Students converge on Winter Harbor for oral history project

WINTER HARBOR — In 1973, Dale Torrey of Winter Harbor sat down with a student from the University of Maine for an oral history, which was recorded for future historians to use. On Thursday, 44 years later, he was interviewed again.

Maine is one of the few places with a deep tradition of oral histories, according to Todd Little-Siebold, an English professor at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Because of that, his students have been able to listen to an interview with Torrey from decades ago during one class session, and then interview him themselves days later.

“There’s no other way that you could know this other than asking people,” Little-Siebold said of the interviewing process. “You get a kind of fine-grained insight into a community’s values.”

The students interviewed seven members of the community here, who were designated by the Winter Harbor Historical Society. The local group helped set up the interviews, and Little-Siebold said the town was picked for the project in part because the historical society has kept remarkably organized and detailed records from previous generations.

Little-Siebold’s class is a group of 14 students from the college who are interviewing coastal Maine communities about fishing. The class is run in partnership with the Island Institute of Rockland and Maine Sea Grant, a coastal studies program supported by UMaine and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The class is co-run by Rebecca Clark-Uchenna of the Island Institute and Natalie Springuel of Maine Sea Grant, and seeks to bring a multidisciplinary approach to researching coastal Maine communities like this one. Island Institute focuses on community development, while COA specializes in academic research and Maine Sea Grant brings academic tools to fishing communities.

They’re also conducting oral histories on Cranberry Isles and in Bar Harbor.

“It’s a way of getting information that’s really different,” Springuel said of oral histories. “Really on the ground, and really personal.”

On Wednesday, Torrey was one of the seven subjects of the class’s research. His grown children, Phillip Torrey and Doreen Torrey-Eschete, joined him for the conversation.

Asked how the experience was a second time around, he said it went fine.

“It was alright,” he said. “It was about the same.”

For Vanessa Taylor, one of the students from COA interviewing him, the experience was special because she had recently listened to his 1973 oral history.

“He was really open to talking to us and open to sharing his stories,” Taylor said. “We were like, ‘Oh, we’ve heard about this before.’”

Phillip, Torrey’s son, said he really appreciated the students coming over and documenting the history of Winter Harbor.

“It’s nice to see stuff like this take place,” he said.

Téa Speek, a sophomore at COA from Boulder, Colo., said she had interviewed the manager of the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-op, Randy Johnson.

“I feel like I learned so much about the business of the lobster industry,” she said.

Often she’s heard about the romanticized version of fishing communities, people out on the boat, the role of fishing in the community.

“To hear about how a business is run is a whole other thing,” she said.

Val Peacock, who interviewed Johnson alongside Speek, said she learned a lot about the job of running a lobster co-op. Peacock is auditing the class and works as an education consultant. She’s a former teacher at Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan.

“It was definitely a really complex job, and he really opened up with us,” Peacock said. “Told us how it’s changed in the last 20 years while he’s been there.”

In terms of long-term changes, Little-Siebold said the first time Torrey was interviewed he told the researcher that there were only four lobster fishermen in Winter Harbor. As of this year, there are more than 20 who belong to the lobster co-op.

“What Dale was doing as a young man — or his father’s fishery — it’s gone,” Little-Siebold said.

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson has worked for The Ellsworth American since mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.