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Students help ECEC celebrate 75th anniversary

RELEASED: April 11, 2011

EAU CLAIRE — A team of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students is working with the Eau Claire Energy Cooperative to create a written history of the cooperative's life as it prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

"When all is said and done, the ECEC will use the student papers and other materials, like photographs, to put together a publication for its members and others," said Dr. John Mann, who teaches the Public History Degree Seminar class doing the project. "It also will have oral histories for future use."

The students will share their preliminary work with the ECEC during presentations later this week, Mann said.

In the fall, senior Joe Tierney completed an internship at ECEC to lay the groundwork for the history seminar project, Mann said. Tierney started an oral history project, which students continued this semester, he said, noting that Tierney also assessed the ECEC archives.

"In addition to conducting eight oral history interviews with members, directors and past or current employees, I gathered and located potential sources for this project," Tierney said of his internship. "I wanted to equip the students with as many tools as possible so they could easily hit the ground running as soon as the semester started."

Tierney, a public history and music major from Shawano, said completing an internship and then continuing to work on the same project as part of the seminar class has been rewarding.

"The oral history component of this project was a highlight," Tierney said. "I absolutely love talking to people, especially older people, about their lives and experiences. I find people's stories fascinating, whether they be eventful or rather ordinary, and I enjoy the challenge of crafting detailed interview questions ahead of time and improvising follow-up questions during the interview to discover as much as possible about each person. The people I interviewed were all incredibly interesting people and I greatly enjoyed talking to them and learning from them."

The oral history component also was a highlight for senior Emily Schreiner, a history and communications major from Wausau, who is in the seminar class.

"With a partner, I interviewed a line worker, who was incredibly personable and willing to share his thoughts about the history and current practices of the ECEC," Schreiner said. "Projects such as this give the public opportunities to become involved in creating a work of history, which makes sense because it's their history that we are trying to document."

Each of the 17 students in the seminar class are responsible for researching and writing about specific topics relating to ECEC's long history, Mann said.

Tierney's work has centered on the impact of electricity and rural electrification on dairy farms in the ECEC service area, and the labor and time-saving appliances and equipment in the farmhouse as well as the farm itself.

"Electric appliances and equipment vastly improved the quality of life in the farmhouse, decreased the amount of labor and time required for household chores and farm operations, and increased the efficiency of the farm and the quality and quantity of the product," Tierney said.

Schreiner's task is to write about the history of cooperatives in Wisconsin. She examined who founded the first cooperative, why the state has such a strong cooperative history and how state government assisted the development of cooperatives, she said.

"My research is focused on the connections between farm life and cooperation; farmers tended to be the main organizers of cooperative organizations in Wisconsin," said Schreiner. "I was surprised how influential and involved the government was in creating and developing cooperative organizations, especially in Wisconsin."

Other students in the class are researching the ECEC's strong safety record, changes in technology and equipment, how rural electrification impacted the farming community and changes in membership over time, Schreiner said.

The seminar class helps enhance the students' original research and writing skills, said Mann, noting that in the past students in the class have worked with the Chippewa Valley Museum, Eau Claire County, Wisconsin Humanities Council and Wisconsin Historical Society.

"Beyond the traditional goals, the idea is to engage students in projects with community partners so they are accountable to someone aside from me and the stakes are higher than a letter grade," Mann said. "In my experience this brings out the best in them, and not just in terms of the quality of their work."

The project is a win-win because it benefits students as well as the ECEC, said Lynn Thompson, president and CEO of the cooperative.

"This is an excellent opportunity because students work on a real-life public history project that enriches their university experience, and we are able to explain how the development of electricity and co-op values has benefited our members," Thompson said.

The students' energy and skills has helped make the project a success, said Mary Kay Brevig, manager of ECEC communications and public relations.

"As I have worked directly with the public history students, I welcome their enthusiasm, fresh ideas and especially their research and interview skills, which contribute greatly to the success of this project," Brevig said. "Working with them and Dr. Mann over these two semesters has been exceedingly educational for me as well."

The students were glad to put to use the research and writing skills they've learned in the classroom, they said, noting that the project has helped them better understand what it might be like to be a public historian.

"Projects like these are what actual public historians do, so it's exciting to have the opportunity to conduct research and put together a project as an undergraduate student," Schreiner said. "Practical experiences like these are important because they force students to apply classroom concepts to the real world."

Tierney said it was easy to invest time in a project knowing that people will learn from it.

"It's rewarding to know the final product won't be filed away somewhere or stashed in an online database, but that it'll be read by many people with a vested interest," Tierney said. "That my work applies directly to the people around me is incredibly rewarding. I'm contributing to something that has lasting significance. I'm not throwing together papers for a class or cramming for exams; I'm actually contributing to a project that will affect people other than myself."

Schreiner said the project has reinforced her interest in pursuing a career in public history.

"I'm focused on the museum education aspect of public history," Schreiner said. "But I've come to realize the value in facilitating public involvement in any kind of history project. I will involve the public in any project I undertake in museum education. While historians have valuable things to teach, we can also learn a lot from the public as well."

For details, contact Dr. John Mann, associate professor of history, at 715-836-5850 or mannjw@uwec.edu.

-30-

JB/DW

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