Dennis Casebier is an expert at oral histories
Story by STUART KELLOGG
Photo by LARA HARTLEY
Victor Valley Daily Press
Dennis Casebier, executive director of the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association (MDHCA), has interviewed 200 people who once lived in Lanfair Valley.
Starting in 1910, the well-watered valley north of Goffs enjoyed a homesteading boom.
But as will happen, bust followed.
“Of 400 homesteads,” Casebier says, “fewer than 200 ‘proved up.’ The people I interview now have all left Lanfair Valley.
“I do oral history in an empty land.”
On April 26, he met with members of the Mohahve Historical Society and students of Leo Lyman, professor of history at Victor Valley College, to discuss what Casebier has learned about collecting oral histories (“an art form, not a science”).
Much of what Casebier shared has as much to do with courtesy as with research technique.
“Oral histories take a lot of time,” Casebier said, “so don’t scrimp on equipment. I use a Bell & Howell recorder and standard-size 90-minute cassettes. A 60-minute tape is too short, a 120-minute tape too thin.”
Remarking that Nikon makes a lens especially for photographing photographs, Casebier urged the amateur historians to have their pictures of documents developed at a top-of-the-line photo lab.
Because every interview subject leads to somebody else, Casebier maintains a computerized list of old-timers’ names, addresses and phone numbers. Every now and then, he prints it out and puts the most recent version in his car.
“And I always carry a tape-recorder,” he said. “Who knows, I may have to go to jail tonight, and there I’ll meet an old-timer on my list.”
To assure a potential interview subject that he and the MDHCA are professional, Casebier may put an old-timer on the organization’s newsletter mailing-list.
“Hopefully,” he said, “when I do call, they’ll have been waiting to hear from me.
“But I never send a potential subject a copy of one of my books (e.g., Casebier’s “Guide to the Mojave Road”). If I did, they’d tell me what’s already in the book.
“But after our interview, I may give them a book.”
Knowledge of the topic
Although each subject contributes something of value, Casebier said, “You need to know more about the topic than any one person you interview.”
Citing a subject who remarked, “My grandfather lived in Blake, not Goffs,” Casebier said, “In fact, Blake and Goffs are the same place. Briefly changed to Blake, the name was later changed back to Goffs.”
Potential for intimidation
No matter how much you know, Casebier said, never correct the subject, for that will surely turn them off: “And don’t flaunt your own knowledge of a topic.”
“Shut up and listen”
In line with the above, Casebier said, if an older person gets a blank look, don’t prompt them: “They are thinking, so let them think. It takes time to remember events of 60 years ago.”
Rather than disturb the flow of recollection, write down questions as these occur to you, and ask them later.
“Make sure to tell the person why you are writing notes,” Casebier said. “As it is, most of your questions will have been answered by the time a person stops talking.”
He also warned interviewers to watch for signs of fatigue, “for if the subject is tired, they won’t give their top performance. Suggest a break for a few hours or, if possible, come back the next day.”
If a subject goes off about an old hurt (ranting, for example, against the government or a family member), he permits it — for a while. Then he steers them back to the topic at hand.
In an exception to his “Maintain control” rule, Casebier lets veterans tell their war stories even if these have nothing to do with Lanfair Valley. “I try to get what I need first,” he said, “but they deserve it.
“For veterans of World War II, I always ask, ‘Where were you when the war ended?’ and ‘What do you think of the atom bomb?’
“A guy who’d fought at the Battle of the Bulge was on a troop ship, heading from Le Havre to the Pacific, when he got word of Hiroshima. ‘I’d been good as dead,’ he said. ‘Now I wasn’t.’ ”
Casebier added: “Always ask a vet what unit he served in. This will help historians who come after you.”
One person at a time
Dismissing family reunions as “having no value except as a chance to add to your old-timer list,” Casebier stressed the importance of not allowing other people to interrupt a subject: “Be willing to say to an adult child, ‘I’d like your mother to answer this.’ ”
But having interviewed two people separately, it can pay to talk with them together.
This is what Casebier did with a man and a woman who’d gone to school together in 1914 and hadn’t met since:
“By interviewing them separately, and then together, I got so much more than I could have gotten from either one alone.”
Raise the comfort index
“Most of my people are elderly, simple folk,” Casebier said, “and so I start with easy questions: What is your full name? Any middle name? Your date of birth and where? Who were your parents (you may get a story out of that)?
“Maybe I’m chicken, but if there is a touchy issue, I put it off. For example, if I already know that the subject’s grandfather made moonshine.
“Once I was scheduled to interview the only man to spend time in San Quentin for cattle rustling. When I rang the bell, an elderly man with an oxygen tank opened the door.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ But he brought up San Quentin right away.”
Back home from an interview, Casebier promptly duplicates the tapes.
“Never transcribe from original tapes,” he cautioned. “Instead, transcribe from duplicates. You can also mail dupes to a volunteer transcriber who may not be the best interviewer but is a much better typist than you.”
According to Casebier’s wife, Jo Ann, “All transcription is verbatim. No language or factual errors are corrected.”
Remarking that he prides himself on capturing candor, Dennis Casebier said, “There was once a lot of prostitution in Searchlight (Nev.).
“When I mentioned this to one woman, she said, ‘Go down the street and talk with so-and-so. She was a whore.’ ”
Which may be why it’s Casebier’s policy not to enter a history in the MDHCA data base as long as the subject is alive — without their express permission.
Photographs and documents
To preserve homestead papers, postcards and other ephemera, Casebier brings a photocopier to each interview.
He also solicits photos: best of all as gifts to the MDHCA, next best as loans. Barring that, he photographs pictures on site.
In any event, Casebier said, “I organize the photos in the order that they’ll be copied — and ask the person to talk about each one. I also photograph what’s written on the back.
“The best interview subjects are teachers. They’ve spent their whole lives talking, appreciate what we are doing, and understood the need for caption material.
“I believe the caption is 50 percent of a photograph’s value.”
Just as he duplicates tapes, Casebier copies every image twice and in the same sequence. “That way,” he said, “I’ve got a backup set in case one batch of negatives is lost at the photo lab.” He added that “a scanned digital-image is no substitute for a continuous-time print from a negative.”
Leads for other interviews
An important part of any oral history is developing leads to other subjects. To make it easy for people to contact him, Casebier leaves cards with everyone he speaks to.
“Another way to get leads,” he said, “is to print an old photo and caption in the newspaper. This is sure to provoke calls from people eager to tell you the truth of the matter!”
Established in 1883 as a siding for the Southern Pacific Railway, Goffs grew in importance when, in 1907, a short-line railroad connected it to the rich mines at Searchlight.
By 1911 there were enough children living in Goffs (the sons and daughters of railway employees) to require a school: at first a rented, frame structure; later a handsome Mission-style building.
The school served a total of 412 students before closing down in 1937, obviated by a new school in Essex.
The old Goffs schoolhouse is now the centerpiece of the 113-acre Goffs Historic Cultural Center (founded by Casebier and his wife, Jo Ann, in 1989) and headquarters for the nonprofit Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association.
“The other day,” Casebier said, “we were having a board meeting, and an elderly lady appeared in the door of the schoolhouse. When I asked, ‘May I help you?’ she said, ‘I’m part of the puzzle.’ “She was one of the 412 students.”
Of their shared passion for oral history, Casebier told his audience: “My only regret is that I didn’t start earlier. It’s taught me how to listen and how to appreciate the elderly.”