By Don Driese
Although Edgar Hastings probably never has given it a thought, he has a lot in common with those old Assyrians who painstakingly punched out a chicken-tract pattern of cuneiform characters on clay tablets to record the history of their people. Onetime San Diego County Supervisor Hastings hasn’t gone into the clay tablet business, but he is recording history…and recording it in a unique 20th century manner.
Ed Hastings, who is a staff member of the San Diego History Center and a past president of the organization, is engaged in one of the most unusual historical research projects ever undertaken in San Diego County. He is recording, on magnetic tape, interviews with longtime residents of this area. These “in person” reports by many of the makers of local history are attracting the attention of historical societies and schools across the nation.
The recording project began in November, 1956, when the San Diego County Board of Supervisors provided the first in a series of annual grants to the San Diego History Center. The grants were designed to enable the Society to increase the scope of its services to schools throughout the county and, at the same time, to begin the important historical recording project.
The idea of recording interviews with pioneer settlers didn’t originate in San Diego. It first was attempted by the University of New Mexico shortly after the end of World War II. Serra Museum Director Jerry MacMullen saw in the recording idea an efficient way to capture the historically important recollections of the fast-disappearing group of San Diego County pioneers.
In the fall of 1956, the Historical Society, purchased a portable, battery-powered tape recorder and hired Edgar Hastings to conduct the historical interview program.
Because the idea was a relatively new one, interviewing, recording, and transcribing techniques had to be developed through a trial and error process.
Obviously, if the newly-gathered material was to be readily available to students and researchers, information would have to be transcribed from the recording tape. Here the Society ran into its first major problem. Mr. Hastings attempted to transcribe the first historical interview in longhand…and the process of transcribing one interview took an entire day. Transcribing by typewriter directly from the tape was attempted and also was found to be inefficient. Even a skilled typist was unable to start and stop the relatively complex tape recording machine easily enough-to make direct transcription a simple chore.
Through the help of Howard Hoffman, a member of the San Diego History Center and a specialist in dictating equipment, the Society acquired Dictaphone transcribing and play-back units. It was discovered that transferring recorded interviews from magnetic tape to Dictaphone records provided typists with easy-to-transcribe material.
Re-recording the interviews on plastic Dictaphone records had still another benefit. These records were found to be easier and less expensive to store than the reels of magnetic tape.
While the fidelity of these plastic records is not the equal of magnetic tape, the records will, nevertheless, provide students in years to come with a chance to hear the actual voices of San Diego County’s early settlers.
Once the transcribing techniques were perfected, the historical recording project got into high gear. Skilled typists were employed on a part-time basis to transcribe the valuable historical interviews.
Today, after more than two years of operation (and well over 200 interviews), the historical recording project is characterized by the speed and efficiency with which interviews are gathered, checked, and incorporated into the historical reference material on early days in San Diego County.
During his two years’ work on the project, Edgar Hastings has developed an efficient interviewing technique through which he is able to gather personal background on longtime residents, as well as answers to specific questions about local history. About two hours are devoted to an average interview and out of this comes about an hour and a half of tape-recorded material. After transcribing and editing, the average interview totals about 5,000 words.
In transcribing, index headings are typed in the left margin opposite points of particular interest. These index headings, together with the name of the person interviewed, are typed on file cards and are incorporated in the master reference file of the Junipero Serra Museum.
Each person interviewed receives a copy of the transcribed interview. Oftentimes, through reading these transcriptions of their interviews, pioneer residents are able to recall additional items of historical interest.
Before the historical recording project was six months old, its value became clear. Through the actual remarks of people who participated in early-day events in county history, data was gathered which positively established the location of churches, schools, ranches, roads, and homes that long ago disappeared. Dates of various important events were pinpointed accurately through cross-checking interviews and, in addition, a wealth of personal background data on early residents was acquired for the biographical files of the Historical Society and the Serra Museum.
In commenting upon the worth of the recording program, Museum Director Jerry MacMullen declared, “It’s clear that this is one of the finest possible ways to gather historical information. Had this project been in operation as recently as the immediate prewar period, we would have had important data from the many pioneers who have since passed away. What’s more, if the recording project had been going in the 1880’s, we would have reference material a hundred times more complete than we have today.
“Actually, we have only begun to realize the benefits of this historical recording project. As time goes on, students and researchers will become increasingly appreciative of the far-sightedness of our County Supervisors is enabling us to secure these valuable interviews with our local pioneers.”
Citing some of the “fringe benefit” results of the project, Serra Museum Curator James Mills pointed out that as the result of Mr. Hastings’ interviews, many pioneer residents of San Diego County have learneTof the work of the San Diego History Center and have contributed photographs, documents, books, and other items of historic interest for display in the Presidio Park museum.
Although he is carried on the payroll of the Historical Society as a part-time employee, Edgar Hastings is devoting the greater part of his time to the interview program. Through his wealth of contact throughout the county, he is building a valuable backlog of persons to interview. However, in spite of Mr. Hastings’ enthusiasm and hard work, he’s made one serious mistake and failed completely to interview one of the most interesting, most colorful oldtimers in San Diego County…Edgar F. Hastings.
In his early 70’s, Ed Hastings was born in Los Angeles and came to San Diego in 1895. He made his permanent home here in 1900. Long active in civic affairs, Mr. Hastings was elected to the San Diego Board of Education in 1923. He was elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in 1928 and served on the Board until 1937.
To Edgar Hastings and the members of the Serra Museum staff, the members of the San Diego History Center owe a vote of thanks for the hundreds of hours of work that have gone into organizing and conducting the Society’s wonderfully successful historical interview project.