Claire community members, telling stories of neighborhoods and daily life. There are also collections devoted to prominent companies and farming in the area. For our project, I found interviews about people who were trained as nurses during World War I, women who were part of the U.S. Navy WAVES, and veterans from multiple wars. The largest collection added to our inventory was a project dedicated to capturing the voices of Hmong residents: their stories as refugees of the Vietnam War, of resettlement in the region, and important roles in the Eau Claire community today.
On Thursday morning, I headed to UW-Eau Claire’s McIntyre Library, where I got to meet the archives team, including Assistant Archivist Lark Keating-Hadlock, Cataloging Assistant Crystal Schmidt, and Greg Kocken, Head of Special Collections. After a brief orientation, I spent the morning in the Reading Room. One of the collections was a donation from a student who did extensive interviews with Vietnam veterans for his thesis, and not only gave the cassettes to the archives but also his research notes. Another collection I inventoried was an interview with a woman who served in the Persian Gulf War.
I had a really pleasant time in Eau Claire, meeting two prominent organizations in the area. I can’t wait to meet more!