GTPulse: Leelanau Oral History Project Collects Stories and Memories From Locals

The Leelanau Historical Society Museum knows more about the county than your average history book. An oral history project has dozens of stories from times' past, and if you're a Leelanau local with a story to tell, they want to hear from you too.

“One of my favorite ones that we have in our collection already is one where the gentleman described the cedar swamp area here in Leelanau County, and he described a phenomenon called fairy fire. It’s photoluminescence fungus or algae, but he had remembered seeing it at some point just bright and glowing.”

It sounds like something out of a Final Fantasy game or the Chronicles of Narnia, but it’s not. It’s a memory recorded in the Leelanau Oral History Project. The project is an ongoing one put together by the Leelanau Historical Society Museum. It includes recounts from people of all ages, but especially from elderly that have lived in the county for a long time. If you know a thing or two about Leelanau County, the museum wants to hear your story, too.

Kim Kelderhouse is the curator of collections at the museum and also a 6th generation Leelanau resident herself.

“It was collected in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, all on cassette tapes.”

The museum has been around since 1957. During the ‘90s some of the volunteers and curators began to grow worried that some of the elders in the community would pass on without leaving behind stories of the place they call home. 

“So, they interviewed a lot of those elders before they passed on. Many of the people we had recorded are now deceased. But now it’s been 20 years since that push happened so there’s a whole new generation of seniors in our community and their memories and stories haven’t been collected, so we are now working on some more grant funding in order to do more recordings.”

The museum received a grant last year to digitize all of the cassette tapes they had the first wave of recordings stored on when the project was started. Prior to that, people who were interested in the project had to listen to recordings on those tapes. Now, the recordings can be shared through email.

Elderly Leelanau County residents are encouraged to submit some of their memories to the project, and there are no rules for what kind of info they should contribute.

“Anything, really. It can be simple stories of home life, or it can be something more out of the ordinary. In the last few years, we interviewed someone who remembered the wreck of the Francisco Morazan. He had been working for a boat company. There are always little tidbits in every interview that can be really fascinating.”

The museum keeps a running list of people they’ve thought about to contribute, and if you know someone you think should contribute, reach out to someone at the museum.

“We had someone reach out and they want us to record their mom, she’s in her late 90s and has lived all of her life in Leelanau County. Right now it’s a little challenging.”

The museum isn’t open to the public right now due to COVID-19, but the facilities can be used for someone who wants to record their elderly family member. If you’re not comfortable interviewing or recording, a museum staff member can come to your home to do it when it is safe to do so.

The museum also has a call for Leelanau residents to submit their coronavirus stories to a separate project.

“We haven’t gotten any submissions for that yet, but I think they’ll trickle in the more distant we get from the event. I think some of it is too raw for people at the moment. They’re living it right now and don’t know how they feel about it in the long term yet.”

If you’d like to record something for the Oral History Project or if you’re thinking about submitting a coronavirus story to the museum, Kim says you don’t need any kind of special recording equipment right now. 

“Most people have an audio recording app on their phone, or they can download one for free. I highly encourage people to reference StoryCorps. Their website has a lot of amazing tips for interviewing family members or loved ones right at home.”

Do you have an elder in Leelanau County that should tell their stories? Be their interviewer, or let the museum ask the questions later, either way, we all have a story to tell.

“We hear a lot of things that might have seemed ‘everyday’ back then, but in retrospect are actually pretty magical.”

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Categories: GTPulse