Voices of the past, present and future: new exhibit at historical museum

A new exhibit at the Orcas Island Historical Museum showcases first-person stories of yesteryear.

“There are some really fantastic interviews that I want to listen to again and again,” said Project Director Terri Vinson.

For the “Orcas Voices” display, more than 100 interviews have been recorded, transcribed and digitized. The multimedia exhibit includes new oral histories, objects from the museum’s collection, photos and a touchscreen listening station with 80 finished recordings that range from 45 minutes to 2 hours. Vinson spent hundreds of hours organizing the recordings and transcribing them to written transcripts. The exhibit also traces how these oral histories have been collected over time and the variety of equipment used over the decades – first a machine called a SoundScriber then cassettes tapes and now MP3 files. The exhibit opened on May 20 and will run through Sept. 30. The Orcas Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m.

The project dates back to the 1950s when University of Washington professor Henry Parsons began a brief study in the San Juans to see if there were linguistic differences compared to the rest of the state. The recordings continued in the 1970s and 80s, spearheaded by volunteers like Tim Ransom, Marcia Spees and Terri Gudgell Mason. In 1997, Didier Gincig created a program with high school students to photograph and interview islanders for an exhibit and a series of public events funded by the Washington Commission for the Humanities. In 1998, project director Antoinette Botsford was aided by museum curator Jen Vollmer in preparing notebooks and overseeing interviews. In 2015, Terri Vinson took over the endeavor.

“As an historic form, oral history is geared more towards a broad view of someone’s life,” said Brittney Maruska, Orcas Historical Museum curator.

Most of the files are from people no longer living, which is particularly poignant for family members who want to hear their loved ones’ voices again. Some families have done their own, and brought the files into the museum. Volunteers hope to continue the project, and there is interest in oral histories that pertain to island organizations.

Debra Madan was always interested in history, and in the 1970s, when she discovered the old log cabins of the historical museum were full of items, she began delving deeper and discovered the old UW recordings. She joined the board, started talking to long-time islanders and began her own interviews.

“They knew so much history, and no one was keeping a record of it,” she said. “I loved recording the women but so many didn’t think they had a story. They would say, ‘oh no, my husband had the business, not me.’”

Madan recorded Peg Nicol’s history more than 20 years ago. Her files are organized by names like “Wedding Day” and “Meeting Fred,” in reference to her husband, who was also interviewed.

In her oral history, Nicol says Fred had “quite a reputation” on the island. After WWII, Peg was employed at Norton’s Inn, and she took the Deer Harbor bus to work. It always stopped at the West Sound Store, and one day while she was waiting in the back of the bus, Fred popped his head up to the window and asked her on a date.

A common theme in the recordings were stories about the infamous Deer Harbor social gatherings. Every week, musicians from the mainland (often joined by locals) came to play live music for weekend dances.

“In those days that was all we had,” said Nicol. “The island came together more because there wasn’t anything else to do. Everyone is so busy now.”

Another thread in the exhibit is a deep love for Orcas Island.

“The affinity for this island really comes through on the tapes,” said Madan.

Subjects in Orcas Voices

Arnt, Charles

Barfoot, Jane Willis Hodde

Boyer, Doris

Brown, Barbara

Brown, Dorothy &Clyde

Buchan, Dean

Burns, Betty Moran

Cadden, Dora Morgan

Carpenter, Craig &Pam

Coffelt, Al

Coffelt, Florence Weddle

Coffelt, Vern

Corrie, Jim

Cowden, Lester

Cramer, Blanche Light

D’Innocenti, Ruth

Douglas, Mike

Englehartson, Stan

Erkenbeck, Jane Isaacson

Exton, Rich

Flaherty, Michael

Fowler, Frank &Elsie

Goodrich, Goody &John

Granger, Dorothy

Gropper, Gladys; Dot Bolles

Guilford, Shirley

Haffey, Madeline Reddick

Hall, Betty

Harrison, Helen

Hatten, Mary Gibson

Hiller, Aggie &Harry

Hoffman, Loyal

Honaker, Russ &Avis

Horner, Mervyn &Ruby

Humes, Bill &Barbara

Jensen, Virginia

Kerr, Ida Lindholm &Norm

Kertis, Mabel Light

Ketcham, Janet

Ketcham, Virginia (Ginnie) Lee

Kidder, Hubert

Kimple, Ray

Knudson, Marge Burney

Kraft, Warren

Lange, Carl

Lavender, Edwin Irving

Lavender, Thomas H.

Lehmann, Phyllis

Lindholm, Cherie

Magnuson, June

McBride, Bud; Richard Schneider

McGrath, Jean

McLachlan, Calvin

Meatte, Dan

Meyer, Barbara

Meyer, Ivaloe Stillman

Milton, Nellie S.

Montgomery, Bill

Montgomery, Jack &Gene

Nicol, Fred &Peg

Nordstrom, Julia (Peg) Elliott

O’Neill, Alfred

O’Neill, Irene

Pinkerton, Harvey

Pomeroy, Wes

Purdue, Roger

Reddick, Arthur

Reid, Emily

Richardson, Dave

Rodenberger, Bob &Jeannine

Rodenberger, Elizabeth

Rodenberger, Maurice &Peggy

Rodrique, Tom &Evelyn

Schoen, Robert

Seagrave, Sara Gibson

Sheehan, Bus &Esther

Sherman, Sarah

Shultz, Margaret

Sisley, Carolyn Harrison

Stark, Carlyn Kaiser

Talman, Tom

Van Moorhem, Irene

Vincent, Peter

Walker, Jane Turner

Watts, Margaret Morse

Westlake, Bill

Weyrich, Cecil

White, Kathryne

Willis, Dick

Willis, Lucile &Culver

Wilson, Howard &Geneva

Worman, Bill