Meet the team behind the Hagley Museum's online Brandywine Valley Oral History project

A program over 50 years in the making is finally seeing the light of day at the Hagley Museum.

The Brandywine Valley Oral History Collection has, in a sense, been underway since 1954, when staff members and volunteers started collecting the life stories of people who lived and worked in the area.

Going back to the original cassette and reel­-to-reel recordings, the team at the Hagley’s Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society worked for untold hours to clean up and convert the recordings to digital format, complete with transcriptions.

Associate Director and Oral Historian Amyrs Williams said likely 20 hours were dedicated to each hour of recording.

“And we had roughly 350 hours of recordings,” she said.

The recordings paint a picture of daily life in the Brandywine Valley from first-hand accounts from a variety of resident and workers from turn-of-the-century Delaware.  

Subjects of the recordings include childhood memories, holidays and traditions, recipes and drinks, and details of working life along the Brandywine, with the oldest interviewee born in 1864.

The interviews also underscore the “inherent danger” of black powder production with harrowing descriptions of explosions and accidents, according to a press release.

Center Director Richard Horowitz said the files were first digitized around five years ago, saving the original recordings from degrading.

“Some of them were on 50-year-old tapes, which is not a good idea,” he said. “And they were transferred to digital [high-definition .wav] files onto the computer.”

Williams said the original transcripts were scanned and then hit with optical recognition software to expedite the work. Those documents were then cleaned up for accuracy.

The audio files were then compiled with the transcripts and tons of metadata oral history project assistant Ben Spohn, who pretty much got to hear nearly every interview in the system.

Spohn also created the online index that stitches together the audio files with their transcripts.

The interviews are broken down into categories based on their content, like “childhood and mischief,” “recreation and entertainment,” and, yes, “mill explosions.”

Reference archivist Angela Schad vividly remembers one tale under “explosions” by a Mary Perrone, whose husband was injured in an explosion.

“She went behind his back to [mill boss Joseph Haley] and said, ‘can you please move my husband to a safer spot?’” Schad said. “And he did – he made him work outside, and never explained why. She laughs as she says, ‘Ah! He would have killed me if he knew!’”

PUBLIC ACCESS

Working with a grant from the Delaware Humanities program, Horowitz said the funding allowed them to access the original files and transfer them to the web, giving the public an opportunity to check out the stories.

“It’s a way of taking a resource we have and getting it out of the archives and putting in place where the public can easily see it and access it,” Horowitz said.

He added that there is also the goal of discovering photographs or other memorabilia that family members may have relating to the interviewees.

Horowitz said the original intent behind the interviews in the 50s was to interpret the property, starting before the museum had ever opened, with details on how gunpowder was made at the time.

The second round of interviews, done in the late 70s and early 80s, to get a sense of home and social life of the workers and their families, he added.

Williams said that although the recordings have a historic purpose, the museum’s hope is that the general public will take the time to check them out and connect with their past in a unique way.

“They certainly have been used by scholars, [but] we hope that this opens them up to another audience,” Williams said.

Check out the recordings at hagley.org/research/digital-exhibits/brandywine-valley-oral-history-project.

ABOUT HAGLEY

The Hagley Museum and Library is a nonprofit educational institution covering more than 235 acres along the banks of the Brandywine Creek.

The museum and grounds include the first du Pont family home and garden in the United States, the powder yards, and a 19th-century machine shop.

For more about Hagley, visit hagley.org.