Gochenaur collects life stories of Saranac Lake area residents

Historic Saranac Lake oral history coordinator Kaytlin Gochenaur takes a break from editing interviews on Friday afternoon. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

SARANAC LAKE — At 84 available interviews, Historic Saranac Lake oral history coordinator Kaytlin Gochenaur has documented the traditions and life stories of some of Saranac Lake’s oldest residents.

“People always tell you that they have nothing interesting to say,” Gochenaur said. “That’s the first thing that happens. Then they tell you really interesting stories.”

With roots in 1990s, and many of those interviews recorded on cassette tapes, the Oral History Project by Historic Saranac Lake is an ongoing effort by the nonprofit historic preservation organization to archive the history of Saranac Lake and the surrounding region for future generations.

“Most people aren’t writing memoirs,” Gochenaur said. “Often, the stories of regular people don’t get picked up in history books. The uneventful things that end up being very interesting from a historical perspective, like what life was like a hundred years ago, a lot of that doesn’t get written down.”

Working primarily at Saranac Village at Will Rogers so far, Gochenaur said the experience of interviewing nearly every resident at the senior community has helped her grow as an interviewer and historian. But now she’s looking to expand into other age groups.

“Part of the purpose of the project is to document life that is happening today,” Gochenaur said. “I’d love to interview some children going to the local schools and just have them tell me what their favorite color is.”

She stressed that the project’s spirit is to capture the stories and traditions from all walks of life in the area — recent arrivals as well as those that have been here for generations. Gochenaur said her interviews are usually approximately an hour in duration, and she edits around details or stories that individuals are uncomfortable sharing publicly. She usually starts with general questions.

“The major events of their own life and go in chronological order so I have the dates and a gist of where all they’ve lived, but beyond that I usually ask about how world events have affected them,” Gochenaur said.

For the older folks Gochenaur talked to, this means asking about events like World War II, filtered through the lens of an interviewee’s local experience. Other times, an interview will take a more personal tilt.

“We talk about their marriages often, their divorces, things that have personal effect. Even if it’s not necessary a historical effect, it’s still like a human interest story,” Gochenaur said. “So I try and make a balance between personal and historical because I think that’s the goal of the project — that it, you know, balances those two equally.”

Since being hired in February, and starting to record in March, Gochenaur said she’s been interviewing approximately three individuals a week.

Gochenaur said while she doesn’t have formal training as a historian, studying liberal arts with a concentration in the classics at St. John’s College, her studies were relevant to her job.

“I really value stories,” Gochenaur said. “A lot of the foundation of ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ — that’s all oral history that’s been passed down. This is how people have recorded the history of their civilizations for thousands of years.”

Historic Saranac Lake is currently finishing up construction on its Cure Porch on Wheels — a 16-foot mobile exhibition and education space that Gochenaur said will play a major role in the project’s future.

She said that the project’s focus includes more than two dozen hamlets in the surrounding area, places that would be hard to reach and locate individuals on her own.

“They (hamlets) all have their own history, often founded by one family, and much of the descendants of that family still live there,” Gochenaur said. “So I’ll be taking the cure porch on wheels and head there, have a day where I do interviews specifically about that hamlet.”

In the future, Gochenaur said she’d like to cut back to personally doing one interview per week while transitioning her focus to guided interviews.

“Interviews tend to be done better when they’re done by friends or family members,” Gochenaur said. “People are more comfortable talking to somebody they know.”

She said she plans to be present but only to record and guide the conversation toward details such as dates and places, while the individuals feel comfortable sharing their unabashed histories.

“People will tell me ‘you should talk to so-and-so, they have so many stories’ … I’ll research the person, and I’ll do what I can,” Gochenaur said. “But many of the stories they won’t tell me because they’re not prompted to and they don’t feel comfortable just spontaneously sharing.”

While wanting to interview anyone from the region with a story, Gochenaur said she has twin focuses right now: The first is any story about the Temming Art Studio and art or craft spaces established by tuberculosis patients or their children.

“Another is associations with the Trudeau building,” Gochenaur said of Trudeau house and office. “If people have stories about going to the Trudeau building, I’m trying to compile like a little collection about stories specifically about that building.”

To listen to local stories, set up a potential interview or suggest someone to Gochenaur that has a story to tell, visit http://www.hslstories.org/get-involved.html.