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29 2 A Two-Way Street Explaining and Creating Community through Oral History barbara allen bogart Folklorist Barbara Allen Bogart’s essay on homesteading in Oregon and mining in Wyoming raises an interesting question: Did oral history explain the community, or did the oral histories help create the community? This question is especially important when oral historians study rural communities, where researchers can impact how residents view themselves. Bogart concludes that oral history does preserve the history of communities, and it also allows communities to share what the residents feel is important. In addition, the stories help create a sense of community with past and present residents because they see more value in their own experiences. As Bogart writes, “The oral history project and the exhibit . . . legitimiz[ed] the boom . . . as a significant element of their past. It was no longer just something they had lived through.” the western landscape has an endless appeal to me—not just the sweeping vistas of mountains and plains but the small communities that lie between them. If we seem closer to nature in the West, I believe we are also closer to history here. The most direct route to the past, I also believe, is through the memories of those who inhabit this extraordinary region. As an oral historian, I have been 30 barbara allen bogart guided by the principle that oral history reveals the shape and meaning of the past from the narrator’s point of view. By extension, when oral history is collected and used in a community setting, it can reveal the dimensions of members’ collective view of the local past. This orientation was forged in my first major fieldwork project, in a tiny settlement in south central Oregon, and it shaped the final project of my professional life, in a town of about 12,000 in southwestern Wyoming. Both communities were established during key historical periods in the Intermountain West: early twentieth-century homesteading and ranching in Oregon, the transcontinental railroad , and mineral extraction in Wyoming in the 1970s. The projects I undertook in both these communities created no ripples in the academic world, but I believe they had an impact on the communities themselves, especially by influencing how residents of the communities saw and interpreted their own history as a result of the oral history that I collected in each place. Let me explain. Story Hunting in the Oregon Desert A freshly minted doctoral candidate in folklore studies from UCLA, I arrived in the dusty high desert of the Fort Rock Valley in south central Oregon on a hot summer day in June 1978. I pulled into my sister’s long lane in my small car, which was stuffed with clothes, books, and a box of blank cassette tapes, notepads, empty file folders , and a handheld tape recorder. I moved into a twelve-foot travel trailer parked in my sister’s front yard—my home for summer. From the windows of the trailer, I could see for miles in three directions. In those vistas, fewer than half a dozen houses were visible. Beyond a low range of hills to the west was the hamlet of Silver Lake, dating from the 1870s, consisting of a post office, a store, a school, two or three businesses, and perhaps two dozen homes. To the northeast was the even smaller crossroads community of Fort Rock, established in the 1910s.1 In 1978, there were roughly 300 residents of the Silver Lake–Fort Rock area. I was there to conduct fieldwork for my dissertation. My thesis was that when asked to talk about local history, people would re- A Two-Way Street 31 spond with stories. I knew virtually nothing about the area before I arrived. I had chosen it for my fieldwork only because my sister and her husband lived there and could provide an entree into the community . Before arriving in the Fort Rock Valley, I spent several days at the state and university libraries in Salem and Eugene, reading the few historical accounts of eastern Oregon and Lake County, trying to get a handle on the area’s past but discovering little of interest or usefulness. “Nothing ever happened here,” I wailed to myself. “This will be the shortest field project on record.” Of course, I was wrong. There is nowhere on the planet where “nothing ever happened .” By the end of the summer, I had discovered that plenty had happened in this postage stamp of a place, and I...


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