Preserving Local History

—Jerry Phillips, President, Bayfield Heritage Association

Mary (BHS class of ‘62) and Jerry Phillips, Bayfield, Wis.

Mary (BHS class of ‘62) and Jerry Phillips, Bayfield, Wis.

Why is that so many of us only get interested in “local history” at the passing of our parents or other family elders? Invariably, we wish that we had taped their stories, or had at least taken notes. This is certainly true of both me and my wife, Mary May Stuessy Phillips, (Brodhead class of ‘62) as we both lost parents young in life without recording their amazing life stories.

But, after someone’s death, we’ve lost the opportunity to get that first person account. And this is the “meat” of local history, the stories of those folks who lived through the ups and downs of our communities and responded to the important events with their stories, their memories. This dilemma is certainly not unique to any one town, but perhaps there is a solution to prevent further loss.

One of the most successful projects I’ve been involved with has been a “community profiles” project to video aging members. Carried out under the umbrella of the local history group, the Bayfield Heritage Association (BHA), this ongoing project simply involves having a group of local history society volunteers develop a running list of potential interviewees that the group then systematically tapes responding to a list of researched questions. After almost thirty years of this ongoing project, we realize the immense value of these tapes. We have copies available at the Public Library and the school, and we sell copies as the need arises. These are constantly in demand.

We have also come to realize the great loss to our community of those folks we didn’t get to tape. As a result, we now have established the profiles as an ongoing project, with the goal of doing anywhere from 10 to 20 of these videos every year, and have expanded it to include taping some younger members of the community. While many of these recordings have been edited, this is not as important as it is to simply get the stories.

Another concern for many local history groups is how to interest our youngest community, our school aged students. Perhaps the best way I’ve found is through getting the school to participate in the National History Day program. By now, many thousands of Wisconsin students have participated and “gotten bit by the history bug” through History Day, and I highly recommend every community to get involved through the Wisconsin Historical Society. There are many options for participation, with a regional competition leading to a state and then national competition.

This year, Bayfield is sending nine students who made it through the Regionals to Madison for the state event, and we’re hopeful we will have someone advance to the national event. These are now nine “raving fans” of history. Though the projects need not be locally focused, many are, leading to these students developing an interest in their family and/or community history.

History is truly being made every day, and it is important that each one of us participates to the extent that we can to tell “our story.” This story is not one of simply the “movers and shakers,” but of an entire community. Most of us live ordinary lives and the amalgam of these stories is community.

I hope that everyone in and around Brodhead will see the beauty and significance of your community/area story. It is like a quilt, made up of countless patches, each representing a life. Each patch is not simply interesting, each is ESSENTIAL to telling the story. To know our town …and thus ourselves …is to know as many of these stories as possible. Who can understand or appreciate a quilt missing half the pieces?

Editor’s note: The importance of community participation in preserving local history cannot be overstated. As Mr. Phillips notes, it is not just about the “movers and shakers” or even just the big projects like the Mill Race featured here and in our new museum exhibits. Local history is about everyone’s story and the ability to compile that information for future generations. Do you want to participate? Tell your story or that of your family. Send us your contributions in writing or arrange for a video interview. Contact us today for information.

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