Museum’s use of oral histories helps document the community’s past

There are many ways to preserve local history. Last week, La Porte City FFA Historical & Ag Museum Director Emily Nelson, got to learn more about the history of the very building that houses the museum, courtesy of a special interview with Jerome “Jim” Wester, quite possibly the last living employee who worked in the building when it was known as Black Hawk Seed Farms. The interview was part of an oral history experience documented by Nelson, as a means of preserving local history by recording Wester’s recollections of working for the company in the early and mid 1950s.

Oral history is normally not the best method for obtaining factual data, such as specific dates, places or times. People rarely remember such details accurately. Other traditional historical research methods- courthouse records, club minutes, newspaper accounts, for example, are generally better sources for such specific details. Oral history, however, is the best method to use, not to only get an idea of what happened, but what past times meant to the people who were a part of those times.

The benefits of taking oral histories include:
Enhancing appreciation for little-known or vanishing ways of life
Helping verify the historical authenticity of events which cannot be determined by traditional methods of historical research;
Correcting stereotypical images of a people’s way of life that may still exist
Preserving and recovering important aspects of the human experience that could otherwise go undocumented.
Collecting, preserving and sharing oral histories not only transmits knowledge from one generation to the next, it enhances the understanding of the past by illuminating personal experience.

And when it came time to be interviewed, Jim Wester was well-prepared, bringing several pages of notes he wanted to be sure were part of the record. Wester, 91, began working for Professor E.E. Pearson, a former La Porte City High School FFA instructor, and his sons, Bill and Jim, in “1951 or ’52,” doing a variety of jobs for a company that produced seed corn for area farmers. Working for a father and two sons in some organizations could result in having three bosses. Not so with the Pearsons, Jim said.

“They were very nice people to work for,” he recalled.

Wester did a variety of work for Black Hawk Seed Farms, covering all aspects from planting to harvesting seed corn, to a number of jobs in between. While the days were long and the pay for a “hired man” was minimal, a month’s take home pay in 1952 being less than what many workers make in one day in 2018, the work itself was not without fun.

As Jim recalled the layout of the building when it functioned as a seed farm office before it became a museum, he shared a story about a time when he and his fellow employees played a joke on owner Ernest Pearson, the man they affectionately referred to as “Prof.”

Back in the day, steam heat registers were prominently displayed along a series of windows at the front of the building. This is where Pearson would place an incubator that was used to check seed germination. Covered by a glass top, Person would plant each of the varieties of seed in the incubator, then us the combination of natural lighting and steam heat to initiate and observe the growth of his young plants. One year, though, thanks to some mischief by the hired help, things did not go as planned.

“Me and the boys decided one Spring [to have some fun],” Wester remembered.

“Prof was planting some different corn in [the incubator]. He had a little grass seed. At one end he planted a little bit of oats. Well, when Prof went [back] into the office, we thought we’d play a little trick on him. So, where he planted corn, we had some Indian corn. We put a few seeds of Indian corn in there. Then we moved down in the incubator where you’d plant some oats. Well I don’t know who had it, [but] we had some dandelion seed. So we put [in] some dandelion seed.

“Finally, the corn started coming up. One day, Prof was telling us about this Indian corn that was the kind [that had] a reddish stalk.

“We said, ‘Prof, that must be a new kind of corn you’re planting.’ We didn’t want to give on [that we were playing a joke on him]. It went along a few days. He was telling us about his oats that [were] coming up. He said he must have had some weed seed in with the oats. Well, we didn’t say too much. But we knew we had planted the dandelion seed in there.

“Finally some farmers started coming in and Prof started showing them this new corn and stuff like that. Well, we had to tell him what we’d done, then. It wasn’t seed. It was Indian corn.

“A few days later, there was a padlock on it. He had [the incubator] locked up. Boy, we just laughed about that.”

For nearly two full hours, Jim Wester shared a number of recollections about Black Hawk Seed Farms, the Depression and his life as a hired man. In 1948, he married his wife, Betty, who passed away in 2014. The couple had three children. After working for the Pearsons for five years, Jim eventually went to work for John Deere, the company from which he we would eventually retire and move to Independence, where he now resides.

With Jim’s oral history interview now complete, the next steps for the museum will be to transcribe the audio recording and transfer the video recording to DVD so it can become available for viewing.

Do you know someone who has special memories of the past who may be a good candidate for sharing their recollections in an oral history interview? If so, contact La Porte City FFA Historical & Ag Museum Director, Emily Nelson at 319-342-3619.