Stationkeepers propose oral history project across Renfrew County

According to a press release from the Stationkeepers MV, a non-profit group that aims to preserve and promote local heritage and culture associated with the Barry’s Bay Railway Station, the group is working on an oral history project to record the life and times of Valley folk – and is prepared to help others across the County to do the same. Above from left: Joanne Olsen, Karen Filipkowski, Martina Coulas share copies of Madawaska Valley Memories (Photo submitted).

Joanne Olsen, Stationkeepers’ President, explained that fifty years ago, before he became our MLA and when Sean Conway was still a student, he recorded three hours of oral history with his grandfather, Tom Murray. She said that in the past year “The Opeongo Readers’ Theatre has been dining out on those old tapes.”  Ms. Olsen estimated those Murray recordings were used to help produce at least three separate shows that were then performed live at the Station prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.

She continued, “When the pandemic shut down those ORT productions, CEO of the Madawaska Valley Public Library, Karen Filipkowski, reminded us of Madawaska Valley Memories. It’s a two-volume set of oral histories collected thirty years ago, and so those books – really transcriptions of local conversations — become the source of more Opeongo Readers’ Theatre shows. For instance, ‘Lilies of the Valley,’ went straight to The Opeongo Line, a podcast sponsored by the Stationkeepers, without benefit of being performed live at the Station. In the midst of the pandemic, that show still managed to celebrate the lives of three of our local citizens who lived their entire lives in and around Barry’s Bay:  Rose Chapeskie, Evelyn Villeneuve and my own mother, Bernice Billings.”

Then, the Township of Madawaska Valley offered the Stationkeepers an Ontario Summer Student grant to use for anything to do with local heritage or culture, and by Canada Day the Stationkeepers had hired Martina Coulas, a third year University of Toronto student from Wilno, who began collecting fifteen new oral histories from local people such as Beth and Johnnie Hildebrandt, Theresa Prince, Bill Goulet, etc.

According to Olsen, the success of any oral history project rests in the telling of each story so that audiences learn considerably more about their own social history and cultural development, if not unique local character.

Oral history contest

She said The Stationkeepers’ Oral History Project also attracted additional notice this summer, when “an anonymous donor stepped forward and offered to fund an Oral History Contest. It’s intended to encourage local students to interview their elderly relatives, if not grandparents, just as Sean once did fifty years ago.”

Olsen said, “We still have to work out the details with Karen Filipkowski but we’re pretty certain we’ll be able to offer free Zoom seminars on how to record an oral history, as well as provide free library access to four digital recorders to capture those conversations this coming winter.”

Ms. Olsen expects the Stationkeepers will announce those contest details in September with a $250 First Place Prize awarded at the MV Public Library by March 21st, 2021.  She also said that it won’t be necessary for all oral history subjects to have been born in the area; the Stationkeepers are very keen to collect a number of oral histories from people who moved into the area and bring a comparative view towards our culture.

The Stationkeepers have also been in talks with The Pembroke Public Library and other Renfrew County rural librarians about launching similar projects. Anyone interested in listening to some sample oral histories already collected or soon to be podcast can tune into The Opeongo Line and listen for free at:  

Olsen suggests that if we have to spend next winter under pandemic restrictions, we could spend some “quality time recording those in our community who really do know where our unique local character comes from.” She promises, “We can teach you how to collect these oral histories and still rigorously follow Public Health Guidelines on how to avoid spreading the virus.”



Stationkeepers MV(2020,Aug.7) Stationkeepers’ Propose Renfrew County Oral History Project [media release]

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