Preserving the voices of Bend’s past

Museum and library partner on digitizing Central Oregon’s oral histories

Going to the grocery store was a big deal when T.W. Vandevert was a kid.

“We’d take two teams — six horses and two wagons — and head on over to Eugene for groceries,” recalled Vandevert in a 1953 radio interview.

The Vandeverts, one of Central Oregon’s first pioneer families, homesteaded land south of what would eventually become Bend in 1892 when Thomas William Vandevert was 8 years old.

“It was a 21-day round trip,” Vandevert told KBND broadcaster Kessler Cannon more than 60 years ago. “We took a load of wool over and brought back groceries. … We were loaded both ways.”

Cannon’s interview with Vandevert and other local leaders from Bend’s early days will soon be available to download from the Deschutes Public Library system as part of a joint oral histories project with the Des Chutes Historical Museum.

“People have heard these names before,' said Nate Pedersen, president of the Deschutes County Historical Society. Pedersen is also a community librarian at the downtown Bend library branch. “Now they’ll be able to connect place names with personalities.'

Two sets of oral histories are being digitized by the museum. In celebration of Bend’s 50th anniversary in 1953, Cannon recorded a series of 15-minute interviews for Bend radio station KBND, and the museum has 43 of the original old reel-to-reel tapes. The museum also has a collection of more traditional oral histories and panel discussions from the 1970s and ’80s on cassette tape conducted by local historian Joyce Gribskov.

Cannon’s segments — short, concise and conducted with a listening audience in mind — will be available for download on the library’s website, possibly as soon as February. Gribskov’s interviews, once digitized, will become available at the museum on tablets.

“The fabulous thing about starting with Kessler’s (recordings) is that he was making them for radio,' said Kelly Cannon-Miller, the museum’s executive director. She is not related to Kessler Cannon. “They’re 15 minutes, edited and ready to go. It’s an easy place for us to start — and the best — since we’re starting with the oldest audio tapes.'

The project includes interviews from notable Bendites such as Klondike Kate Rockwell, Clyde McKay, O.B. Riley, Prince Staats and Sadie Niswonger. Between both sets of oral histories, the museum has approximately 150 different interviews it’s saving for future generations.

“Now you can drive down O.B. Riley Road while listening to him tell his own story,' Pedersen said. “I think that’s the beauty of this partnership.'

While Cannon’s interviews from 1953 will likely be uploaded to the library’s website as is, Gribskov’s tapes, which feature later notable figures such as Bill Miller, Dean Hollinshead and Marjorie Smith, are expected to be edited for brevity.

“Her interviews are more of the classic oral history where you plug in the tape recorder and have a conversation,' Cannon-Miller said about Gribskov, who used the interviews as the basis for several books she wrote on Central Oregon’s pioneer history. “We’d like to take those oral histories, distill them down, clean them up and get them to be succinct stories.'

The project coincides nicely with Deschutes County’s centennial next year, but that wasn’t the driving factor behind the digital conversion.

“We have a crisis in terms of the lifespan of audio tapes,' Cannon-Miller said. “The reel-to-reel quarter-inch tape, we’ve recorded those to cassette tapes, but even the cassettes are starting to age and you can hear it in the recordings. Getting everything digital is really important to save the audio completely.'

The museum chose to partner with the library in large part to make the first batch of recordings more accessible, Cannon-Miller said. The Deschutes Public Library uses OverDrive, a software that allows library members to download audiobooks and e-books to their phones and tablets. One feature in OverDrive is specifically designed for libraries to upload their own content.

“Audiobooks have become a really popular feature at the library,' Pedersen said. “OverDrive’s local content feature, it’s a perfect way to share these stories.'

The interviews themselves are a treasure trove of local history. Vandevert talks about riding a pony 3 miles to school every day with him and two siblings on the pony’s back. Clyde McKay recalls scouting the Bend area in 1901 for timberlands. And Klondike Kate Rockwell, ever the show woman at 70 years young — she died four years after her KBND interview in 1957 — fondly recalls her adventures in Bend, Prineville and on her 320-acre homestead near Brothers.

“We had wonderful times,' Rockwell told Cannon, who himself later went on to serve two terms in the Oregon Legislature before going to work for Gov. Tom McCall.

“Every boy wanted to be a big cattleman and every girl was going to be a cowboy’s bride,' Rockwell said about her early days in Central Oregon out on the High Desert. “We’d go to a dance in the afternoon with a team and wagon — there weren’t too many cars then, you know — and dance until daylight! It was wonderful.'

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,

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