New England Preservation: Maine Oral History and Folklife Program

By Carla Charter

There are many ways to preserve history. At the Maine Oral History and Folk Life Program they are preserving the stories of Maine as told by the people who lived them.

Among the stories they have preserved include the stories of the sardine cannery workers at the Stimson Sardine Cannery in Prospect Maine.  “At one time there were 75 canneries up and down the coast of Maine,” said Keith Ludden, Folklorist and Director of the program, “The Stimson Cannery was the last sardine cannery in the United States to close.”

The cannery packers, he continued, were all women. Among the workers interviewed was Lela Anderson, “She had a reputation for being the fastest canner. She canned sardines for 50 years,” Ludden said.  He continued “It is important for people to know what it was like to work in the canneries in the forties and fifties.”

Among the cannery stories preserved, was the story of an employee who got a promotion.  “He felt since he had come up in the world he would wear a tie to work the next day.  The women thought he was getting uppity, so they tackled him and tacked his tie to the floor. It tells you something about the structure of the factory. The women had clout or they wouldn’t have been able to get away with it,” Ludden said.

Another project was created on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2015.  “We interviewed disability rights activists and people impacted by the ADA. We had an exhibit that traveled around Maine and we created 10-minute podcasts on WMPG, a community radio station in Portland.  “Younger people with disabilities don’t know what it was like before the ADA when there were a lot of barriers and discrimination against people with disabilities,” Ludden said.

The program’s Immigrant Voices Project began as a result of the anti-immigrant rhetoric becoming fairly heated in society, Ludden said.  “People can listen to the stories and read that the transcripts and learn why they left and what they bring to our communities.”

“One of the interviews I did has stayed with me,” Ludden continued.  “It was a woman who had survived the Khmer Rouge labor camp. She was 5 years old. Some of the stories she told me made my jaw drop. I didn’t see any bitterness at all in the woman.”

Future oral histories the program would like to record include stories surrounding the Opioid crisis. “We hope to speak with people who have survived an Opioid addiction, as well as those who are on the front lines of the crisis including public safety officers and emergency personnel.”

Another future project would involve recording the stories of those involved in the ‘Back-to -Lander’ of the 60’s and 70s. “They came to Maine to live an alternative lifestyle,” Ludden said.

The program is also looking to collect stories from the Millbridge area of Maine where it was said there was bootlegging and alcohol was brought in from Canada during prohibition. “The original bootleggers are probably gone but their grandchildren might have some stories.” Ludden said.

“It is important to keep our legacy and heritage,” Ludden said.  “How we think about what happened in the past influences the future.”

The program also trains communities on how to record oral histories. “We talk about the dos and don’ts, the importance of being quiet and listening, creating a good sound quality, and the legal and ethical aspects of oral histories.

Completed oral histories can be found at the programs website,  www.oralhistoryandfolklife.org.