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Doing Oral History Interviews And Preserving Them


In l990, one of the students at my community college class in Women’s History began her paper on her mother’s life this way:

“If it weren’t for this assignment, I’m sure our time together would not have happened…it became the perfect opportunity to talk and ask questions I never would have thought to ask, figuring it was private, but Mother was more than willing, eager even, to answer any question I put to her.”

I encouraged students in all my classes to interview family members. I will be sharing techniques for these interviews in an April workshop at Napa County Historical Society.

After I created a little book to honor my grandmother’s 90’s birthday, I began to help students create their own “little books,” which can be read by children and adults, and are illustrated in various ways.

When I was offered the opportunity to write a history of Napa, I began to do interviews and wrestled with the challenges of integrating people’s comments into written—and published—form. Here’s an example from an interview of Dorothy Wurz done by Peggy Aaron for the book Napa Valley Farming, co-written with Paula Amen Judah:

Dorothy Wurz came to Napa at 16 from Vallejo, an independent young girl whose brother was married to the daughter of the owner of what is today the Violet Mansion next to Churchhill Manor. She lived upstairs in the attic and worked at WALCH’S CREAMERY on Main Street, where they were famous for making 32 different flavors of ice cream. She recalls a very handsome young man, Al Wurz, who would come in with his best friend, Joe Hill (later owner of the Hill Apple Farm). They both worked for Lou Wurz Sr and became lifelong friends and partners in farming operations around the valley.

Out of this rich material, Paula and I created a caption for her photograph, which ended with the quote “We had four kids and we all worked picking prunes. It was kind of a dirty job—and hot.” Dorothy Wurz also contributed a recipe for Fresh Prune Torte.

Recipes can be a valuable part of oral history. Clarence Iwao Nishizu was interviewed in l982 about his immigrant father’s experience working at a St. Helena vineyard. Professor Stephanie Grohs found it in a digital archive. Here’s a quote from my essay (originally published in Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine and later in Napa Valley Chronicles):

One night around l908, one of Mr Nishizu’s co-workers, Mr. Koheiji Fujino, “came and banged on the door of the bunkhouse where everyone had just gone into bed and said, “I got a chicken here, let’s eat some chicken gohan.” Gohan is rice cooked with shoyu, which is a special dish in Kasuya Gun. Everybody got out of bed, cut the chicken’s head off and enjoyed the chicken gohan and had a grand time.” I added a recipe for Chicken Gohan.

One of my very first interviews was with a wonderful elder, Olamae Combellack, who moved from Texas in l924 to Gardner’s Auto Camp along Napa Creek. By l928, they rented a farmhouse on Browns Valley Road, where prune orchards stretched “as far as you could see.” Olamae told me about roller skating into Downtown Napa without fear of being hit.

For the workshop at NCHS, I plan to introduce techniques of interviewing and allow participants to practice doing interviews in pairs. I will show examples of “little books,” as well as written reports like the one quoted in first paragraph of this article. Participants will have a chance to attend a second session if they want to create such a “little book,” and NCHS will provide the tools for them to complete the books during the workshop.

Historian of regional history Joseph Amato wrote: “Every community has stories worthy of telling but few devoted historians worthy of telling them.” With energy and imagination, many of us can become those devoted historians of those we cherish.

Attend a Workshop?

Sun., April 14th 2pm & Sun., April 21st 2pm

$30 for both workshops $25 for members

$20 for one workshop $15 for members

Napa County Historical Society | Goodman Building 1219 1st St. | For Info 707.224.1739

#napahistory #NapaCountyHistoricalSociety #DorothyWurz #WALCHSCREAMERY #napacounty

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