Island oral history project brings generations together

It began as an idea of Islanders taking down their favorite spots on Mercer Island, with three groups of adults coming into Mercer Island Library in 2013 and giving interview clips of Calkins Landing, Luther Burbank Park and the East Society School.

But after that initial round of interviews, Mercer Island Teen Services Librarian Carrie Bowman, who proposed the project, saw the potential for something more. So Bowman connected with Mercer Island High School global studies teacher Mike Radow to see if she could get students to collaborate and interview some of the Island’s older residents about their favorite Island spots.

The collaboration, which also included the Mercer Island Historical Society, resulted with twenty-two high school ninth graders interviewing community seniors and selecting their favorite interview snippets to create a virtual tour of Mercer Island. Using their district-issued iPads and posting their clips online, students found there’s plenty of history on Mercer Island and you don’t have to go too far to find it.

Bowman, who was especially excited to get younger Islanders mingling with older residents, said one of the goals for the project was to document some of their accounts while the people who lived them were still able to tell them.

“Right now, the differences between young people and people in their mid-80s or mid-90s is pretty extreme,” she said. “The way that people had fun in earlier generations and the amount of time spent fixing cars, building things, being outside, it was quite a difference from most kids today. Most kids aren’t necessarily building their own things and riding a horse from one end of the Island to the other. The freedom and desire to roam around outside has changed quite a bit.”

After mingling with potential narrators at an open house in February, the teens worked in pairs to prepare interview questions for an adult who interested them, with interviews conducted at the Mercer Island Library. Following the interviews, Bowman and high school Tech TOSA (Teacher on Special Assignment) Justin Talmadge spent several classroom sessions helping the teens work with audio recording and editing program Audacity to extract and edit stories from the interviews.

The extracted audio clips were uploaded to the World Voices (Woices) website, a free site that allows users to create and share geolocated audio guides. The “walk,” or audio tour, is marked on a Google map and each stop is associated with an audio clip (called an “echo”) telling a story about that place. On the Woices website, visitors will find twelve stories, totaling 36 minutes and 13 seconds, the length of an album on CD.

Stories include an account from Joe Lightfoot, whose father George Lightfoot is considered by many the “father of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge.” Lightfoot recalls his adventures chasing mud hens in a friend's canoe off the north end of Mercer Island in the 1930s.

Islander Bert Pound describes the process of building a house for his family in the late 1930s.

June Lindsey talks about the grassroots effort that focused on preserving Pioneer Park soon after its creation in the 1960s, with efforts leading to a 64 percent turnout in an election that saved the park from becoming a golf course.

And Sally Ford Brown talks about working for the Mercer Island Reporter out of college in the 70s and learning more than she initially bargained for about the people she’d run into at the grocery store.

All stories are very short and quick, easy to listen to and leave the listener wanting more.

“One thing that’s really great is this community is defined by the Island. There are boundaries that make it more containable and limited, you can limit it. The community itself is pretty tight,” said Bowman. “Mercer Island as a community really lends itself to this, I think, because of its boundaries as an Island and the history reflects those boundaries. The nature of the Island community is different from the nature of other communities in a lot of ways.”

After finishing the project, Bowman said she still had plenty of interview subjects who they weren’t able to get to due to not enough students. When asked if this might become a recurring project, she said it was still up in the air and would depend on if the collaboration and engagement is still there. She emphasized the importance of getting the two generations together, and believes the insights gathered through this project left an impression on the students involved. “These kids have exercise upon exercise at school, but to have something that’s real time, real people, real events and can be shared with other people is real important. I think this was a meaningful project, and that matters to kids. In the end, I think they want to do meaningful things.”

Visit to hear the interview clips and take the “Mercer Island Places That Matter” virtual tour.


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