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Preserving The History Of Southern Oregon’s ‘Heritage Industries’

Courtesy of Southern Oregon University Hannon Library
Sarah Ann Slagle McKay feeds chickens with her granddaughters on a farm near Central Point, circa 1910. This image is part of the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University Hannon Library digital archives

The history of Southern Oregon is intimately connected to a few industries- logging, mining, and agriculture. These “heritage industries,” are crucial to understanding the culture of many communities in the region. 

This is a story about one woman who works to preserve the history of Southern Oregon’s heritage industries, in a moment of transformation.

Maureen Battistella talks about about two farms near Medford. The farms have been owned by the same two families for generations, but the area around  them is changing.

“If you look at it from a Google satellite view it’s these two squares of green that are surrounded by residential and business built environments,” she says. “So you wonder how long those pockets of green will be able to remain green.” 

Battistella directs the Legacy Labor Project, at Southern Oregon University.  It aims to preserve the history of these industries. She says that as more people move to the region from other places, it’s important they have a  connection to local history. 

“For me, I’ve lived all over the country. I’ve lived in- raised in New Jersey, but lived in Alabama, Nebraska and South Dakota before coming here,” she says. “And moving around so much, I didn’t have a place, so part of the importance of this project for me personally, and what makes it important for others here who are newer, is that it really gives you a good grounding in what place is.”

Battistella spent this summer traveling to small towns throughout Southern Oregon, conducting interviews with locals and digitizing their old photographs. Sometimes, it can take months or even years of communication before a community will trust her enough to share their stories. Then there are other times, like when she and her research partner went to the tiny logging town of Butte Falls.

“For Butte Falls, that place where Vicky and I showed up at 6am at the Sugar Pine Cafe- we walk in and the loggers are all sitting around eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Vicky just starts talking with them and talking with them and talking with them, and they start bringing out their albums and more people started coming and telling their stories. We set up right there in the cafe with the coffee cranking in the background,” she says.

This is the kind of history she seeks out- the kind you find in coffee shops, not in museums or books. The work she does is personal, both for the people she interviews, and for her.

“It can be difficult to maintain a professional distance, but I feel that I don’t necessarily have to adopt the uh traditional scholarly academic  position of distance and analysis. These are people’s lives, not just pieces of paper.”

Her project is more than just collecting and preserving history- she sees sharing this history as a way to bring communities together.

“This experience of telling stories and sharing stories, is healing throughout,” she says. “It’s healing and it’s remembering and it’s not forgetting. We’ll go back  to Butte Falls, probably around Christmas, with their stories. And we’re gonna have a film festival, so all of these people who told us their stories will be able to see them again and share them with each other and create this community experience. It’s gonna be wonderful.”

For Battistella, the most important part of her work is the impact it has on the people she interviews, who can tell someone their small role in history.

“Another man sang a song about don’t forget me when I’m gone. His environmental activism saved some of the logging that was happening in the 80s. And so he sang that song to us, about don’t forget me when I’m gone …

“Listen. Listen. It’s as simple as that. Once you start hearing stories, and seeing how powerful stories are to the individual,  the stories that they tell- it fills you up.

“I think this is the most important work I’ll ever do in my life. Just listening.”