PARIS — A few more details have begun to emerge about the somewhat mysterious Bernard McLaughlin as volunteers and staff at McLaughlin Garden begin to embark on their new oral history project, “People Past and Present at the McLaughlin Garden & Homestead.”
On Aug. 4, Pauleena MacDougall, the director of the Maine Folklife Center, traveled to the homestead on Main Street to conduct oral history training for the project with a handful of women. She has been with the University of Maine for nearly 30 years and completed roughly 100 oral history projects, she said.
McLaughlin Executive Director Donna Anderson explained the project aims to collect stories about Bernard McLaughlin, who began planting his 2-acre garden in 1936 and welcomed the public to enjoy his quiet space when his garden gate was open.
These stories will be transcribed and kept in the nonprofit’s archives and interview excerpts will be used for new exhibitions and audio segments on the garden’s website at www.mclaughlingarden.org/.
“This is just the beginning of what I hope is going to be a long and fruitful project for us,” Anderson said, which she thinks will help bring the community together.
“I think this group is our attempt to really think about gathering stories that have to do with our history, reconnecting with these different networks of community and really starting to develop the raw material to share our story more thoroughly.”
She added she thought it was wonderful the Maine Humanities Council supported the project through a grant.
MacDougall said the training would cover exploring the topic, finding people to interview, creating a pre-interview checklist, ethics, the interview itself and practicing interviewing techniques.
During introductions, garden volunteer Deb Wiles shared that as a child growing up in the neighborhood, she never really knew what went on at the garden.
“I lived up on the hill right in back of here and spent many years walking to school and walking back by this place to go home and it was really quite a mystery,” she said. “The gate was always locked here.”
As fourth- through sixth-graders, “we had quite the imagination of what was going on here,” Wiles added.
Andrea Burns, who is one of the founding members of the garden, said she first met McLaughlin during the 1960s when she used to summer in the area.
“I visited the garden when Bernard was working. The gate wasn’t locked then but the manure pile was at the gate,” she said, adding she “knew him as a gentleman.” “My sister-in-law was always coming away with plants.”
Notebooks were distributed and MacDougall asked participants to jot down their answers to her question, “What do you already know?”
Board member and gardener Harriet Robinson said McLaughlin “loved wild flowers and lilacs most of all,” noting he was an early perennial gardener in the state of Maine. She added he never had biological children, he was a meat cutter from Aroostook County and the house in South Paris came from his wife’s family, the Tribous.
The house was built circa 1835, Wiles said, and everything in the house and barn are original, pointing to an indoor outhouse that goes unused down the hallway.
“He was quite reclusive as most of the townspeople were concerned,” she said about McLaughlin.
Anderson echoed Wiles answers.
“I knew Bernard initially as a very, very quiet, private man on his knees … in the garden. … Rarely did you see his wife, Rena,” Anderson said, noting it’s interesting McLaughlin was an ordinary man.
“This isn’t the home of George Washington or a famous statesman. This gives us an opportunity to really explore history: How do we all as ordinary people live our lives and how … is Bernard more like us in his life?
“Our challenge here in telling history is exploring that … ordinary people came together after he was gone to nurture the site for the future,” she added.
MacDougall asked if the women noticed anything about the way she was listening to their answers.
“It’s called active listening, which is an important skill when you’re interviewing,” she said, noting it’s a teachable exercise on how one question can evoke a lot of responses. “Ask another person for their knowledge instead of telling them what you know – you listen to their response.”
Part of the oral history project is also gathering background information. There is very little documentation of Bernard’s plans for the garden, Anderson said. MacDougall asked if they had resources available to them such as newspaper articles, historical documents, marriage certificates and/or journals.
McLaughlin’s adopted son, Richard, still lived in the area, according to Anderson, and Burns said the rest of the founding members of the nonprofit should be interviewed.
Robinson noted Norway and Paris resident Marie Hazelton just died and she had knowledge that could have helped the project.
“We have to get to some of these people before they die,” Robinson said.
MacDougall agreed the group should interview older people first. But before they start formal interviews, she suggested hosting an event at the garden to bring people in for tea and create a display of old photographs. This might evoke memories and bring out stories that could further the project.
Anyone interested in participating in the oral history project, or has a story to share, can contact Anderson at 207-743-8820 or firstname.lastname@example.org.