Preserving Memories

Preserving Memories

New oral histories offer a glimpse into the past.

The gift of gab offers many pleasures. It can be a pastime, a means of communication and a learning tool. For some, it can be a means of research. That’s why the city is engaged in an ongoing project to preserve the spoken word of those whose memories are important to Alexandria’s shared past.

“Oral histories are important because they capture real people’s memories about their daily lives,” said Jennifer Hembree, who coordinates the city’s effort to record and transcribe the interviews.

For more than 20 years, the Office of Historic Alexandria has operated an oral history program known as “Alexandria Legacies.” The subjects of the interviews include a wide range of different perspectives, and the program continues to grow. In the 1990s, oral histories associated with black history were recorded. More recently, transcriptions associated with Chinquapin Village and Del Ray have been added.

Recent additions to the web site include Helen Knight, Edward Galliot and Sigmund Bernheimer. Their histories bring life to the past, offering vivid memories and amusing anecdotes in a format that brings a human voice to their narrative. The stories range from simple childhood memories to comic moments with celebrities. Digging into the archive can yield some surprising and entertaining nuggets.

HELEN KNIGHT’s oral history examines a wide range of topics, including her childhood in Alexandria, summer vacations and her family’s first car. She grew up in the red-brick house at 427 South Fairfax Street, a house that her father built after he was married in 1890.

“I remember, when we were kids, you could play all day and get your clothes soiled and that’s all right. You could get as dirty as you want. But by four o’clock, you were bathed and dressed for supper. Everybody dressed for supper in those days. It was so different … You didn’t eat in the kitchen in those days … you ate in the dining room, you know. And no paper plates or anything.”

Knight also spoke about the condition of the streets in Old Town:

“All the streets in Alexandria were cobble stones except the one on Prince Street and Lee Street when I was, uh, 9 years old. Great big cobblestones. Washington Street looked like a cow pasture because the moss had grown on the cobblestones.”

And she talked about witnessing technological innovation:

“You know I remember the first electric light I ever saw. I remember the first airplane, first automobile and the first telephone — first of everything. And my father, he was a go-getter. He would have the first of everything too. I remember he had some of these cylinder records and the neighbors used to come in, like coming to a concert, to hear us play those Edison records, you know. Wish we had some of those cylinder records now. We threw away a lot of them.”

EDWARD GAILLIOT’s oral history recounts stories of the Hoover Airport, Potomac Yard, the Washington Navy Yard and his years working for a telephone company. His father also built the house that he grew up in.

“So I was born in the house, and it was called a Sears and Roebuck house by mail. Quite famous. They are all over the country. Montgomery Ward built the same kind of houses. They actually made communities, built whole communities, these Sears and Roebuck houses. They started out with barns and garages but they ended building houses. Each house is different. And all the material was delivered at the railroad station and you went down there with a flatbed truck and brought it up there. He spent the rest of his life working on that house. He finished most of it. That’s where he was most of the time, in the basement working on the house. But a Sears and Roebuck house, the cost of it was four thousand two hundred and some dollars. Prefab. Each piece of wood was numbered. Each two by four was numbered. He changed some things. Of course he was a pattern maker in the Navy Yard, so he changed the wooden porch to an all cement porch. And he added a window here and there. He had the pillars in the middle of the porch there. So it was a real big house, I thought, until I visited back here a couple years ago. It’s kind of small now, but it was big when I was a kid!”

SIGMUND BERNHEIMER’s oral history recounts a number of topics, including his family’s business, childhood memories and Alexandria’s trolleys. One of his funniest stories has to do with a certain Academy Award-winning actress.

“John Warner, the senator now, was … being taken in as the honorary member (of the Friendship Firehouse). Now he was married to Elizabeth Taylor at that time. When one of them was up on the platform there, for the dance, and I was standing down into the crowd, this voice says, “you … get off my foot!” I’d stepped on Elizabeth Taylor’s foot … That’s my one claim to fame.”