Un-earthing Beech Fork; The Digital History Project Proposal

I am producing a digital history project, which will connect the oldest form of information sharing with a contemporary method of delivery. Just as the concept of “home” reaches into our anthropological past as the first connections we make, the oral tradition is that thread which serves as a continuous motion forward carrying the past through experience and perception. While cave paintings may be evidence of our existence, stories are evidence of our humanity. This project will tell the story of rural families and other participants in central Appalachia during the creation of Beech Fork Lake and park by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Description of research

My research pieces together first and second-hand narratives regarding the events and circumstances involved in the creation of Beech Fork Lake and park in Cabell and Wayne country, West Virginia, in 1970. I will research the reasons behind the mandate, which controlled flooding of Twelvepole Creek as part of the response to the Flood Control Act of 1962 and 1965 to “to design and construct any water resource development project, including navigation, flood control, and shore protection”. This was also an intertwined with a larger comprehensive movement by the federal government to protect wildlife and waterways while addressing flood issues and managing such risks, which involved the displacement of residents.  I will focus on the historical importance and reputation of the area, which, according to a rather obscure genealogical book claims it earned the name the “Bean Capital Of The World”. (1)

The main crux of the project comes from conducting oral history interviews with the displaced residents in that developed region, their close associates who know the story of this move well, and members of the Army Corps of Engineers who worked on the project in either planning or execution. I will ask about their experiences with respect to their role and insight they may have in the phenomenon of displacement itself by eminent domain.

Once these interviews are gathered, I will transcribe them and upload them on to a project website while I analyze them further for themes and details. As these emerge and bring to light interwoven experiences of those who were moved and those who worked on the project with the Corps, these experiences and the circumstances that led to the creation of the park will be included in a podcast that will be hosted and available on the website.

 The rationale for the Chosen Design

To work from research idea to artifact, I need to construct a framework and that combines why this is a project worth researching and how it will be digitally produced.  Out of the many forms of digital delivery, podcast production allows the content to have a combination of guided narrative and aural delivery, which is portable and can be entertaining while educational. In contrast to long-form oral history review, this contemporary form of broadcasting allows oral history participants to be heard in the first person through carefully crafted episodic pieces that preserve the thematically significant portions of their interview and deliver it to wide audiences through their chosen devices. Unlike traditional oral history interviews, these are filtered in order to fit into the research framework and to create a cohesive and interesting podcast just as a website or other form of delivery would sharpen its focus to reinforce the theme and encourage participation. This is also a potential drawback of the delivery method since editing lends itself to the bias of the producer. Efforts to achieve value neutrality, a concept coined by Sociologist Max Weber (2), in this case, will be deliberate to identify and minimize such bias.

According to Neilson media ratings, 124 million people in the US had listened to a podcast by 2017. (3) Will 124 million listeners want to hear about a small number of families forced to move for the sake of ecological management in West Virginia? Probably not. However, prior to its existence, the listenership will be zero and from that, the growth of the audience is open to the connected public. Podcasting is a form of digital storytelling as discussed by John Barber:

“The overlay of computer-based media onto storytelling has prompted a range of new approaches: from what noted radio historian Susan Douglas calls a return to orality, “a mode of communication reliant on storytelling, listening, and group memory” (Douglas, 1999, p. 29) to new storytelling experiences that include direct participation by listeners, even co-creation of stories.” (4)
Discussion of Intended Audience

So if not for the millions, who is the intended audience? The core audience would be those podcast subscribers who listen to the genre of “history podcasts”. Expanding the net, the podcast would appeal to regional historians (amateur and professional) from or familiar with this region. I would like to find an association with The Clio.com, which already links to public history sites and projects in that vicinity.  On a large thematic scale, the concept of eminent domain also appeals to some interests regarding personal and political freedom. (5) Also, on this macro level, those who have an interest in exploring the past, who might be interested in the Foxfire series would be interested in seeing a pivotal moment in the transformation of modern Appalachia from the past. Outward migration from the region has been relatively consistent since the 1970’s and this podcast might catch those on the “Hillbilly Highway” who feel a connection to the area and crave points for articulating its past. (6)

Justification of Research

Projects that develop the landscape for a large or mandated cause may move individuals and families from their “homeplace” and the stories of their existence might fade if not preserved. This research is necessary because outside of the time in which it occurred, no published scholarship exists which collects firsthand accounts of those affected or those who worked in the park’s development. Information about the project is found in US Army Corps of Engineer annual reports and newspapers from the era, but there has not been a project, which pieces together the scale and impacts this had on residents and the disruption of their lives and the culture of the region. The justification for the research lay in the absence of existing data and public history record of this event.

Several in-class readings have helped shaped the justification for this project. One discussion in Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History chapter entitled “Exploring the History Web” states that of the five main (valid) genres of digital history, the first mentioned is the archive, which this project essentially is.

Timeline and Collaboration

This is a project required for a semester course. Given the deadlines, I have planned the following timeline:

  • Regional and event historical research, on-going
  • Outreach and crowdsourcing for participants October 1  -November 10
  • Interviews October 18-November 10
  • Analysis Completion November 15
  • Podcast recording, editing November 15-December 1
  • Project complete for Presentation December 5

The location of the historical event is six hours north from Charlotte, and I will be doing the majority of research at this distance. I do have contacts at Cabell County Public Library and Marshall University who will assist if needed to expand the call for participation, assist in finding any obscure published material, or other services. They will be acknowledged and are appreciated.

Working Bibliography

As noted in the proposal above:

  1. Sociological Research OnlineVol 22, Issue 1, pp. 1 – 12
  2. Barber, John F. “Critical Essay:Digital storytelling: New opportunities for humanities scholarship and pedagogy” from Margo Berendsen, Jeffrey Hamerlinck, Gerald Webster. (2018) Digital Story Mapping to Advance Educational Atlas Design and Enable Student Engagement. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information 7:3, pages 125.
  3. https://www.podcastinsights.com/podcast-statistics/#Podcast_Listener_Stats
  4. Adkins, R. (1990). The Adkins family of Wayne County, West Virginia: also Cabell, Lincoln, and Boone : a genealogical history : the descendants of William and Elizabeth (Parker) Adkins of Henrico County, Virginia, from 1690 to 1990. Montgomery, Ala.: R. Adkins.
  5. Hoyman, M., & Mccall, J. (n.d.). “Not Imminent in My Domain!” County Leaders’ Attitudes toward Eminent Domain Decisions. Public Administration Review, 70(6), 885–893. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6210.2010.02220.x
  6. Alexander, J. (n.d.). Defining the diaspora: Appalachians in the great migration. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxvii(2), 219–247. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/36499626/

Others:

Prospectus: Un-earthing Beech Fork

In response to persistent flooding issues and the Flood Control Act of October 23, 1962, the US Army Corps of Engineers, during the 1970’s, reshaped the communities of “Beech Fork”, in Cabell and Wayne County West Virginia, moving residents, earth, and structures to create Beech Fork State Park in 1979.

My Digital History class project will be the debut podcast episode chronicling the first phase of an ambitious goal: to produce a comprehensive website that will house a panoramic annotated map of the region within and affected by the park, oral histories of displaced residents and Corps staff involved in the project, photographs of the region comparing areas before and after the park’s creation, and a detailed mapping and cataloging of the community cemetery located within the park. This first portion of the project will involve the creation of a podcast documenting my progress and broadcasting some of the stories and background that will be included. The podcast, whose working title is “Displaced” will explore the theme of displacement and may continue past the Beech Fork podcasts (Season 1) highlighting other events and experiences.

The first episode will be a culmination of preliminary research and a demonstration of recording and broadcasting tools for digital history research, archiving, and presentation. While this topic is important to me personally since part of my family hails from the affected area, the historical significance of this project comes from its ability to add humanity and highlight cultural consequences to historical events. The creation of the park and construction of Beech Fork Lake  grew out of federal legislation aimed at preserving the wildlife and waterways of the region along with improving the ecosystem therein. This project will illustrate the narratives of those whose lives, identities, and livelihoods were affected by this mandate in this instance. Of the limited resources available on the subject in digital form, all refer to plant and animal species who reside in the area or summarize the creation of the park without including personal narratives of the residents or those working on behalf of the Corps. As noted in the 1996 introduction to an Oral History edition for the The Journal of American History, Linda Shopes and Michael Frisch (1) write that: “the recent efflorescence of oral history is rooted in the social historian’s need for sources that document experiences for which more traditional materials are either unavailable or profoundly distorted by the perspective of the recorder.” It is necessary to examine every opportunity available for a critical analysis of past events, finding truth in the patterns and variety of perspective. Since then, podcasts have emerged as a way to broadcast histories and interviews, releasing them from academic or closed archives, or boosting their reach from web-based digital homes.

Beyond the historiographic purpose of the project, I also want to explore themes such as the social and personal effects of displacement by eminent domain and such effects relating to environmental legislation. I will allow some “organic” reach of topics based on what is sparked in conversation within the interviews. These will be conducted over the phone and recorded via a portable recording device. The podcast will be recorded and edited using Audacity and a careful edit of the interviews. Transcripts of the show and the interviews will be available on the project website and as an experiment, I will try to transcribe using text recognition software. The show’s “home” will be on Soundcloud or a similar audio digital storage site and available.

To prepare to tackle this project effectively and produce a quality product, I am consulting the   Principles and Best Practices from the Oral History Association as well as an expanding list of primary and secondary sources:

Primary:
“Beech Fork” Special Report from Nov. 15, 1970. The Herald-Advertiser
Interviews with:

  • US Army Corps of Engineers representative (to be named, possible Robert Thompson)
  • Angie Maynard Strait (displaced resident)
  • Mary E Adkins (displaced resident)
  • Others tba

Secondary:
Collections of interviews of displaced individuals from various backgrounds as found in Oral History journals and digital collections.

A challenge so far has been to narrow my focus from a large concept to a “bite-size” project which exhibits my topic while also demonstrating my newly acquired knowledge of digital history. I believe the creation of this podcast and accompanying website will be appropriate and fruitful for both criteria.

 

  1. Shopes, L. (n.d.). Oral History. The journal of American history.83(2).