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Students and faculty from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh will see the fruits of their labor when a large traveling exhibit on Wisconsin farms, history and place takes residence at Polk Library on the Oshkosh campus.

The Lands We Share exhibit debuts at Oshkosh Public Library Oct. 10 through Oct. 19, before moving to the UW Oshkosh Polk Library Oct. 23 through Nov. 1.

“What’s distinctive about it, is the community engagement,” said Stephen Kercher, professor and history department chair at UW Oshkosh. “One overarching theme—and what we eventually focused on in Allenville (an unincorporated farming community in Winnebago County) —is how do farmers sustain community?”

Kercher said the project came to life after UW-Whitewater Professor James Levy contacted him in 2012 with the idea of creating a statewide oral history project centered on the history of farming in Wisconsin.

Allen family, circa 1944

UW collaborative effort

The Lands We Share tour is an initiative of the Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project, a rare collaboration of four UW campuses (Oshkosh, Madison, Milwaukee and Whitewater) that focuses on the intersection of farming, land, race and ethnicity in Wisconsin. Six diverse farm sites around Wisconsin are featured in an interactive traveling exhibit intended to spark public dialogue and community engagement.

Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project has involved the direct participation of more than 300 students and 25 faculty and staff members throughout the UW System. More than 300 oral history interviews have been collected—some from people who have since passed away—and the initiative has been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio and in local newspapers. It has garnered funding, recognition and support from UW campus partners in order to support research, student participation and equipment needs.

Connecting with communities

A UW Oshkosh student who worked on writing abstracts for oral histories of area farmers said she will remember the farmers’ deep connection to the land.

“Every farmer that we have spoken with, interviewed and involved in this project has a different reason for farming, but they all share a complex understanding of the importance of land in human life, what the land can yield and what can happen when people lose their connection to the land,” Jennifer Depew said. “I grew up in the city and although I do feel a connection to the places that I live, this deep connection was initially foreign to me. Speaking with these farmers has challenged me to think differently about my life, where I live, the food that I consume and how I relate to others.”

Depew, an Appleton native who will graduate in December with degrees in history and political science, has plans of attending graduate school and ultimately becoming a history professor.

Madeline Hass, a third-year senior from Neenah who is triple majoring in history, philosophy and German, worked as a research assistant over several years.

“One thing I’m sure I’ll carry with me is a deeper understanding of the reality that all of our food is grown,” Hass said, adding that she also will carry a greater respect for how quickly the world has changed over the past century. “Less than 100 years ago, over 50 percent of the U.S. population was farmers, whereas now that number is less than 1 percent.”

Marina Hereford was the UW Oshkosh student who captured an oral interview of John Allen for Kercher’s Quest III general education course several years ago. Allen, a patriarch of his family and Allenville, died in 2017, at the age of 92.

“I interviewed John Allen as well as his son who currently runs the farm. I remember John’s passion for the topic of farming and how much it meant to him,” she said. “He talked almost until my recorder died. He loved telling me about the history of farming and his farm. I learned how close-knit the people in small farming communities are.”

Hereford, who graduated in January 2018 with a degree in secondary education, is a teacher in the Oshkosh Area School District.

Kercher said that initially no one knew what would become of the oral histories collected over multiple years.

“This is an example of what we could do,” he said.

Showcased locally

The Lands We Share opened at the Oshkosh Public Library on Oct. 10 and will run through Oct. 19.

On Oct. 17, a community dinner and conversation will take place at the Allenville Grange Hall near Winneconne. The unincorporated community of Allenville was named for Timothy Allen, a farmer and the son of one of the area’s original settlers. Many Allen family members are alumni of UW Oshkosh, and many still live in Allenville today.

The Lands We Share exhibit will reside at Polk Library on the UW Oshkosh campus from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1.

The tour around Wisconsin continues until April 2019, after stops at the Oneida Reservation, rural Jefferson County and in Milwaukee and Madison.

“The goal of the initiative is to bring people and groups from diverse backgrounds together who are often separated despite living and working in the same towns or regions,” Kercher said.

The focus on the Allenville portion of Lands We Share, he said, is to engage the story of how generations of people who have farmed and lived upon the land surrounding Allenville have built and sustained a community.

Depew, the UWO student who spent countless hours on the project, said she is very excited for the exhibit to come to Oshkosh and the campus.

“I cannot wait to show my friends and family what I have been doing all these months—I think some of them don’t believe me that I’m working on an actual exhibit!”

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