Amy Hahn is a storyteller.
This Harmony native, now living in Rochester, has written numerous novels, short stories, newspaper, magazine articles and educational material for patients at Mayo Clinic. With a background in journalism, Hahn is now using her skills to work with the Harmony Area Historical Society to build archives of oral histories from some of Harmony’s most knowledgeable residents.
Hahn explained she has developed guidelines for the historical society and its volunteers that will help individuals interview others in the community, capturing stories and their memories for local archives.
In essence, she is now helping others become storytellers as well.
Oral history project
“I love local history,” Hahn said. “I am interested in small town history and preserving stories from people who have lived here.”
During her work with genealogy and other history projects, Hahn discovered she could earn an online historic preservation certificate from a school in Pennsylvania.
As part of her capstone project for the program, Hahn decided to focus on oral histories. She contacted the Harmony historical society to see if she could work with its members to collect the stories and create a protocol for others to conduct interviews and create files of historical information on some of the local residents.
“I wanted to bring the skills and knowledge I’d gained through this program to my hometown,” she added. “The goal of the project was to develop a set of procedures and guidelines for the community so others could interview or be interviewed.”
There are several steps to creating an oral history for a resident – including interviews, background research and creating a final presentation folder for the individual that includes photos, information and sound bites from a recorded interview. The archive would also include the recorded interview in its entirety as well as a transcript of that meeting.
Once the oral history file is complete, a copy is given to the individual or his or her family and another is kept on file at the historical society.
Hahn said she chose Isabel Daniels Paolini as the first person to be interviewed. She visited Paolini at Clara House for an initial, casual meeting and jotted down some topics of interest. She used information from that meeting to form her discussion questions and talking points for the actual interview, which would be digitally recorded.
At one time, she and the historical society members had contemplated video taping the interviews, but Hahn said she felt the recordings were much more user friendly as those being interviewed could more easily forget they were being recorded and remain more relaxed. “Video can be intimidating,” she added. “A small digital recorder is unobtrusive.”
Hahn also said it is important to limit the interview to an hour or less. Not only does it lessen the affect on the person being interviewed, but for each hour of recorded conversation, there is another five hours of transcription time to consider.
“It is time consuming,” Hahn admitted, “but it’s also very rewarding. Most people want to talk and share their memories.”
Even though Hahn has interviewed hundreds of people through her occupations, she said interviewing residents required a “different type” of interviewing skills.
While writing news stories or journal articles, one must ask specific and direct questions. When trying to coax memories or experiences from one’s memory, the interview questions must be more open ended or leading back to a certain time or place.
Hahn also noted she wasn’t as interested in getting specific facts, dates and times, but rather memories of residents growing up in a small town during the 1900s, or experiences they had at businesses or in school as they reached maturity.
“These are more than just the facts,” she explained. “We are looking for a person’s reflections, looking for that personal flavor of Harmony.”
Benefits of oral histories
There are many uses for the oral histories the historical society will collect, Hahn said.
Each file will contain a list of subjects covered in the interview, so the information is more accessible when individual projects or stories are being written in the future.
“The library is a great example,” Hahn said. The library will be celebrating its centennial this year and when compiling information, the oral histories could be accessed for any stories or memories shared about the library.
Paolini actually shared memories of when her mother worked with the Harmony Women’s Guild to establish the library. “In the beginning, it was in the same building as the ‘rest room,’ a place where farmers’ wives could sit and rest after getting groceries and while their husbands did business in town,” Hahn said.
Having these personal stories and memories in the historical archives makes local history more interesting and entertaining, she added. “We connect better with history when you hear the stories associated with Harmony’s past,” Hahn stated.
She said it also makes one realize that everyone who lives in and around Harmony shares a commonality and understanding. Collecting these stories simply strengthens those connections and shared experiences.
Isabel Daniels Paolini
When asked why Paolini was chosen as the first person to interview for the oral history project, Hahn said she knew she had unique stories to share after talking to another resident in town, Vicky Tribon.
Paolini was born in December of 1921 to Herbert and Auyse Daniels. She had five siblings, Shirley, Bayonne, Alma Jean, Marjorie and Roderick.
“She (Paolini) talked about going to the movie theater as a child and remembers when silent movies were shown and when the ‘talkies’ arrived. She remembered going to the opera house for live theater, going to school here, having sisters and friends and so much more,” Hahn said. “It puts a whole new perspective on growing up in Harmony.”
As a student, Paolini attended school in both the “old frame school” and the “brick school,” Hahn shared. The brick school housed the high school and the teacher’s school.
While in high school, Paolini participated in school plays, enjoyed speech contests and loved picnics held at the end of the school year, Hahn said.
She also recalled many girls wanting to play basketball, but when Paolini was in high school, girls weren’t allowed to play except as an intramural activity.
Hahn said a “surprising tidbit” learned through the interview dealt with “banned books” from the library.
“Isabel said her mother helped organize the library and the ladies would read the books to determine which were appropriate to add to their collection,” she explained. “The books that were deemed inappropriate were stored in the ladies’ attics around town.”
Paolini graduated from Harmony High School in 1938 as the class valedictorian and attended business school in Chicago before becoming a stenographer.
She married Attilio “Otto” Paolini and they had a son, Armand Roderick Paolini.
Voices of Harmony
The oral history project has now been dubbed “Voices of Harmony” and Hahn knows the list of possible interviewees is endless.
The historical society has several ideas for “Voices” they want recorded with many being added as time goes on. Hahn said more volunteers are needed to make the project a success.
“Community members are encouraged to get involved and help,” she reiterated. “Contact the Harmony Area Historical Society about how to participate and contribute to this project.”
Because of Hahn’s work, a guideline and procedure book is available for review at the historical society’s room at the Harmony Visitor Center. The book includes tips and step-by-step directions on how to research, organize, conduct, transcribe and archive an oral history interview.
Hahn said everything is covered, from beginning to end, to make the process more user-friendly for those volunteering to do the interviews.
“It will be easy to follow if one just goes through the process that was developed,” she added. “It takes time, and organization, but we want community members to step in and volunteer to do these interviews.”
While Hahn hopes to conduct a few more interviews to add to the oral history she has already created on Paolini, she also knows more help is needed to collect the stories of Harmony’s history.
“Even if community members are interested in interviewing members of their family for genealogy purposes, they could think about it from a perspective of Harmony,” she added.
Hahn and the members of the historical society know this will be an ongoing project.
“It takes a village to do this type of project,” Hahn said. “But it also allows us to develop a broader view of many aspects of Harmony.”
In the end
Hahn said oral histories can create a bridge between the past, present and future. They connect and bind a community, giving it a shared foundation.
“With oral histories, a community can take a closer and personal look at its heritage and gain more knowledge about it and respect and appreciation for it,” she concluded.