One of the stories Chace Jackson likes to tell about his fellow Allagash residents is the one about the day that Clark McBreairte walked on water. “Clark’s 88 years old now, but in his youth, he was very athletic. He worked on the river, driving logs, and no one could handle his footing better than Clark,” said Jackson, a 17-year-old senior at Fort Kent Community High School. “One day a bateau was pulled up along the shore, and the rope broke. It drifted down the river into a section with really bad rapids, so Clark started running over the logs, jumping onto each one, chasing after it.”
McBreairte eventually jumped onto a fir log, and because firs are lighter than other trees, they float just below the surface of the water.
“To everyone that was watching him, it looked like he was walking on water,” said Jackson. “That was the day Clark walked on water. That’s a story that you just have to keep alive. That’s irreplaceable.”
Preserving the stories and culture of the Allagash is Jackson’s passion, and as the youngest in a family that has lived in the area for generations, he feels obligated to honor his ancestors. He, along with a diverse array of other history-minded Mainers, took part in StoryBank, a weeklong seminar held in June at the University of Maine’s Folklife Center. The project is designed for those like Jackson, and teaches them skills in interviewing, audio recording, video and photography, in order to go out and collect stories.
The eventual goal of StoryBank is to accumulate an audiovisual archive of stories from Mainers in order to define a “sense of place” — that sense of specific, localized identity. Of course, there’s no one part of Maine culture that defines Maine, which is why StoryBank reached out to people from all over the state — from Somali immigrants in Lewiston to organic farmers in Hancock County. Those first documented stories will be presented Saturday and Sunday at this year’s American Folk
Festival on the Bangor Waterfront, on the Maine Folklife Center’s Narrative Stage.
Pauleena MacDougall is the director of the Folklife Center, and, with Camden folklorist Kathleen Mundell, initiated the project. She found the concept of sense of place to be the perfect springboard for amassing stories.
“How do we, as Mainers, define Maine?” asked MacDougall. “We get a lot of different answers, of course. A logger in the Allagash and a lobsterman in Jonesboro have two totally different perspectives. It all depends on where you’re coming from. The idea is to collect as many different stories from as many different places as possible, and to have it be a kind of collective voice.”
Participants worked with people such as UM new media professor and photographer Bill Kuykendall, archivist Pamela Dean and audio specialist Rob Rosenthal to gain the technical skills needed to go out into the field and gather their stories. One of the participants, Pam Outdusis Cunningham, a Hampden resident and Penobscot Indian who did her research on Wabanaki basket making, found the project to be an asset to her innate storytelling skills.
“Storytelling comes easy to me, but what I didn’t know was all the technical stuff,” said Cunningham. “I’d been doing a little bit of recording and archiving, but now I can do even more. It was really an amazing opportunity for me.”
Cunningham is in the unique position of being both a storyteller and a part of the story. She herself is a basket maker, and grew up on Indian Island. Her interest in recording and archiving began when she worked in community health care and would do house calls on elders and shut-ins on the island.
“One of the ways I would get them to talk to me about their health was through basketry, and all the people we knew in common,” said Cunningham. “Someone would remember my great-grandmother making baskets, and eventually they opened up to me. It was an icebreaker and a way to connect.”
Once you have an entry into a person’s world, it’s then up to you to ask the right questions.
“You have to ask questions of people, like, ‘What are the places that have special significance in your community?’ and ‘What are the sound and smells you associate with your town?’ or ‘Who are the special people?’” said MacDougall. “We all have these internal maps of our communities, that we don’t necessarily have any concrete definitions of. We’re trying to bring these out.”
Nancy Dewey, a Deer Isle resident, chose to focus on Veronica Dodge, a local crab picker. Dewey is fascinated by both the challenges that face people living in rural communities, especially island communities such as Deer Isle, and also by people who work with their hands — so Dodge was a natural choice for her.
“Things have changed so quickly here [in Deer Isle], in terms of fishing and being able to make a living in an island community,” said Dewey. “My way of honoring these citizens is to get their history, to get them to speak in a way that honors them. Every time a story is told, it changes a little bit. It’s not about getting the entire story, or getting something very factual and concrete — it’s about getting a story that applies to them.”
Dewey, Cunningham and Jackson will use the skills they gained at StoryBank to continue doing what they love: storytelling. For Jackson, it’s vitally important to preserve the culture of the Allagash — a unique, isolated community rich in the traditions of the Scottish, Irish and English people who first settled it. Jackson wants to study archaeology or history when he goes off to college next year, and his dream is someday to work as an archivist or folklorist.
“I’ve always collected information. I try to keep what we can, and salvage all this history before it’s lost forever,” said Jackson. “Our culture is dying. It’s happening in the St. John Valley, and it’s happening here in the Allagash. We can’t let it be forgotten.”
It’s not just about getting things down on tape, though — the process of telling a story is a kind of therapy, for both the talker and the listener. Cunningham found that the people she interviewed felt really good once they got things out in the open.
“People really do want to share their stories, if you know how to draw it out of them. And once you do, they don’t want to stop talking. You can find out a lot of good history,” said Cunningham. “Everybody has a story, if you take the time to listen to them.”
Folklife Center Narrative Stage
Saturday, Aug. 23
12:30 p.m. Stories from the Madawaska Weavers with Karen Miller.
1:30 p.m. Shellfish stories with Brenda Cummings and Nancy Dewey.
3 p.m. Wabanaki Basketry with Pam Outdusis Cunningham.
4 p.m. Allagash Stories with Chace Jackson.
Sunday, Aug. 24
12:30 p.m. Fort Kent Mills rug makers with Kathleen Mundell.
1:30 p.m. St. John River Bateaux making with John Connors and Chace Jackson.
2:30 p.m. Working the Woods with Rangeley woodcarver Rodney Richards and Jo Radner.
3:30 p.m. Hispanic culture in Maine with Greater Bangor Advocates for Hispanic Culture with Maria Sandweiss and Joanna Cuervo.
Make a deposit
On Saturday and Sunday at the American Folk Festival, StoryBank will be on hand to let you share your own stories in the traveling StoryBank RV set up near the Narrative Stage. Facilitators will guide you through the 30-minute interview process and handle the technical aspects. You contribute your own “sense of place” to the project’s growing archive of history. For information, call the Maine Folklife Center at 581-1891.