Santa Maria Sun / Art
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 16
Voices of the pastThe Lompoc Oral History Project, after decades on the shelf, illuminates Lompoc history with the voices of people who lived it
BY JOE PAYNE
Lompoc is a valley rich with history. As the massive archives at the Lompoc Historical Society and the Lompoc Museum relate, before La Purisima Mission was even built, Chumash tribes called the beautiful location home, giving it its name, which means “lagoon” or “standing water.”
The museum and historical society, always close collaborators, are tapping into that legacy of love for the valley to present a project decades in the making. “Laying Stories Upon the Land: The Lompoc Oral History Project” is the result of hours of interviews conducted from the late ’70s into the ’90s. The subjects were elderly residents of the valley, who relate their experiences in Lompoc during the early 20th century.
“Thirteen years ago when I first started at the museum, one of the first things I did was an inventory of all the cassettes we had,” said Lisa Renken, director of the Lompoc Museum. “The project was started, but it had never been completed. It was all volunteer.”
After conducting some research, Renken realized that the archived audio cassette interviews weren’t safe sitting in the archives, because magnetic tape has a shelf life of about 15 years, she explained. Luckily Patricia Sazani, a Lompocan, returned to town with an appetite for oral history after receiving her degree in anthropology in New York.
“I became interested in Lompoc after living in a big city—the small-town experience being so different,” Sazani said. “I had this idea while I was living in New York to do an oral history project about Lompoc.”
When she returned to Lompoc and made contact with the Lompoc Historical Society and Lompoc Museum, she found that most of the work was already done for her. Sazani worked out an agreement with the groups and applied for a number of grants, met by the Santa Barbara Foundation, Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, Santa Barbara Bowl Education Outreach, and Santa Barbara Bank and Trust. They raised more funds from individual donors via the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter.com. They used the money to digitize the audiocassette collection and show the project publicly as well as make it available through the historical society.
“I am interested in how a place becomes meaningful to certain people,” Sazani said. “Two of the main ways a place becomes special is first through your own experience there, and then the stories you hear about that place. So oral history is examining people and their relationships in places and times.”
Listening to and digitizing hours and hours of interviews with 39 Lompoc residents—21 men and 19 women, all recorded by historical society and museum volunteers—gave Sazani a huge range of experience and history of the Lompoc Valley to pull from for the exhibit. Interviewees included farmers and ranchers. The exhibit, which will feature photos and bios of the sources hanging on the walls, will include an interactive tablet device, which will hold and play excerpts from each interview.
“I would love for people to be able to scroll through the entire interviews in the exhibit,” Sazani said. “Usually the first half hour of an oral history interview is pretty rough, so I cut them down into manageable, listenable stories.”
The information contained in the interviews illuminates how people actually lived in the area during the early 20th century.
“I learned a whole lot about Lompoc,” Sazani said. “I really like how important the river was in their oral histories.”
The Santa Ynez River—which was stopped up first by the Gibraltar and then the Cachuma Dam, Sazani explained—was a central part of many lives in Lompoc. Firstly, the water and moisture helped provide locals with quality farmland, the true backbone of the valley. But locals also spent plenty of time swimming and catching salmon.
“A lot of the farmers mention a lawsuit that happened when they were deciding the Gibraltar Dam, and how the farmers had a right to the water,” she said. “All those people remember that change, and when flooding was an issue.”
The river was also a plentiful source of food for many residents. One interviewee recalled his father always trying to pass off dried salmon to visitors, Sazani related.
“There were actually places in the river where there were so many salmon you could catch them with a pitchfork,” she said, “so the city passed a law against fishing with a pitchfork.”
The Oral History Project, Sazani explained, also helps shed light on the different people who were living in Lompoc, home to many immigrating families and groups.
“One of the things that amazes me was how diverse it was,” she said. “A lot of people were first generation, so you had people speaking Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, and English all in one school house together.”
Some of the stories, especially those recalling experiences during World War II, weren’t very rosy. Italian and German POWs were kept in Lompoc, where the penitentiary is now. Also, the Japanese residents were removed and interned after Roosevelt’s controversial order.
“Tony Armas, he was one of those who went to work for one of his close family friends, a Japanese man, and while he was working with him a giant bus came and took them,” she said. “It was shocking hearing people say, ‘My neighbors, they were taken.’”
Vandenberg Air Force Base didn’t yet exist at the time, but Camp Cook was where American soldiers trained for the war and Italian POWs worked in machine shops, building tank parts, Sazani explained. Italian and German POWs alike also worked in the fields.
The Lompoc Museum reserves its gallery for collaborative historical exhibits with the Lompoc Historical Society every two years. This exhibit will show through Sept. 22, but Sazani hopes to make all of the interviews available through the Lompoc Historical Society.
“To me, it’s a more intimate, engaging way to learn history,” she said. “You get the big events, but how they actually played out in people’s lives.”
Arts Editor Joe Payne can’t keep his mouth shut about oral history. Contact him at email@example.com.