Forty years ago, the Harney County Library began an ambitious project to record local stories. More than 500 cassette tape interviews chronicle the memories of local people. The recordings are an unusual resource for a small community in the desert. They came to be through a generous benefactress.
Harney County is defined by a pioneer spirit and wide, open spaces. Here in the heart of Eastern Oregon’s sagebrush country lies an unusual resource: The oral histories of hundreds of the county’s early residents.
Inside the Western History Room at the Harney County Library, Karen Nitz pulled open a heavy metal filing drawer revealing rows and rows of cassette tapes.
“I think for a small rural library this is very unique,” said Nitz, “especially for Eastern Oregon.”
Nitz knows this oral history collection probably better than anyone. She’s the library archivist. Starting in the 1970s, the library began collecting interviews with Harney County’s elderly residents to ask about early life in Eastern Oregon.
“You will find things in the oral histories that you won’t find in any book,” said Nitz. “I love the ones about the early homesteading days.”
Take this story recorded in 1973 with Alvon Baker. Baker was a dairy rancher who grew up near Poison Creek in Harney County in 1895. He spoke to local reporter Pauline Braymen just a few years before his death, and described a problem with rabid coyotes. He called them “hydrophobic.”
“Oh yeah, the hydrophobic coyotes were here in town and every place,” said Baker during the interview. “Lots of cattle died the next summer. You’d see a cow laying out there on the range, look like she had been running (which they did do) and they’d fall, the hind feet out behind them, the front ones doubled under them. I killed some of the coyotes too.”
A few of the recordings are now digitized, but for the most part, to hear the stories you have to visit the library’s Western History Room and sit with a pair of headphones listening through a cassette player.
How The Oral History Room Came To Be
A bequest from a woman named Claire McGill Luce funded the oral history project and the library’s Western History Room.
You may recognize the last name “Luce.” Claire McGill Luce was married to Time Magazine magnate Henry Luce III, according to Nitz. “She lived in Harney County when she was a little girl, she was born here. She wanted to do something to preserve the history of Harney County … and the oral history project was born.”
Excerpt from a letter written by Claire McGill Luce in 1970:
I would like to see a very fine collection of books, records, and documents pertaining to the history of Harney County … As the “old-timers” die, so die the memories of struggle and challenge which were unique to the prairie …
All the West is represented repeatedly through tales of gold mines, rich strikes, hidden fortunes. Very little is known or recorded about the pioneers who sought the land and each other as a way to build a future for their children, to establish with grueling labor, bitter effort and suffering, a way of life in which freedom, courage, and faith would dominate the future.
This simple, magnificent concept must be an eternal light, passed hand to hand, generation to generation. The American Dream is very beautiful, very fragile. It cannot survive in any society which values material success as a criterion for dignity and recognition.
- Courtesy of the Harney County Library
That bequest that Luce left the library when she died? It was in the form of Time Incorporated and another company’s stock. By 1973, Harney County was the owner of $30,000 in stock shares.
“And so the county held it,” said Steve Grasty, Harney County Judge. Grasty took county office in 1999 and says the county never touched the stock in the nearly three decades before that. The stock’s value had grown and grown. By then, Time had became Time-Warner.
“The short of that money is that when I came into office in January 1999 there was a little over $2 million in that pot,” Grasty said.
So this small rural library in the middle of sagebrush country had $2 million in stock that had been essentially forgotten. Sounds like a good thing.
But when Grasty came on as a county leader, he realized something: Oregon’s Constitution said county governments cannot invest in stocks and bonds. Oops.
“I went to the court and said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to get legal,’” Grasty said.
Eventually that $2 million ended up as a kind of endowment that now funds the library to the tune of about of about $65,000 a year.
“Was it the right investment? It absolutely was the right investment,” said Grasty. “And I’ll fight anybody who says otherwise.”
Grasty thinks Luce would have approved of the way her gift was managed.
Everyone Has A Story Worth Sharing
Meanwhile, Luce’s vision of preserving Harney County stories carries on today, through the library’s Western History room. Here’s a bit of wisdom recorded by Cecil Bennett, in the 1970s:
“We haven’t accumulated any great amount of riches, the average person calls riches. There’s a lot of people when you say you’re rich, why they think you’ve got a lot of money. Well, haven’t got much money, but we got a lot of friends I hope … They don’t grow any better people than they grow in Harney County.”
Bennett was a rancher, U.S. Forest Service district ranger and a former councilman for the City of Burns. He was recorded just a few years before his death.
“If I had my dream it would grow big enough, the amount of interest it would generate each year would be enough to run the library on its own,” said Grasty.
He said he’s grateful for Luce’s gift.
“She set an example that is just amazing and something I’m really proud of for this county,” said Grasty.
The library still collects oral histories today. There’s a small studio where residents can record their story.
“It’s always here, it’s always available for the public to use,” said Nitz.
She said that some people don’t feel that their lives are story-worthy. “When I’m talking to older generation, they always say ‘I don’t have much to say,’” said Nitz. But she pointed out, in the oldest recordings, the first generation of interviewees said the same thing.