Research Communications

Graduate students help capture oral histories of Meigs County watershed 

Nov. 29, 2010

When Ohio University graduate student Karla Sanders was looking for way to engage a Meigs County community in watershed protection issues during her stint as a volunteer in Rural Action’s AmeriCorps Watersheds Program last year, she received some simple advice from colleagues: Just listen to the local stories.

The suggestion prompted Sanders, doctoral student Catherine Cutcher and other volunteers working with the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District to collect a total of 19 tales from residents in the Rutland, Ohio, area. They’ve now compiled the oral histories in a new book, Leading from the Past: Stories of the Leading Creek Watershed Project, which was published earlier this month with support from an Ohio Humanities Council grant.

The authors hope that the book will educate both local and non-local readers about the history, environment and culture of the Leading Creek Watershed, from the point of view of its residents. Interview subjects ranged from citizens who work in the coal mining and timber industries to farmers and herbalists in the community, which is about 30 minutes south of Athens near Pomeroy, Ohio.

“Many local residents are very ecology-minded,” Sanders says about one of the most common themes that came out of the stories. Citizens prize clean streams – not only for aesthetic reasons, she adds, but to ensure a good environment for hunting and fishing.

Residents also have found synergies between the environment and entrepreneurship, says Cutcher, a Rutland resident who joined the oral history project through her involvement in a community group. Citizens reported a need to create their own jobs in the current economy, including those that make use of natural resources, such as agriculture and hunting.

Cutcher, an Ohio University Fulbright scholar, says she drew on her experience conducting anthropology research on women’s organizations in Kenya to help guide the local oral history work. “This is a natural way for me to connect the work I’ve done in Africa with Appalachian issues,” she says.

Sanders, who worked on the community service project for a year after completing an undergraduate degree at Ohio University, notes that the experience has triggered some ideas for projects she might pursue in her graduate program in environmental communications.

Both students are enthused about the potential impact of the book, which Cutcher describes as the first oral history of its kind in the Ohio River Valley region. Volunteers found that local residents were surprised and flattered to have their personal stories included in the collection, and have been eager to read the complete book. Cutcher and Sanders hope that the project could lead to greater community engagement.

“I would like to inspire young people to have a better sense of place,” Cutcher says. “They can think of themselves as part of a larger ecological community.”

The Meigs Soil Water Conservation District is donating more than 100 copies of the book to local agencies and groups over the next few months. It will go on sale to the public after Jan. 1. For more information, contact the district at (740) 992-4282.

By Andrea Gibson