Oral History of the Skagit River
by Karen Fitzgerald
My experience of the Skagit River has convinced me that an oral
history of farming in Pleasant Plains, where Iím from in Illinois,
would be valuable not only for historical reasons, but also because
it could elucidate the problems of modern farming. Perhaps it
might even suggest a new approach to farming that would be more
in harmony with the environment, as well as more profitable. Local
farmers appear to be surviving to a large degree on government
subsidies, which require that they grow corn, soybeans, or wheat;
this lack of biodiversity not to mention chemical fertilizers
and pesticides ó can hardly be good for the soil or the ecosystem.
Furthermore, I think it would benefit young people of the community
to learn what the farming life was like for their elders in earlier
times. They might gain more respect for them, as well as for the
land and nature. They could also help devise solutions to real
problems, instead of the hypothetical problems typical of schoolwork.
In my experience, such abstract work tends to bore students and
renders them unmotivated.
The project has five main components.
1. Learn as much as possible about farmers and farming in the
area from the 19th century on through newspaper and
magazine clippings as well as Internet and library research. Include
research on the Native American who originally lived here and
how they interacted with the first settlers.
2. Compile a list of people to be interviewed, including
studentsí own relatives, names culled from research, talking to
Brandt Fertilizer Company, farmers at the local diner coffee klatch,
etc, and then set up interviews. Students should draw up interview
questions, with teacherís approval. The interviews could take
place at the school in the classroom or in the subjectís home
and recorded on tape. At least two students should be designated
to take notes and type them up separately, and then compare and
combine. Make a point of tape-recording the farmers talking in
the diner in early morning, for historical record.
3. Pinpoint any pollution problems in the community and
surrounding areas from agricultural chemicals. Do research on
the environmental studies that have been done in the area. Contact
the EPA and State Museum to determine what kind of measurements
might be might be taken in local streams, soil, etc. Investigate
the utility of bird count as an indicator of the health of the
4. Do research on possible alternative crops that might
thrive in Sangamon Valley soil and climate conditions, without
the addition of chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers;
research should include whether there is a large enough market
for the crops to be economically viable for local farmers to grow.
As part of their research, students might also test growing various
5. At the end of the year, the students should write a report
on their conclusions after they have read all the interview notes
and examined all environmental and horticultural data. They should
include their own suggestions for possible solutions or future
Each class should add to the previous yearís compilations, achieving
ever-greater clarity on the issues and appropriate solutions as
time goes on. This project would be the ultimate in multidisciplinary
study, and I think it is something that could energize the entire