So sometimes it just works out like magic…
History is a really weird discipline. Sometimes I think of it as a very mechanical process. Let me explain.
As long time listeners to our podcast know, one of the high points of the narrative of Kick Ass Oregon History are the real live characters that co-producer Andy Lindberg is able to breathe life into. From our very first episode on The Roseburg Blast, when Andy showcased jewelery dealer Jack West, to Chief Warrant Flying Officer Nobou Fujita, Mr. Lindberg is able to take his deep thespian background and massage an engaging character into the podcast out of these historical persons.
My job, as The Resident Historian, is to uncover these personalities, and find real live quotes that they uttered – ones that showcase not only a little character, but also tend to support the main points of the story we are trying to present. And it doesn’t always happen. But newspapers are often a great resource for these concise, first person accounts (call them “sound bytes” if you will, even though that that term tends to predate most of the examples I cull). And this is how we make the history.
First, we get an idea for a story. A real life event that was of an exciting nature, that occurred in Oregon’s past. As Kick Ass Oregon History is a survey of the Beaver State’s sagas, with a new episode appearing roughly every two weeks, I just don’t have the time to explore these tawdry tales to the degree on would commit when writing a thesis, a dissertation, or an academic book on, say…. The Shanghai Tunnels. An in depth consideration or contemplation such as this might take years. I am thorough, I treat the pursuit seriously, but I don’t have the resources to give each and every topic such long term study.
Usually, I begin at the Oregon Historical Society or the Oregon Encyclopedia websites to get a quick, down and dirty overview of the subject. A glance at Wikipedia can be informative as well. Then a detailed reading of two or three book on the subject is almost always in order – but with a guarded eye – for I don’t want to become versed enough in another historian’s take on the subject as to cloud my own interpretation. Google searches and reviews of various academic databases are often helpful as well.
But the newspapers are the real pay dirt. These stories are often written as the event is taking place, and have all the warranted “breaking news!!!” intensity. Retrospectives; 10, 25, even 40 years later will also often resurface eye witnesses of the event, and these first hand accounts can be helpful as well. In my research, I attempt to read as many of the dailies as I can.
Take for example the August 20th, 1933 edition of The Sunday Oregonian. While reading an editorial regarding the Tillamook Burn, and the need for forest recreators to heed the ever present danger of fire in the forest, I happened to catch a glimpse of another article – this one entitled “Hunting The Poor Wild Man.” And this one didn’t just catch my attention. It fucking grabbed me.
The article (displayed below) is very tongue in cheek. The editor, in an clearly satirist manner, pokes fun of the reports from around Tillamook Head of a Wild Man, described as “large, black and hulking” and an “animal-like human.” Seen by three different “reliable witnesses” on three separate occasions, the description sounds something quite like a Bigfoot, in an era that existed before the term for these elusive forest primates was created.
And this is how the craft of history works too. Diligently researching one of the nation’s most catastrophic fires, and I stumble across possibly another early Oregon Bigfoot sighting. Pure happenstance. Purely on accident. Needle in the haystack, bitches. Sometimes you do actually find it.