The Importance of Oral Histories in Genealogy and Family History: give grandma a call
One of the most enjoyable and important aspects of family history is collecting stories from family members. For many, these stories are what initially interested us in family history. Genealogies tend to focus on names and dates, but oral traditions add flesh to the skeleton. Parts of the stories can be verified or disproved with thorough research. Even the unconfirmed aspects can still make awesome writing.
I have heard a few genealogists use the quotation: “Every time an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” In other words, there is a vast amount of unique and important information in each old person (and even young ones). For example, my wife’s grandmother will be 94 years old this year and has been in the same community her entire life. She can recall people and events that possibly no other living person can. We should get everything we can from these sources.
Of course, the actual interviewing is not always easy. I suggest doing your homework first, and if possible, give the person some time to prepare for your conversation. Still, some of the best recollections come in casual, impromptu chatting. Sometimes a natural, unforced conversation is more productive. Try to guide the discussion without leading it too much. Or just shut up and listen. The key is not being afraid to ask questions. Write letters. Ask for pictures. Call distant relatives. E-mail other researchers. You’ll never find this stuff is you do not seek it.
When my grandmother was young, her grandmother (my great-great grandmother pictured below) told her a story about her own grandfather (my 4x great pictured below). Since my grandmother shared this story with me last year, the story has now spanned seven generations in only two conversations. James Goodloe Woods (1823-1895) was a Primitive Baptist minister who practiced and preached abstinence from alcohol consumption. When Elder Woods became very ill, he was forced to consume alcohol to medicate his pain (the story does not mention it, but they actually lived near the Jack Daniels Distillery). Rather than live in hypocrisy or alter his beliefs, Elder Woods resigned from the ministry until he recovered from the illness (at which time I assume he traded the bottle back in for a Bible). I doubt any historical record exists that could have provided these details. This interesting, amusing, and revealing story survives today because people listened to their grandmothers.