By Anne M. Valk
The geographic distance from Williams College to North Adams is admittedly short but the separation between the towns is vast. This gulf especially exists for students who arrive at Williams knowing little about the area and who generally venture off-campus only for organized events (e.g., athletics) or excursions to restaurants, shopping and recreation away from Berkshire County. To the extent that students are familiar with North Adams at all, they know MASS MoCA or perhaps one of the organizations dedicated to addressing social problems like hunger.
This spring, I taught a class at Williams that aimed, in part, to give students a chance to get to know North Adams as a place with a rich history and a wealth of people who contribute in countless positive ways to city life. The class, Oral History: Theory, Methods, and Practice, was sponsored by the Center for Learning in Action, which supports experiential learning, especially off campus where students engage with local communities through research or service. Consistent with these goals, the course used oral history interviews as a means for students to learn first-hand about the ways North Adams has changed over the past 70 years and to hear residents’ views on these changes. Hopefully participation in this research will encourage students to appreciate the resources and history of North Adams and to feel invested in the city’s future. In addition, the students’ work is intended to benefit others: by recording interviews, the class documents and preserves the living memory of long-time residents. The 12 recorded interviews will be archived digitally and will be available for research and teaching projects in years to come.
Much of the information collected through the interviews was new to the students, but long-term residents of northern Berkshire County would know it well. Many people who were interviewed previously worked at Sprague Electric and remembered the close connections between the company and the community. While the factories hummed and before urban renewal diminished Main Street, neighbors enjoyed close bonds. “Everybody knew everybody,” even if much social activity fractured along ethnic lines and church affiliations. Despite their pervasiveness, such stories remain poorly documented with little material in the archives that records individual workers’ experiences at Sprague and the impact of the plant’s closing on the economy and community.
At the same time, the interviews captured history that is less familiar or that can be understood in new ways. For example, the interviews reveal how dramatically employment opportunities changed for women workers across the generations (from factory to secretarial and administrative work). And because oral history records what people think about the present, as well as what they remember about the past, the interviews convey how local residents view the area, including the economic and cultural factors that separate North Adams from other towns in the region.
Sprague’s closing left a “hole in North Adams’ soul,” according to one person; the city’s new emphasis on the arts has not healed that wound yet. But residents hold hopeful visions for North Adams’ future. Economic growth and cultural vitality, according to most interviewees, depends on individuals, businesses, and other institutions recognizing common interests that cross city lines. Some people urged local towns to merge school systems or local governments, for example. As Robin Martin, a lifelong resident who works at the North Adams Public Library put it, the towns used to be “all blended.” Now people criticize North Adams for its vacant and rundown properties. But, “I don’t like downing one community, because we are all Northern Berkshire,” Martin argued. “And let’s face it: If you don’t shop in my town, where are you getting your groceries?”
The class will run again next spring when students will conduct more interviews. Hopefully their work can help to erase some boundaries that keep Williams College separated from the city next door. Later this year the 2016 interviews will be available online through the Williams College special collection library. Until then, readers interested in hearing excerpts of interviews and essays written by students can find them at: http://sites.williams.edu/histt371-16s/
Anne Valk lives in North Adams and is President of the Oral History Association, 2015-16 and Associate Director for Public Humanities at the Center for Learning in Action and the Davis Center, Williams College