If you take the time to walk up Woodland Avenue, you’ll pass by many old places: suburban houses and churches, gas stations and convenience stores, fields and school grounds. At first glance, it doesn't seem to be all that interesting, but what if you were to look deeper into the neighborhood and its history? That’s exactly what one Woodland resident has done. And now she can’t get enough of it.
“Sometimes I like to just walk down the street and imagine what life used to be like here,” Diane Oesterreich said.
After being inspired by a local community celebration in 1985, Oesterreich, now 66, set out to learn as much as she could about the neighborhood she calls home.
After three years, she compiled an extensive collection of interview transcripts and photographs from old Woodland residents. They serve as stories from a simpler time, back when Woodland was just starting to sprout its wings. Some of the testimonies she has gotten go all the way back to the 1890s and, in this day and age, are priceless.
Oesterreich has lived in the Woodland community all her life. The neighborhood’s quaint charm keeps her company. As a mother and a Catholic, faith is important to her. The walls of her house are lined with old photographs, a homage to her interest in the past. She makes do, just like the people she’s so passionate about did so long ago.
Introverts everywhere must marvel at her audacity. She spent three years of her life meeting new people, taking the time to talk with them and listening to their stories. In all, she has interviewed 35 people, most of who are now deceased.
“Sometimes I would just get big group of people together, sit down with a tape recorder and listen to their conversations,” Oesterreich said. “You really get a feel for the area by doing that.”
The portfolio she’s built up is almost as thick as her skin. The weight of the pages pulls the book off of her lap as she flips through them.
Fixated on the documents in front of her, Oesterreich retold some of her favorite stories from Woodland’s olden days.
First, she recalled the memories of Emma Claypool Hartley, who told her about the tree house in a 100-foot-tall tree she had in her backyard in the early 1900s.
Then, the story of a man who fell down a well as a child in the middle of a 20-below winter’s day and lived to tell the tale.
Many of the stories Oesterreich has are quite intense.
“While I was interviewing some people, tears would roll down their cheeks just from the memories,” Osterreich said.
According to Oesterreich, there was an explosion at a fireworks factory in the 1920s so large that it shattered windows and knocked the nearby gas station two feet off of its foundation. She talked with a woman whose brother was in the building at the time.
The Ku Klux Klan also caused an explosion in Woodland, but this time, it was of public outrage. As they were rallying around Hartley Field, Oesterreich said, a group of young boys scared them off by setting off gunny-sacks on the end of sticks. The Klan never came back.
“It’s all very interesting,” Oesterreich said, putting her book down. “I could go on all day.”
Despite public interest, her collection has yet to be published. And, until she can get permission from all of the families she was involved with, it won’t be. So until then, it will sit with her and serve as a reminder of times passed.
Oesterreich is now working on a series of fiction-novels based off of an old passenger ship, called the Steamer America, which sank into Lake Superior in 1928. The six-part series tells a semi-historical story about life on the vessel leading up to its demise.
“I like history,” Osterreich said. “But I wouldn’t consider myself a historian. I’m only interested in the fun things.”
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