Oral stories keep river history alive

Thursday, November 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:01 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rich with stories about growing up in Overton, Fred Oerly gushed with memories that seemed almost like yesterday.

“My family is all dead but me,” Oerly said during an oral history interview with Meredith Ludwig. “You would think that I would be dead a long time by now. I don’t know why I am still here.”

This winter Ludwig will devote her attention to discovering the forgotten stories of life on the Missouri River. To do this, she will enlist the help of two AmeriCorps volunteers and Steve Johnson of the Missouri River Communities Network, an organization connected to 30 communities along the river.

Whipping out journals filled with accounts of his youth that he made for his daughter, Oerly has fun recounting how he and his friends went mud-sliding naked down by the river. Ludwig laughs inaudibly, constantly checking the tape recorder to ensure it is still running. She listens to Oerly talk about the general store his father operated, his generosity during the Depression, how he rode the train to go sightseeing and about hobos who would travel on the trains and mark gate posts of generous families so others would know where to go.

“Oral histories are extremely important because it feeds the soul,” Ludwig said. “It connects us to the earth and if we are connected, then we will take care of it. Without that connection then how can you understand what it takes to take care of it?”

Ludwig said there is a need to start collecting oral histories before the people holding the history die, taking with them the essence of what it means to say you’re from “Missou-rah.” That is what happened with her first subject, Hudson Clay, who died this year before Ludwig could finish the interviewing process.

Clay’s ancestors are known for founding the town of Lupus in 1816, when his family and others traveled up the Missouri River in a keel boat. In his interview with Ludwig, Clay said that stopping there was no accident. The place was strategically chosen for its abundant source of water, wood and game.

“In the last decade or two, we have seen the development of a new appreciation of the past and of our cultural heritage,” said Carolynne Kieffer, who works in the Department of Sociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “People search for roots and prepare genealogies to fulfill an apparent need for a sense of historical continuity.”

It was at one of the River Network’s public meetings at Midway Elementary that Johnson said he realized there was an untapped wealth of knowledge in the aging residents of Missouri River communities. At the meeting a man who lived in Rocheport for years described a time when he ran the ferry that used to take cars across the Missouri. The ferry no longer exists.

“The Missouri River is why we are here,” Johnson said. “Geographically, communities developed in the way they did because the Missouri River was flowing through. It was the center of transportation and exploration. It was a cultural interchange.”

From its beginning in Montana, the Missouri River winds 2,500 miles into the Mississippi River, just north of St. Louis.

Once the histories are collected, Ludwig plans to make a musical theater performance using direct quotes from her interviews, a project similar to her earlier endeavor called “Pearl Harbor A Community Remembers.” For three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ludwig collected the experiences of Chicago-area veterans who served during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her work is now in the Hoosier Grove Museum in Streamwood, Ill.

“I feel privileged to get to sit down and listen to people tell me about their lives and people are willing to do it because they don’t get asked very often,” she said. “I had people weeping. It was a very powerful thing.”

Ludwig saw the story potential in Oerly as the interview came to a close.

“We have just touched the iceberg,” she said. “There is so much here. Your life was so full. I am glad that you are so interested in preserving your history.”

Oral history gives voice and passion to the past, making it more vivid and real for those who were not there and have forgotten. Ludwig said she wants to create something that not only historians will love, but also something that the public will enjoy for years to come.

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