Online content captures memories of local people.
How might a farmer of yesteryear in the Southern Appalachian Mountains have cured a bovine case of milk fever?
That and much more is captured in a series of oral interviews with the people of Western North Carolina now available online through Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
“Stories of Mountain Folk,” the first allsound collection released by Hunter Library, is available at their website. The collection’s interviews cover traditions, events and life stories of regional individuals including gardeners, herbalists, farmers, musicians, artists and writers. The archive is searchable by name, place and topic.
The interviews were produced by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, (CSA) a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by the sisters Amy Ammons Garza, an Appalachian storyteller, and Doreyl Ammons Cain, a visual artist, with the mission of preserving local memory. In September 2008, Catch the Spirit of Appalachia began “Stories of Mountain Folk” as a half-hour radio show that aired weekly on local radio station WRGC-AM. The program often included a story from Garza, music and at least one and sometimes multiple interviews.
When the radio station closed in fall 2011, Catch the Spirit of Appalachia teamed up with Hunter Library to preserve the recorded material (the station has since reopened). The online archive holds approximately half of the roughly 200 existing programs, with Hunter Library staff continuing to upload the backlog. The program remains in production, with recent episodes first available on the website http://www.storiesofmountainfolk.com/.
The university-nonprofit partnership is an excellent example of WCU’s service to and engagement with community, said Anna Fariello, an associate professor in Hunter Library’s Digital Programs. “The university has provided expertise to preserve the content, which is very different from academic creation of new intellectual content. This content was created in the community, and the library is providing a service in preserving the material,” Fariello said.
Fariello learned of the program when Garza interviewed her on the topic of Fariello’s books about Cherokee pottery and basketry. Fariello was so intrigued by watching Garza manipulate the soundboard and wondering how the shows were being archived that she could barely concentrate to talk about her work. “As soon as the interview was over, I blurted it out: ‘What are you doing with all of these interviews?’” Fariello said. “I immediately saw the value to the library’s digital collections.”
For her part, Garza is thrilled with the arrangement. “I cannot tell you how my heart leapt when this agreement was signed,” she said. “Saving the voices of the mountain folk has been a longtime goal of Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, for listening to the mountain folk as they tell their own personal stories evokes evidence of an unmistakable wisdom and sense of place.”
One such voice belongs to Jack Brown Wiggins from Robbinsville, speaking in a January 2009 program. Wiggins’ late father, Walter Brown Wiggins, was a farm agent in Graham and Swain counties in the 1930s and 1940s and helped relocate farm families displaced by the Fontana Dam project. The younger Wiggins remembered seeing the washed out bridge below the old entrance to the WCU campus after the flood of 1940. “They had a steel ball tearing out the remains of the bridge,” Wiggins recalled. “I was really intrigued by this steel ball that could tear up concrete. I thought that was the greatest thing that I’d ever seen.”
Back to milk fever, which occurs when low blood-calcium levels interfere with a lactating cow’s muscle function. As an agent, the elder Wiggins often encountered local superstitions regarding farming. “One thing that farmers would do, they’d have a cow that probably had milk fever, and they’d try to doctor it by splitting the cow’s tail and putting salt and pepper in it,” Jack Wiggins said during his interview. “They claimed that the cow had hollow tail, which it did – all cows have hollow tail – but you couldn’t cure milk fever by splitting their tails and putting salt and pepper in their tails.”
Hunter Library focuses on building regionally oriented, historically significant collections of photographs, documents and objects of broad cultural and research interest. In 2011, Hunter Library formalized its Digital Programs under a new department, Digital, Access, and Technology Services (DATS) headed by Mark Stoffan. Stoffan’s goal, over the past year, has been to build a sustainable infrastructure for the library’s digital collections. Collections on Horace Kephart, Civil War letters, regional crafts, Cherokee traditions and travel in Western North Carolina all are available online at www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections.