The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 5, Number 2, Pages 5-7
Spring, 1980

The Ups and Mostly Downs of An High School Oral History Project

By Joe Peterson

History teacher, Issaquah High School

The problems and the rewards of an high school oral history project are delineated clearly here by Joe Peterson, a history teacher at Issaquah High School Following Peterson's essay, The Forum prints an opening excerpt of an interview of some Finnish-Americans by Runa Dahl a Norwegian exchange student.


Transcriber: Kim McCain in Oral History Project. Photograph by Runa Dahl.

Twenty I figured. Twenty to twenty-five interviews completed by the end of Spring trimester would be about right. That was the assurance I gave the local historical society when they asked my high school class to record the memories of our town's "oldtimers." We came up a little short - fourteen to be exact! We successfully completed but six.

Because I thought an explanation of the gap between my expectations and our actual accomplishment might be helpful for others embarking upon a similar project, I have made a list of problems we encountered.

1) I bit off more than we could collectively chew. Twenty to twenty-five interviews, recorded, indexed, and transcribed is going to take more than a month and a half.

2) Both over-estimating my students' skills and underestimating the sophistication of the skills required occurred. The number of high school students in any randomly selected history class able to type transcripts rapidly and without error is miniscule. Training students in interview and transcribing techniques takes much time and patience. That is, being an effective interviewer is a practiced art, not something learned hastily.

3) Much more in the way of equipment is necessary to do a number of interviews simultaneously. Besides the tape recorders used in the field, those students back in the classroom indexing and transcribing completed interviews also require tape recorders, earphones, and typewriters.

4) Some "old-timers" are uncooperative. Tape recorders can be intimidating. In addition, many elderly people have difficulty understanding how their memories could contribute to anything meaningful or be of much interest.

5) My high school students brought little understanding of social history to the task. Victims of traditional textbook instruction, political and military history was their major frame of reference.

A list of several strategic flaws, I'm sure you will agree.

Indexing tapes: Mike Torre. Photograph by Runa Dahl.


However, no list of problems encountered would be complete without a list of remedies. Here are some possibilities.

1) and 2) Be aware of the nature of the task. The hour interview is only the "tip of the iceberg" in terms of a time commitment to seeing it processed. While indexing is a simple task, transcribing can take several hours. Perhaps working the project together with an advanced typing class would be productive. In addition, students spending a good deal of pre-interview time in the classroom, role-playing interviews, would be helpful. Furthermore, a limited number of quality processed interviews is a more worthy goal than mine of "twenty to twenty-five."

3) Hunt down all the equipment you can from wherever. It is needed if you are to involve more than a few students at a time.

4) Tape recorders with built-in mikes are less obtrusive. Also, orienting students to the value of learning about national developments from specific regional examples might help them identify the importance of personal memories for the skeptical senior citizen.

5) Students need to be exposed to social history as well as the traditional political/military history which permeates many high school texts. They need to raise questions such as: What was life like on the home front during World War II; how did the depression impact a particular small town or family; and what percent of Americans "roared" during the 20's?

Shortcomings aside, I wouldn't want to leave out some very positive aspects of our undertaking that have occurred. On a personal level, our Norwegian exchange student was able to interview a third generation Scandanavian family about their maintenance of ethnic customs and identities over the past eighty years. The Norwegian girl, Runa Dahl, interviewed a Finnish-American husband and wife. Dahl's interview follows this article.

On a broader plane, our project has provided a two-fold community service in that the local historical society has a modest start on an oral history tape bank and several senior citizens have been provided both companionship and a renewed sense of worth as a result of their encounters with these young people.

Moreover, a number of students have begun to view history as interpretation - that each generation tends to recreate and rewrite history in terms of its own needs, aspirations, and point of view. Along similar lines, students seem to have a greater appreciation of the value of historical research itself.

Oral history projects at the secondary level can be dynamic experiences and worthwhile contributions for all involved, but serious preparation and anticipation by both instructor and students seems crucial to a successful program.

Runa Dahl interviewing Mrs. Carmen Olson. Photograh by Jean Jensen.


Runa Dahl's Interview:

An Excerpt

This is Runa Dahl interviewing Elvin Barlow and his sister Marie Chandler.
This interview takes place at Marie Chandler's home in Issaquah, Washington, on April 19, 1979. It also includes Elvin's wife, Didi.

RD: Where were you both born?

EB: Our folks were both born in Finland. My sister was born in Eastern Washington. And I was born right here in 1913; she was born 10 years before that, in Wilbur. Dad had a wheat ranch in Eastern Washington. His health deteriorated to the point where he had to get out of the dust, the alkaline dust, came over here.

MC: One interesting thing is he picked here because of the lakes and he remembered all the lakes in Finland so he wanted to be by water, there's an interesting thing of course Finland is noted, I've never been there, but it's noted for its lakes.

RD: How old were your parents when they came over?

MC: Well my Dad was, our Dad, was about 10 was he, mother was going on her twenties.

EB: They met here and were married here in Eastern Washington, my mother came over here and worked as a maid which was the way to get out of Finland for the poor class of people, you know they kind of indentured to people to work as a maid; a lot of people did that, mother did, she worked in North Port, Washington to begin with. But we had a Grandpa that worked in the mines.

MC: Carbanado.

EB: Yes. Carbanado which is east of here and Grandma died in Carbanado and one of the...

MC: One of the daughters.

EB: One of the daughters died and they're buried there in the little cemetery in Carbanado. He went back to Finland and married and he lived there for years and years.

MC: He never did come back, he stayed in Finland.

EB: But a lot of the Finnish people were miners and wood workers, well sawmill workers. It was manual labor; they weren't training for any profession of any kind when they came over here and they came over to better their lives and took what was available and it was all hard work for them like mining and logging and millwork.

MC: Mother came here, I was 2 1/2 and my brother who lives next door was born a month after we arrived here, he was born in July.

RD: What year was that?

MC: Oh! 1906. So you know more about the farm than I do: that's certainly interesting.

EB: Dad bought a homestead, wasn't a full 160 acres because the lake took part of it. He was probably about the 4th or 5th owner of the farm. It had been homesteaded in oh, 1870 or something like that. He operated a dairy farm here along with my brother's help, of course, I took over the farm in 1933 and operated it for about 30 years. Then they started tearing up those roads and taxes went so high they couldn't pay for them anymore.

MC: All of these roads were used by the farmers. So there wasn't a great deal left.

RD: So you've seen quite a lot of change in...

MC: There were only 2 houses on the end of the lake, besides our home.

EB: My Dad learned English real well and Mother could understand English but she couldn't talk it well. There was a little Finnish community right here, probably about 4 or 5 families are still here, and then there was no more than about a mile away and mostly the women were that way, they never learned to speak English real well. And they would visit one another and speak Finnish. Some of the men also didn't speak Finnish too well bµt they got by like Rick Kalamana and Matt Nickel.

MC: Course they were grown when they came here, didn't go to school, naturally, so what they learned, they learned themselves.

RD: So did you know Finnish from your Mother?

EB: Oh, yes.

MC: After a fashion, I don't think...

EB: We spoke Finnish with my Mother all the time.

MC: I found out later, of course, Mother, Dad was Swedish so a lot of the words we got were Finnish, that I had thought were Finnish weren't Finnish at all, they were Swedish. So I was told when I tried to say a few words to some of my Finnish speaking friends. But when we went to school, of course, we spoke English all the time; but we did speak Finnish with our Mother.

RD: Do you remember special customs she brought from Finland? In connection with Holidays maybe?

MC: Well Christmas, I remember having a Christmas tree and all the ornaments were, of course, made at home like candles, and on Christmas eve we would dance around or make a ring and sing. And that wasn't Finnish but I tell you now what it was.

EB: They kept their Church going here. There were 2 groups of Finnish people: the Church goers and the ones that didn't go to Church. But the folks were always more interested in… in… well it was Lutheran to begin with, then they left the Lutheran and went to the Congregational Church and I was confirmed in the Lutheran, and then a lot of the young Finnish descendants, kids, went. I don't know what year it is, they joined the Congregational Church. That was after I had finished school and was on my own with teaching.

EB: There was a minister that lived down the Lake about a mile from here, and he had a rather large territory. He would go clear up in Canada at times to have services.

RD: Was that the Lutheran Church at that time?

MC: Yes.

EB: Mundell, Reverend Mundell, and he went clear up to Nanaimo in B.C. (British Columbia) which was a coal mining center which had a big city population, and he had several places here in the state of Washington he would travel to. This group finally bought their own Church of the denomination, it was close to where the School is now. The School has changed so much.

MC: Do you mean the grade school or the Junior High?

EB: Yes, by the swimming pool. (the Junior High) There was a Finnish Church up there for years and years.

RD: So the Finnish had kind of their own Church?

EB: Yes. They owned that Church, yes.

RD: So was there a lot of Finnish people going there?

EB: Yes. They would be active, they would in the summertime, several times during the summer, they would have Finnish people from all over Western Washington, would come up for meetings.

RD: Seems to have been quite a community around here of Finnish people .

MC: Yes.

EB: Yes.

MC: Yes, quite a number of Finnish people, but not to begin with, later on.

EB: I can remember when we had this land along the Lake here and there was this big orchard here around the comer of the Lake and every summer we'd have a big picnic down there and all the Finnish people would come potluck and there must have been 500 or 1,000 people sometimes.

RD: Did you have this Finnish customs or Finnish food maybe?

EB: Well the food definitely yes, but Finnish type of food. But customs I don't...

MC: I don't remember either. But...

EB: They celebrated Huon(?) that's the longest day of the year.

MC: In summer.

EB: In summer they were. They celebrated that every year.

EB: Also something besides, I don't know how much a Finnish custom it was, but every New Year's Eve we would go up to Oster Alilla's house and I don't know if that custom was brought from Finland or not but he would, they would melt lead and over a fire in a low, I don't know what you'd call it, but anyway it was about probably a 1/4 of a cup of molten lead and he would dump it into cold water and this lead would harden instantly and he would read the future of everybody.

MC: You know his daughter, who teaches up at the Community College, she still does that every year. She was on the Channel 9 the last 2 summers, 2 winters at Christmas time. And they came to her place and she's the one you should talk with...

RD: So she's keeps the custom of...

EB: So that must have been from the family then.

RD: How do you spell it?

EB: It's Alila

MC: It's 2 L's so it's Alilla

EB: But he's been gone now for 30 years. But one of the only remaining one of the family is the one she was talking about.

RD: Do you know her name?

MC: Oh, yes I see most her week.

RD: What's her name?

MC: Her name is Campbell, Aino Campbell.

EB: You might give her a call on the telephone because she's really outgoing and she would…

MC: I guess she would.

EB: She lives in Bellevue.

RD: Do you know her number?

MC: I could call her right now. I don't know if she has classes. Want me to call her?

RD: No, we will just talk to her later. So do you think they kept together in the community to keep the Finnish customs, language, etc...

MC: They did until 30 or 40 years ago, I guess.

EB: To this extent, like I told you, my Mother couldn't speak very much English and a lot of other ladies didn't either, the group, they visit and talk with one another and I suppose they kept some customs making rugs like they used to in Finland. And was even a man who made starch out of potatoes he had a machine that he copied from remembering how it was made in Finland this machine you'd put the potatoes in and turn the crank and it would eventually grind up the potatoes and eventually you had dried powdered starch when it was all done.