Preserving the Wisdom of Our Elders

Portal, Arizona, taps the wealth of its older residents to share the history of one small place with a broader audience.

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When Portal resident Zola Stoltz talks about what she appreciates in her rural community, she says it’s the “community love, and neighbor being neighbor. Because I’m not a stranger. We all come together. Whenever there’s a problem, whenever there’s a joyous occasion. We all come together. To me, this is a beautiful life.”

Rural communities often have a treasure trove of older residents who are living repositories of both local and global history. However, as these residents pass on, there is a risk of losing those stories.

The tiny public library in Portal, Arizona, a community of fewer than 500 people, was able to tap into that wealth through a grant-funded project called “Creativity in a Box.” The goal of the project was to develop a series of “maker” focused activities and events that would allow multi-age residents to learn and create new things. After surveying the community, an oral history unit was one of the activities planned.

An initial workshop on oral histories and storytelling was sparsely attended. However, one star emerged out of the experience: Portal resident Bob Downs.

As Downs later said, “This could be my life’s work.”

With Downs’ experience as a family therapist and his family’s history in the area, capturing oral histories was a natural.

“This project allows me to use some of my skills in a project I can enjoy doing in retirement and in a way I can give something back to the community,” says Downs.

Early on in the project, Downs expressed an interest in capturing the stories on video rather than just audio as was originally planned. A quick budget shift enabled the purchase of video equipment as well as a wireless microphone system to facilitate this work. The resulting stories were posted online so anyone could share them.

This is also a story about throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. We originally had no idea of what parts of the project would take off, but tried 10 different boxed kits and 18 events to see what might take hold.

Over the course of the entire project, people from age 2 to 99 participated in activities as diverse as tie dyeing, making art, cooking, creating games, telling stories, and more. However, it may be the oral history work that endures as the most important piece of work from this project.

Local residents have been eager to be interviewed, and their family members have enjoyed hearing their stories. One family member Beth Addison said, “We are all so pleased that this bit of our history is available to us and to the Portal community. I sent it to all the family and I know they will be as tickled as I was to see Dad as ‘himself’ and hear the stories, some of which we hadn’t heard before.”

There is a long list of people still to be interviewed, and the team is committed to continuing the work, despite the fact that the grant funding has concluded.
In the future, the team plans to continue recording stories in the local area and to spread the work more broadly.

The stories captured to date can be seen at

The “Creativity in a Box” project was supported by the Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records, a division of the Secretary of State, with federal funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services

Karen Fasimpaur was project coordinator for Portal, Arizona’s “Creativity in a Box.”


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