History speaks through Harford's 'living treasures' FLESHING OUT THE PAST


In a cluttered room in the Harford County Library's cramped administrative center, two metal filing cabinets hold almost a century of county history -- vivid recollections of a once-segregated school system, the towns and farms swallowed by Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Ma & Pa Railroad and more.

It's a history told by more than 300 Harford residents who have been interviewed and recorded in a 23-year-old county project unique among libraries in the state.

The project identifies the county's "living treasures," longtime residents who have made significant contributions to the county and whose memories provide a record of the past. Interviews with selected residents are recorded and transcribed for posterity.

Oral history interviews are not unusual. Many libraries use the recordings as highlights in exhibits on specific topics, such as baseball or World War II or the history of a town.

But the longevity of Harford's project is amazing, according to Rebecca Sharpless, executive secretary of the Oral History Association, an international organization.

"Lots of oral history projects sprang up in the '70s and weren't able to sustain the momentum," she said.

Beginning today in downtown Baltimore, about 400 oral historians and archivists are expected to attend a joint four-day meeting of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference. Based at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel, the meeting will feature workshops, including "The Art of the Question," and guided walking, bus and light-rail tours of historic areas in the city.

In Harford, the oral history recordings are seen as an important collection of raw historical material.

"We have interviews of people when Harford County was very small and rural and very different," said James Massey, the program's coordinator since 1976. "It really paints a picture of what it was like to live day to day in the county."

James A. Thomas, interviewed in June 1994, remembered the Bel Air of long ago.

"Of course, back in the '30s, everyone went shopping on Main Street on Saturday night," said Mr. Thomas, 75, of Bel Air. When he and his wife moved to their home on West Ring Factory Road in 1951, they were surrounded by hay, corn and alfalfa fields; now housing developments fill the landscape.

Mr. Thomas, co-founder of Jarrettsville Nurseries, said he was glad to be recognized for his work as a conservationist and as the first chairman of the county's Board of Parks and Recreation.

In his 1981 interview, Ellsworth L. See Sr. talks of riding the train to Baltimore to attend Douglass High School, even after the county opened its first black high school in Havre de Grace, because his father worked on the railroad and he got free passes.

Mildred Ford Cole of Aberdeen, born in 1907, recalls in a 1986 interview going to picnics in a town called Old Baltimore, before the proving ground commandeered the eastern part of the county.

And, in one of the collection's oldest interviews, one can join George L. Van Bibber and his interviewer on a 1972 walking tour of downtown Bel Air, with Mr. Van Bibber holding forth on the history of Main Street and surroundings. The site of his former home at 303 S. Main St. now has a small shopping center.

The interview project was begun in 1972 by the late Roenna Fahrney, director of county libraries for 21 years, after oral history became popular as a research technique. The Harford County Council in 1980 added the distinction of an official proclamation declaring interview subjects to be Harford Living Treasures.

The Harford County Cultural Advisory Board, which Mr. Massey chairs, recommends people for the honor from nominations submitted to the board. Nominees must be at least 70 and have lived in the county 40 years. Paid interviewers conduct the question-and-answer sessions with residents selected for the award. The program's budget, about $3,000 in county and library funds, pays for interviewers and transcribers.

Library patrons have to look hard to catch a glimpse of the collection. Pamphlets in each library branch describe the collection, but Mr. Massey admits it is lightly used.

"Well, we certainly would like to have done more [to publicize it], but I guess my emphasis has been more on collecting and interviewing," Mr. Massey said.

Plans to make the interviews more accessible include indexing the collection by subject, not just name, and incorporating the interviews into the library system's computer catalog.

The topics are not yet indexed, and some of the interviews dwell on obscure issues, but a couple of hours browsing through the two filing cabinets can reveal a few jewels among the memories.

"We had one lady that actually played a piano for me, what she said was the Harford County song," Mr. Massey said of one of his interviews. "It was totally by surprise that she gave me this. You never know what you're going to find."

Such interviews provide a sense of life that is missing from routine documents that often only record time and place, researchers say.

"The oral document fleshes it out, gives it a personal touch," said Martha Ross, a retired teacher of an oral history seminar at the University of Maryland and an adviser for oral historians. "Those written documents don't usually tell you why it happened."

Mr. Massey hopes to keep the program running for years to come.

"We're doing something for the future. It's important to record our seniors who have contributed significantly to Harford County.

"You can read history books about the Civil War or about the Depression, but when you get people's firsthand recollection . . . that's really invaluable."

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