Listening to the voices that created a county

In honor of centennial, oral histories released through Deschutes Public Library

By Kailey Fisicaro, The Bulletin, @kaileyfisicaro

How to listen

The interviews are provided as audio e-books. Those interested in listening to the oral histories can either download the free OverDrive app on their smartphones or tablets or visit ebooks.dpls.lib.or.us online. There are 15 copies of each interview to borrow. Pedersen welcomes anyone who needs help accessing the interviews to visit the library.

When Bendites had the foresight to record oral histories of locals in 1953, they did a lot of things right.

The interviews were interesting and to the point; the cast of people ranged from local legends to humble community members; and women, not just men, were included. The seemingly sole problem? The format.

KBND broadcaster Kessler Cannon, who conducted the interviews, used then-modern reel-to-reel tapes, which are now aging. For the past few months, the Deschutes Public Library system has teamed up with the Des Chutes Historical Museum to digitize the recordings and make them available to the public.

As of this week, a little more than half of the oral histories are available through the Deschutes Public Library system as part of its new “15 Minute Histories” series, according to Nate Pedersen, who has dual roles in the project. He’s president of the Deschutes County Historical Society and a community librarian at the Downtown Bend Public Library branch.

Pedersen said the length of each of the interviews, 15 minutes, is “just about right.”

“Oral history can actually be dry,” Pedersen said, before explaining the way Cannon interviewed the subjects was anything but. “Kessler was a professional. … He knew how to ask good questions and keep people on topic.”

The stories people tell are “particularly relevant to Central Oregon,” Pedersen said.

Some of the people interviewed were among the first born in Bend, some came as children with their families and others came on their own as young adults, ready for adventure.

“The story really picks up from when they get here,” Pedersen said, explaining with just 15 minutes, those interviewed mostly tell their more interesting and exciting stories set in Bend. Interviewees include Klondike Kate Rockwell, O.B. Riley and Clyde McKay, as well as lesser-known community voices.

That’s because Cannon’s goal was to talk to Bend and Deschutes County’s “pioneers,” according to Kelly Cannon-Miller, the museum’s executive director. Cannon and Cannon-Miller are not related.

“I think that was really Kessler’s angle, was on being a pioneer, and what it was like to come here,” Cannon-Miller said. “And it was still, it was the last vestiges of the Western frontier, of establishing cities and economies and building businesses where 50 years earlier there wasn’t anything.”

Cannon-Miller added that even the differences between 1903 (two years before Bend’s incorporation) and 1953 “were pretty remarkable.”

“There was a ranch here in 1903,” she pointed out, laughing. Farewell Bend Ranch once stood where the Old Mill District is today.

The museum wanted something to help celebrate Deschutes County’s centennial this year, and releasing these interviews seemed like a perfect way.

Cannon-Miller said a centennial for a county might not seem as exciting as an anniversary for a city or state. Museum staff had to look at items that might draw people to Deschutes County’s centennial.

“One of the amazing things that we had was this collection of audio tapes,” Cannon-Miller said. “To be able to provide that auditory element, it’s the power of storytelling. … Because you can read their words, but there really isn’t anything like hearing them.”

The interviews are available as audio e-books. Library members can either download the free OverDrive app on a smartphone or tablet to borrow and listen to an interview, or they can listen online in a Web browser. For the old recordings to get online, they had to go through an intensive process that took them across the country. First the reel-to-reel tapes were sent to a Tennessee company to be digitized. The reel-to-reel tapes were then shipped back with digital versions on CD. Pedersen downloaded the digital versions, separated the interviews and adjusted sound quality slightly. As he listened to them, he jotted down keywords for the cataloger to file the interviews appropriately in the library system. Finally, the library system’s graphic designer created “covers” for each interview, with portraits of the interviewee if available.

Pedersen said getting the 15 Minute Histories to the public has been a collaboration not only between the library system and history museum, but between different departments at the library.

“It’s very much a joint project, which I love,” he said.

The Deschutes Public Library system will continue to work with the history museum in getting the next batch of interviews for 15 Minute Histories online. Of the 43 interviews Cannon completed in 1953, only three are on tapes that have aged enough to damage the sound quality. There are 22 available now to listen; the next 18 to 21 might be available by the end of summer, Pedersen said.

The two entities will also work together on another set of about 100 interviews recorded by the late Joyce Gribskov, a local historian. Those cassette tapes, recorded in the 1970s and ’80s, weren’t edited and made for radio like Cannon’s were. Instead, they are lengthier interviews done in the more traditional oral history style. They will likely make up their own series.

Cannon-Miller said the historical society as well as museum and library system staff are still deciding where those cassettes will be sent to be digitized. Sending the Cannon reel-to-reel tapes to Tennessee cost nearly $700.

Right now she’s eager to find the time to listen to each of the 15 Minute Histories all the way through. Pedersen, too, has yet to listen completely through each one, but so far his favorite is one of the more “everyday people” interviewed: Mrs. G.E. Birdie Stadig.

“She was a Southerner that came out to Central Oregon and homesteaded with her husband,” he said. “She’s just kind of a treat. … I enjoyed her history.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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