To learn about the Curran Homestead’s most recent oral histories by Eagle Scout Matthew Norris of Troop 44, see Eagle Scout Oral Histories.
To learn about oral histories taken in the 1996 by Tosca DeVito, Megan Foreman, Dena Winslow York, Shawna Chesto, Nancy Dudley, Barbara Sumner, Robin Fre, Melissa Johnson, Angela Herbert, and Brandon Portwine, the University of Maine’s Folklife Center’s collection.
The Curran Homestead Living History Farm and Museum oral history archive began with the award of a Maine New Century Community Program Historical Museum Collections Grant in 2009. The original grant proposal sought funding for specialized digital equipment including a laptop computer, digital recorder and external hard drive for the creation of an archive of digital recordings. The proposed archive would consist of oral histories focused initially on the traditional art form of blacksmithing in the State of Maine; other themes would eventually become the subject of other recorded oral histories collected in the future.
The first subject of these recorded interviews was to be a local master blacksmith who had undergone formal training in his youth and had continued to practice blacksmithing at his local forge since the early 1960s. The forge was to be the location for some of these recorded sessions as the intention was to have this blacksmith explain his work as he was engaged in the act of hand forging allowing the sounds particular to this work to be part of the record as well. A preliminary and unrecorded interview with this blacksmith had taken place prior to the grant award, and the topics for future recordings had been decided upon, and these included such themes as blacksmithing tools, fire making, heating metal, bending, forge welding, and other themes that would characterize the traditional work and knowledge of a blacksmith in rural Maine. The interviewee’s father had been a formally trained blacksmith, and he had served as the interviewee’s earliest instructor as he first set out to master file work at eight years old; he too went through formal blacksmith training unfortunately as blacksmithing itself waned as a profitable vocation in the 1940s.
The intended oral history archive was to serve as an educational resource connected to the museum’s blacksmithing tool collection and a planned blacksmithing shop to be constructed on the museum campus. It was intended that these blacksmithing narratives would be made available to greater numbers through podcasting on a website to be developed in the future. More immediately, the oral histories collected in a digital form would be stored on an external hard drive for safe keeping for future dissemination.
A written transcription and index of the collected oral histories would also be made available. Grant funding provided a laptop computer for the purpose of uploading the collected oral histories and eventually downloading them to an external hard drive for preservation. Granted funds would also provide for a digital recording device and transportation costs resulting from traveling to and from the interviewee’s forge.
Project Activities and Project Analysis
There were several set-backs in our proposed start date of June, 2009 for the project; the first being a delay in the dispersal of the grant funds. During this delay, the intended subject of the recorded oral histories master blacksmith Robert Robinson, who was to share some of his 60 plus years of blacksmithing experience and knowledge of this traditional art in Maine, became incapacitated and unable to realize the original plan. Optimism to complete the project as intended continued for several months until an alternative course of action was taken to realize a similar recorded oral history of blacksmithing in Maine.
Once the word had spread that we had purchased the equipment for such a project and were looking for candidates to share their experiences on a number of themes many new opportunities quickly arose; in fact, we soon had access to a pool of practicing blacksmiths in both eastern and western Maine. With the completion of a working blacksmith shop at The Curran Homestead during this time and our success at developing a small blacksmithing school, many contacts arose from Maine’s considerable blacksmithing community. TV news coverage, newspaper articles, and a cover story in the Maine Archives and Museums Newsletter brought further attention to our fledgling blacksmithing program and our oral history project throughout the first half of 2010. Many with stories to share about blacksmithing in the area offered to be recorded, and there were many other themes that became the subject of our ongoing collecting of oral histories.
Another important factor in realizing this project beyond its original parameters was the developing interest of other local historical societies who wished to contribute to collecting these oral histories that would preserve Maine heritage. They were especially interested in collecting narratives directly linked with the material culture preserved in their own museum collections, in addition, many within their own membership had relevant narratives to contribute to the project. A partnership to collect oral histories with these surrounding historical societies ensued and now includes Orrington, Eddington, Brewer, and, most recently, a presentation on the experience of going to a one-room schoolhouse in the Town of Holden has joined the collection with an additional recording of another resident’s, one of our own honorary board member’s, first-hand account of this early experience.
The breadth of the project continues to widen. We have continued to offer our services to record individual oral histories, roundtables on specific topics of local history, and guest speakers for the purpose of later dissemination through digital media to local historical societies. The Curran Homestead has realized to date an archive that includes not only numerous blacksmithing stories that characterize an initially unanticipated and vibrant community within Maine practicing this traditional art, but also recordings focusing on such themes as Yankee ingenuity, maple sugaring, ice harvesting, jitterbugs, work horse farming, ship building, histories of Maine homes and family farms, and others. The number of recordings has reached more than 40 to date.
This website is intend to make our oral histories archive available through podcasts. The site itself will include an index of the recordings with links to key excerpts that focus on specifically the themes of the family farm in eastern Maine, ice harvesting, blacksmithing, late nineteenth and early twentieth century agricultural machinery, early tools and hardware, jitterbugs, and metal casting, with others to follow. One phase of this work has included the ongoing creation of a digital photographic record of our collection that will add further to the value of this archive as a primary source of Maine’s history for students and educators alike. Most importantly, during the period of collecting these oral histories many new objects have entered our collection that have come with photographs of them in use in the past and personal narratives provided by their donors who experienced their use first hand, so pairing both these visual and audio resources will be an important and unique offering of this website.
Although our successes as a result of this project have been great and continue to unfold, the growth of this project beyond its original parameters has also meant that our volunteer staff has had to make a greater commitment to the project. The reality that a generation of Maine residents who are the last generation to have both witnessed and practiced many of the themes mentioned above that seemingly disappeared from the rest of the American landscape much earlier makes it almost imperative that our collecting continue for as long as the opportunity exists to do so; furthermore, this added commitment has been driven by the undeniable historical relevancy these recordings provide to both our site, a nineteenth century Maine farmstead, and our collection of nineteenth century and early twentieth century agricultural and domestic material culture from the State of Maine. Although this digital collection to date is soon to be disseminated via the Internet through podcasting a thorough written transcription of these recordings may not happen as quickly.
Collecting oral histories has become an important facet of our mission and function to both preserve and share the material culture and human experience of eastern Maine’s unique rural heritage. Even before the idea of preserving The Curran Homestead as a living history museum for the public developed there was interest in preserving the story of the Curran family’s experience on it. Below is a recently transcribed term paper by Eric Zelz, a nephew of Alfred and Katherine Curran and, at the time, an undergraduate student of the late folklorist Sandy Ives at the University of Maine; he realized early the magic of this farm in Orrington and those responsible for it. This first of our oral history archives is accompanied by a series of recently digitalized cassette recordings also done by Eric Zelz at the Curran farmhouse with Alfred Curran. The building of this archives is ongoing, and we invite any opportunity to record more oral histories that characterize life in rural Maine. Please contact us if you have knowledge or experiences that could add to this priceless historical record.
Alfred Curran and the Field’s Pond Farm
The Study of a Folklife
Eric Zelz, Dec. 15, 1980
On June 23, 1836, Bartlett Curran became the sole owner of a piece of land in Orrington, Maine; it had been the ambition of his life when he had left Ireland several years before. Bartlett Curran was the first of the Curran family to voyage from their native village of Cloghmore (situated on the northern shores of Galway Bay and on the road that leads to the wild and mountainous regions of Canerrara, a western provence [province] of County Galway) and arrive on the shores of the Penobscot (after first working in Canada for an unrecorded period of time). He married a girl from the Orrington area and later purchased 120 acres of land from his father-in-law increasing his holdings. Still later he gained another 50 acres. He became a citizen of the United States in 1840; he was 28.
In the late 1840s, Bartlett’s three other younger brothers made their appearance in the Bangor area, arriving shortly after the terrible years of famine in 1846-47. These brothers were Thomas, John, Michael, and a cousin, Pat.
In 1863, John Curran and his family acquired 30 acres from his brother Bartlett for the price of $450 and lived on this farm. His daughter Margaret went on to marry Coleman Lee, the son of another early Irish immigrant, and they purchased 40 acres of land, in 1866, near the other Curran holdings. (Coleman and Margaret Lee were later to have a granddaughter that was to become my grandmother, (Coleman being my great-great-grandfather).
After Tom Curran’s arrival, he too purchased land, and again near Bartlett’s holdings, in the vicinity of Field’s Pond. He married and had 5 children; his wife previously emigrated from Ireland, gaining passage in a cargo ship laden with gun powder and railroad iron. This voyage had taken her 13 weeks due to existing bad weather conditions. One of their sons, Michael, grew, married and was blessed with 6 children, five boys and one girl [Edward, Michael, Jr., Alfred, Francis, Arthur and Mary Katherine]. Alfred and Katherine Curran of the Field’s Pond Farm are the remaining two of the six, and it is from them, and especially from Alfred, that I gained a new insight into the folk life of the Farm, whose history spans most of the century.
Oral history allowed for the placing together of the pieces of this puzzle of the past, and a past that is still available to the present. Speaking to Alfred was like experiencing a past that could never be found in a text book, for it was an unrecorded one that Alfred had experienced along with a past that I was connected with. Ancestors of mine married with those original four immigrants, and with this realization (that part of me is needed a part of the past), I became more and more interested in the project that continued to develop with each visit with Alfred.
And just as this oral history exists, so exist examples of those early folk technologies. I will never forget the thrill that was present for my brothers and me as we, as children, wandered through the fields and woods, trying to follow directions given to us by Katherine and Alfred, in search of stone foundations that were the only remaining trace of the home built and occupied by Coleman Lee and his wife, and we found them. Here were stones placed by my great-great grandfather, and here was an old abandoned apple orchard once tended by him. The past was real in the stories Alfred told and the objects he left behind.
Mike Curran’s wife died when the six children were still young, so he was faced with the upbringing of his little brood. One of the first moves he made was to move out of Bangor and buy the old Field’s Farm, on Fields Pond, in Orrington, Maine. Farming became Mike’s new lifestyle. (Katherine and Alfred still think back and admire the character of their father, being able to move his tribe of six children onto a farm and then survive comfortably.
Now in his 60s, Alfred was the youngest of the Curran children. In his childhood, he came to be somewhat of a “pet” or “Spoiled one”, often assigned the tasks of running errands, etc. The family acted as a unit, however, and Alfred recalled very little bickering amongst the family in those early days of this century. Their father was the “boss” and took care of the cooking and the general house and family upkeep. Great respect was directed towards their father, respect that remains today. Alfred recalled (paraphrased):
I must have been about 30 or so when my father died ,
and up until the day he died, if he told me to go down and stick
my head in the pond, I’d be half way there before I’d ask myself, ‘what the hell am I doing down here!?!’”
It might be useful to note here that a couple of times, when speaking with Alfred, he said that he now wishes that he had sat down and recalled more things with his father. In his words:
I don’t know too much, but, you know, we never, I don’t know why we never, found more, got more information. I guess we never thought we’d ever get old. There’s nobody you can ask things now.
The house that Katherine and Alfred occupy (neither married) [ Katherine maintained a home built for her in 1959 next door which was partitioned from the Curran farm] is the one in which they were brought up. Located in Orrington, in Field’s Pond, the farm, with house, barn, sheds, boathouse, etc. still operates as a cow farm. Over the years, however, the many activities that will be discussed in this paper, have dropped out of existence. Alfred Curran is now the only Curran that tends the cows on the farm, and the vegetable garden, and the haying, while Katherine cares for the house. By car, it is approximately 15 minutes outside of Bangor, but many of Alfred’s years on the farm were without an automobile, so throughout his youth, he was quite isolated from the comings and goings of the City. This allowed for a very interesting folk life to develop with its own technologies and stories characteristic to the lifestyle, seen and remembered through Alfred’s eyes, as it existed over the past 60 years, that I wish to present this paper.
Living and growing up in a rural area allowed Alfred the unique experience of attending school in a one-room schoolhouse. As has been found in other cases, the schooldays are ones remembered clearly and cherished dearly, and in Alfred’s case, this is no exception. The school building was one big room, with one of the sidewalls covered with blackboards and its opposing wall made up of great windows, to afford plenty of light in those days before electricity (electricity was brought to the Field’s Pond area in 1935).
The teacher’s desk was up front, in the center, with three rows of desks and chairs on either side. In the middle of these rows were two rows of smaller desks and chairs for the lower grades of the school. A large wood burning stove was directly in front of these rows, which was surrounded by a sheet of tin, so the children “couldn’t burn themselves, I guess”. This wood burning stove was tended by one student, who kept it well fed and swept. A kerosene lantern hung nearby but it was rarely lit.
Grades in the school were “baby class to 9th grade”, and while the teacher, usually a woman, was teaching or assigning studies to one class, the remainder of the school would be studying their own pre-assigned lessons. When the time came to recite, that class would go out to the front of the school, where a long settee was located, and the students would be quizzed. It was here where Alfred recalls: “You’d have to get up in front of the whole school and tell them either how dumb you was or how smart you was!”
With an 8:00-3:00 school day, a lot of material taught to one class would be absorbed to some degree by the rest of the school, all being together in one room. Subjects included such things as English, geography, history, arithmetic and spelling.
The teachers of Alfred’s days were always women, usually without a lot of training but remembered as good nevertheless. Often one would be just out of high school and gaining her first teaching experience in these small, rural schools. Boarding in the village allowed the teacher the opportunity of going home for lunch, while the students had their recess restricted to the schoolyard. (On stormy days, however, the ultimate honor for a student was to be picked to travel alone to the teacher’s house to bring her lunch back to her at the schoolhouse). An unguarded recess period was, however, like today, a chance for real fun, and that chance was sometimes seized upon.