Perspectives: A Short Film on Oral Histories

Apoorba Misra, Ilan Friedland, Maanya Goenka, Wendy Erickson, Zobeida Chaffee Valdez

We wish to gain a more complete picture of the way the Waterford Mill has functioned throughout its history in the community and how the archaeological work of ARCN 246 has contributed to understanding the site’s past. We conducted oral history interviews with local community members, our professor Alex Knodell, and our classmates to produce a short documentary.

Our interviews with community members are an important part of preserving the social and economic history of the Waterford Mill and its continued importance to the Waterford and Carleton College communities. Information from individuals involved in the archaeological excavation of the site will shed new light on the material evidence we have collected and produce a more holistic history of this area.

Methodology and Process

Waterford is a relatively small community so we quickly identified individuals who would be able to provide an interesting picture of the mill site from our previous contact with the community. Our professor, Alex Knodell, had made contact with a group of interested community members who were able to share documentary evidence of the mill site with him. We were able to contact Kenneth Grisom and Ray Ozmun through this information. Five students from the Archaeology 246 class were interviewed on the Carleton College campus, one student from each of the final project groups.

Throughout our interviews gained a general idea of the experiences of the subject by asking broad questions about the mill and archaeological work. Each of the interviews was filmed and release waivers signed for the community members. All the material we produced and themes we covered will not be a part of the final project. We edited and cut down the filmed material to produce the final video. All interviews were conducted during the month of May in 2019, with specific dates and locations mentioned in the transcriptions attached below.

Oral History Subjects

The people interviewed for this documentary occupied a few roles in the Waterford and Carleton communities. Kenneth Grisom and Ray Ozmun are both senior residents of Waterford who play active rolls in the community. Both shared their childhood memories of the mill site, particularly the swinging bridge that used to exist there, and Ray shed additional light on the present day Waterford community and its agricultural economy.

We also interviewed our professor, Alex Knodell, and our classmates in Archaeological Methods. These interviews were more focused on the academic and archaeological interest surrounding the mill site and nearby areas.

Kenneth Grisom

Kenneth, an 88 year-old resident of Northfield and former resident of Waterford township, recalled his experiences with the Waterford Mill as a recreation and community gathering spot of his childhood. The mill held a lot of industrial and commercial value for the residents of the Waterford community. It was perhaps one of the oldest milling grounds in Waterford at the time and it’s decommissioning several decades ago deprived the community of an important source of growth and economic gain.

“I read about how important it was to the people. That was a livelihood for a lot of the people that lived there around that time.”

 Kenneth gave us his own reasons for why the mill might have been disintegrated and why it stopped functioning.

“ I would guess that it had to be modern times. It was old fashioned and out of date. There were other methods of getting power and electricity and solar force came in after that. So that just got outdated.”

Kenneth believes that gradually technical and scientific innovations and the need to generate more power, more effectively and a lower cost perhaps replaced and overthrew the milling technique in Waterford. He did not see the mill in its peak when it was a fully-functioning economic site, however, he does have a faint memory of a swinging bridge at the mill. 

“There was a swinging bridge and we could walk across the swinging bridge until a few years ago, that got destroyed. But the swinging bridge was right where the mill was.”

Even after the mill lost its official purpose, Kenneth remembers it as an active part of the Waterford community. Although they have been gradually disappearing, paths still lead to the site and are used for a variety of activities around the river. Fishing near the mill site is still a common activity; students excavating the site observed fishermen standing nearby with fishing rods and ice bins. This is one continuing legacy of the mill. Photographs from early in the mill’s history show similar uses for fishing and entertainment (Figure 1). 

Finally, Kenneth also noted that he was somewhat doubtful that an archeological study of the mill site would find interesting and relevant information because of its proximity to the river. It was interesting to see this perspective of the archeological evidence. The importance placed on relatively recent and seemingly “useless” finds within our archeological study of the mill likely differs from the general community perception. 

Ray Ozmun

Ray Ozmun is a life-long resident of Waterford, and served on the township board for a six year term in the 1970s. During the interview, he told us about his childhood in Waterford and his experiences at the Mill site, which he lived near as a child in the 1940s. His fondest memories of the Mill are centered around the old swing bridge that connected the site to the main Arboretum trail-heads. 

“not too far from where the mill stood was this bridge, and you could get in the middle of that bridge and jump up and down and swing it sideways because it was flexible. So that was my experience at the time of the mill foundation, we spent a lot of time on that bridge.”

This bridge was regularly washed away by the high waters in Spring, which eventually became too much maintenance for the college to keep up. Ray also described the relationship the kids in Waterford had with the College, especially with the military students housed in the Carleton and St. Olaf barracks after World War 2.  

“Well the military people from Carleton would go out to the Arb and there was a gravel pit where they would shoot, and that’s where the college got their gravel from before they did everything blacktop. So, at least four of us would go dig those shell casings out of the gravel and go, melt them down and make lead chunks … about the size of a softball, and that was our spending money.”

Ray went on to describe Waterford’s present day agricultural economy, which has moved on from oats and wheat to corn and beans. 

“Waterford township has been kind of laid back compared to some townships because we’re half a township not a full township, and those of us who were on the board have tried to keep it agricultural land.”

The focus on agriculture over other businesses has kept Waterford a small community, which hasn’t grown at all in 50 years. Ray reflected that if the mill hadn’t been decommissioned, that Waterford might have continued to grow, but that the disappearance of wheat from Minnesota made that an impossibility. 

Alex Knodell

Alex is a professor in the Classics and Archaeology departments of Carleton College. He directed and supervised our survey project at the Waterford mill site. As one of the most important archaeological sites of Waterford, Alex had been interested in organizing an archaeological venture at the mill for a while. Unlike previous ventures at Pine Hill Village in 2017 and the Women’s League Cabin in 2015, the mill site was once part of a thriving industrial area and its use evolved over time, from an integral part of the of the flour industry in Minnesota to a place of outdoor leisure for Waterford residents. Alex described the process of uncovering and tracing changes of these types in the material record.

“..we sort of cover everything from when and for what purpose a place was built and how we can understand that aspect of it through its material remains all the way through to how people engage with it at different points in its history through things like world history and documentary records and those types of things.”

Alex wanted to use the mill as an opportunity to spread public awareness about the site in specific and the Waterford community and archaeological methods in particular. He expressed the importance of changing misconceptions about archaeological work.

“I hope that it just generates more awareness about this aspect of its history, or it generates interest in the diverse and rich past of Waterford.”

Students

Students interviewed from the class added some important contextual information about the history of the mill site. When the mill was first established, is seem as though it was a large economic draw for the community. As Jaylin and the archival history group discovered, there were extensive efforts to attract individuals to the mill and the Waterford community. This was an important result of the mill even after it ceased production. Loren summarizes:

“Even after the mills are gone, they’ve already caused people to move out here…”

Aubrey described the importance of the Mill as a larger part of a network to process flour in Minnesota and the midwest.

“It’s really interesting to see the concentration of the mills because, when you zoom out in the map, you can see that they follow the line of the Mississippi river a little bit, which has a lot of interesting ideas about shipping and how they are all water mills”

Students described some of the interesting finds from archaeological work at the site and how they relate to a broader history. Fountain pens hinted at the some of the more day-to-day detail of the mill’s operation. A chip of pottery with the distinctive Redwing style connected this site to a larger pattern of archaeological history. Nail knob insulators made by the G.F. Brunt Porcelain Company which “existed from 1895 to 1925 until it was abandoned” where another intriguing find.

“These are very small sort of circular porcelain insulators for wiring and they were likely used to cover the wires and redirect the wires of electricity inside the Waterford mill. That tells us about how the Waterford mill was built, how it was constructed and how it used electricity and just daily life.”

Claire described the thrill of using old photos to track down another part of the mill building that was hidden in the forest.

“After an hour and a half of looking we managed to dig up the foundation of a wall, and over the next few minutes, more stones and more outlines of walls and other artifacts. So that was pretty exciting to see a historical photo reinvented when we could use historical photos to recreate the landscape..”

Finally, an important theme throughout our discussions with these students was the “cultural and social importance” of the Waterford site for both the Carleton and Waterford communities. Jaylin briefly imagined how the mill must have fit into the lives of the Waterford residents. 

“It actually used to be a mill and people used to bring their flour there and people used to own it.”

Final Thoughts

We found the making of this documentary to be an enriching experience. So much of archaeology is focused on reconstructing the lives of people, or the functioning of a society, from everyday discarded objects. In our readings for this class, we learned that creating archaeological narratives made a focus on the everyday, the mundane, and the individuals who lived and went about their business in the places we study, anonymous as they often are. Oral histories, we’ve found, are valuable in much the same ways. When interviewing Kenneth and Ray, we learned about the history of Waterford, but we also learned about the lives and childhoods of the men themselves, and their relationships to the place of Waterford Mill. This focus on the individual and the personal helped us contextualize the academic work our class has been doing with regards to the mill, adding new dimensions to our project. We feel that the documentary we made serves as a reflection of the valuable “everyday” historical work archaeology can achieve in tandem with oral histories. 

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[Figure 1: Fishing next to the Waterford Mill, taken around 1900, Carleton archives]

Related Information

For a broader understanding of the the history of milling in the Waterford mill in particular and southern Minnesota in general refer to documentary timeline project. 

To see how archaeology is perceived today, to understand where the future of this field lies and to discover what roles the final projects of students in ARCN 246 can play in fostering awareness about archaeological sites in Northfield among the Carleton community refer to the public outreach project. 

Transcription Files

Links to documentary transcriptions: