Eichstadt, who proudly states his age as “97 and a half” lives at Bella Vista in Oshkosh, the former east-side hospital converted into an assisted-living community. He spent his life as farmer on the edge of town, he said.
Eichstadt was recently connected with a trio of students from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh to share the memories and stories of his life as part of the Wisconsin Farm Oral History Project. Department of History Professor Stephen Kercher and environmental studies lecturer Todd Dresser are co-directors of the project at UW Oshkosh, which is part of a University Studies Program (USP) Quest III class.
“They were looking for an old timer like me that knew about Oshkosh from years ago,” said Eichstadt. “I’ve been here for 70 years and I guess I know quite a bit about Oshkosh.”
Eichstadt said he moved to Oshkosh with his late wife the day after they got married. At that time, the Eichstadts bought a farm “right on the city limits of Oshkosh,” which eventually sold and led him to countless other business ventures.
“I’m about the oldest farmer around here now,” Eichstadt said. “The history about it all is now being forgotten.”
Capturing the history—the stories from “old timer” farmers, as Eichstadt puts it—is exactly why he answered a call from UW Oshkosh’s USP to be a part of the project and talk with students. USP Quest III classes are designed to get students outside of the classroom and into their communities; through the classes, students are civically engaged with community partners and opportunities through real-world opportunities and challenges. The experiential learning is intended to motivate students and help them become more engaged with their communities.
On a recent cold and snowy day, Morgan Fritz, Samantha Gosewehr and Annamarie Zuzick, all sophomores studying nursing, made their way to Bella Vista to meet with Eichstadt. Through a formal process, the three UW Oshkosh students interviewed Eichstadt about his life—with the goal of capturing the history of his farming experience, as well as other stories and memories from his long life.
“Before the actual interview, I wasn’t too excited to have to do it,” said Fritz, honestly. “But once I completed the interviews, I began to realize how important this assignment actually is. Interviewing Harold made me realize that it is truly important to hear what he has to say. When you realize why hearing other people’s histories are so important, you being to enjoy the experience more and think of it as more than just an assignment.”
Kercher said emails he has been fielding from students concluding their interview-collection projects have been encouraging. Many students “have been expressing enthusiasm” over the learning experience.
“The response was that they are enjoying it more than they anticipated they would,” Kercher said. “I don’t think they really could have expected what type of stories they would hear and what type of empathy they developed toward farmers—people who are engaged in work that very few of them have any direct relation to.”
“The class forced us to dig a lot deeper. Documenting history is important to both education and history,” Fritz said.
“I think it’s so important to document this history so people don’t forget what life once was,” she said. “I think this is a really cool way to learn because it allows you to get a first-hand experience answer rather than information just from your professor. Asking questions is a great way to learn about history.”
Zuzick said she walked away from the experience with a great amount of respect for Eichstadt. Other students in Kercher’s class had similar experiences after meeting the farmers they were connect with through the project.
“I did my first interview today and I was at the farmers house for about two hours. It was so interesting. He took me on the gator to tour the farm, let me ride in his huge combine and everything. These interviews are a lot easier and more interesting once you actually start them,” one UW Oshkosh student said.
Another student said: “It went really well! I got to go for a ride on the tractor while he put hay on his strawberries. I’m sure you’ll hear it all in my interview, but he’s an interesting guy!”
Ultimately, for Zuzick and her group, the memories of their experience will stay with them–long after the undergraduate class concludes.
“I was just so impressed with everything Harold has done throughout his life. I had so much respect for him because he has done so much,” she said. “He was so happy to talk with us and we probably could have stayed and talked all night about random stuff with him. He lived a very full life and has so much love for everything he did and has accomplished. I am glad I was able to experience the interview and meet Harold.”
- Additional farmers from the area are still needed to contribute to the Wisconsin Farm Oral History Project; interviews will take place during the fall 2015 semester. For more information or to volunteer to participate, please contact Kercher at (920) 424-7158 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- As the first semester of Quest III classes at UW Oshkosh come to a conclusion, students, instructors, community partners and alumni mentors will demonstrate their learning with film, art exhibits, performances, papers, speeches, posters and more. A Quest III Showcase will be held at Reeve Memorial Union Dec. 5 from 4 until 8 p.m.