At Large in Ballard: Capturing the voices
“Who wouldn’t give anything to be able to hear the voices of their grandparents?” Gordon Strand asked. “It’s something we always regret losing.”
We’d been discussing the Nordic Heritage Museum’s plan to expand on the oral history project they began 10 years ago that became an exhibition and the book entitled, “Voices of Ballard: Immigrant Stories from the Vanishing Generation.”
When I’m lucky, I dream about my grandmother and actually hear her again.
Last week I met with Gordon Strand and Janet Rauscher at Nordic Heritage Museum to discuss plans to continue and expand the scope of the oral history project started in 1998 in conjunction with Ballard Historical Society and Swedish Finn Historical Society. The Nordic Heritage Museum is nearing its 30th anniversary and Gordon has always been involved in myriad ways, presently as chair of the steering committee. Janet Rauscher is a new face; hired last fall as chief curator even as she completes her Ph.D. in Scandinavian studies at Indiana University.
Advertised mostly to Scandinavian organizations and volunteer newsletters, I missed the recent training session for oral history volunteers at the Nordic Heritage Museum, but I’m undeterred. There will be another training session and an information meeting is scheduled for May 27, at 7 p.m. at the museum.
I participated in the original oral history project that focused on first generation immigrants; a volunteer armed with a day of interview training, disposable camera and clunky tape recorder. It’s no exaggeration that the experience changed my direction in life.
Talking to this so-called “vanishing generation” inspired me to want to document more lives, more moments in time, leading to “At Large in Ballard.” No way do I plan to sit out the continuation of the project.
The “Voices of Ballard” book sold out years ago but is still a frequent request in the gift shop and at Secret Garden. The current project calls for a new edition with 20 to 30 percent new material as the oral history also examines the museum founding and the experiences of Scandinavians during World War II. The scope will also go beyond Ballard residents to capture life stories throughout the region.
During the original project, I conducted six to seven interviews; almost all the subjects became friends. Preben and Ruth Hoegh-Christensen served me Danish delicacies at their home in Issaquah. Harold Nilsen took me several times to Kaffe Stua at the Sons of Norway Lodge. Ruth Hughbanks and I combined sightseeing tours in Ballard (“that was the midwife’s house, that was the trolley stop”) with picking up her prescriptions at Safeway.
There has already been one training session for interested participants; another will be scheduled after the information meeting on Wednesday, May 27.
Gordon and Janet would love to have at least another 20 to 25 volunteers on the project. In addition to conducting interviews help is needed in properly archiving the raw materials, photos, recordings, names, dates, places for future exhibits.
“After all,” Gordon joked, “when we get the new museum built, we’ll need to fill it.”
For Viking Days, July 11 and 12, plans are to have an area where attendees can be interviewed, or family members can even interview one another in a nod to National Public Radio’s Story Corps.
Gordon has already heard amazing stories about a resistance effort in Norway called the Shetland bus and interviewed a 93 year-old man who survived four days in a leaking life raft after the fishing vessel that was actually an undercover transport was sunk by the Germans. Another woman told of delivering bread tucked into her doll carriage that she learned as an adult was a transcript of a forbidden BBC radio message.
“Hearing these stories affects me personally,” Gordon said. “It becomes a passion.”
Oral history can connect generations of families, but also one person with another. To live in any neighborhood is to want to know about the people who came before us, and where they came from, a mining town in Wyoming or occupied Finland.
A tape cassette that captures a voice, a video, a photograph that is scanned to share with the public instead of just the family is pure bonus on top of connecting with someone one-on-one.
A few days after I met with Gordon and Janet I learned that Marvel Kolseth had died. I met Marvel last fall when she retired after 34 years as volunteer in the gift shop at Swedish Medical Center – Ballard. Her voice was unmistakable, what I wouldn’t give to be able to hear it again.
For more information about volunteer needs or to receive specifics about the next training session contact Janet Rauscher at 206.789.5707, ext. 35.
There will be an information meeting of current and interested volunteers at the Nordic Heritage Museum at 7 p.m. May 27. Although a one year commitment is appreciated, interests and time commitment are highly flexible.