Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Recorded tales bring history to life" - Holyoke - CLICK here for oral interviews

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

HOLYOKE - The "Dynamiters Club" was an informal group of labor crusaders who met in a friend's kitchen on Saturday nights to talk about union issues in the 1920's.

"Some of them were my friends," says Wyatt E. Harper.

Harper, who died in 1983, says this in a reedy though not unpleasant voice, a storyteller's voice.

"To understand the Dynamiters Club, you must understand almost without exception they were dyed-in-the-wool labor. They were all labor men," Harper says.

"You want to know what the Dynamiters talked about? They talked about Prohibition. When Al Smith was running for the presidency, they talked about, what would the party stand for? You'd be surprised at the depth of understanding that these men showed in economic matters."

Tape recordings of Harper, who taught history at Holyoke High School and wrote the book "The Story of Holyoke," are among nearly 60 oral histories about Holyoke now available online.

As for the group name, Harper told his interviewer: "I don't know. There was one member within the Dynamiters assembly there, they called him dynamite. Dynamite O'Connor."

The in-their-own-voices accounts provide pockets of history that otherwise might have gotten overlooked.

City Historian Kate N. Thibodeau, headquartered at Wistariahurst Museum on Cabot Street, came up with the idea to interview people about how they lived and what they saw, heard, smelled and felt in their slices of Holyoke.

It actually wound up being a cool project with some cool people involved," Thibodeau said.

The oral histories are available at

The project involved doing new interviews over the past year and digitizing others, like those of Harper, that were done in the 1970's and 1980's. It was funded with a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Thibodeau said.

Volunteers were enlisted to do the interviews. To prepare, they met once a month from November to May with Thibodeau and Laura Miller, a graduate student in history from the University of Massachusetts.

The volunteers were instructed in how to do interviews: "Each interview should be at least one hour long, but if the conversation is flowing and you would like to continue, please do!" reads an information sheet given to volunteers.

They also had a reading list and assignments to do between meetings.

Four digital voice recorders were bought and volunteers could sign them out at Wistariahurst to do interviews.

Volunteers were free to choose whom they interviewed, with each encouraged to interview three to four people.

Each volunteer was required to transcribe their interviews.

It fell to Thibodeau to edit the recordings to the one- to two-minute snippets posted online. The original recordings are stored intact.

 While three or four or more snippets are available for each subject, the editing was difficult, given how hard volunteers worked and accessible the subjects were, she said.

"I mean, it's terrifying, in fact," she said.

Those who were interviewed had to sign releases stating that they allowed their comments to be used, she said.

Julie C. Bullock, of Ware, the weekend supervisor at Wistariahurst, loved doing the interviews. She recorded the histories of six people, including Karlene E. Shea and Shirley Morrison, docents at Wistariahurst.

"The best gift is to listen to somebody, listen to what they say, that what they have to say is important, that what they did was important," Bullock said.

She focused her interviews on asking people what had changed over the years. Some recalled seeing the milk man and the ice man coming down their street, she said.

"There were all these luscious memories," she said.

Among the oral histories is that of Cecile Barthello. She was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1906, came to Holyoke after World War I, worked at the Merrick Factory, ran a rest home on Northampton Street and died in 2004.

A minor regret, she says in her interview, is failing to learn English at a younger age.

"We could have had much better jobs," Barthello said.

Family and friends would play Canadian orchestra records on a Victrola, she said.

"We were very nostalgic," she said.

Gustavo Acosta, chairman of the board of directors of the local Nueva Esperanza Inc., said in his oral history that he moved here 12 years ago from New York City.

"I was looking for a place that would be home," Acosta said.

His wife got a degree at Smith College in Northampton. He got a job as resident coordinator of 425 units of affordable housing. Holyoke became home, he said.

"People were very warm and friendly," Acosta said.

Thibodeau said the oral history recordings will be available to teachers for use in classrooms.

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