By KAREN PARKER | County Line Publisher

I was rummaging around last week for information on the now-gone Ontario dam and thought to look at an old copy of the Kickapoo Pearls. If you are too young or too new to the area or have a lapse in memory, four editions of the Kickapoo Pearls were published in 1979 and sold for a measly one dollar at stores around the area.

I recall awaiting each new edition with bated breath. When I was a young mom stuck at home, the Kickapoo Pearls offered endless insight into the area that had become our adopted home. Unlike larger communities, which have no shortage of amateur historians to document the past, the Kickapoo Valley is woefully short on written history. The Kickapoo Pearls sought to remedy that shortcoming by collecting and publishing the memories of senior citizens of the time.

The Kickapoo Pearls was just one part of a larger series of projects, all of them funded with federal money. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was a 1973 law that was used by the Carter Administration to bring federal money into the local communities and create jobs.

It was an idea that harkened back to the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Since then, of course, we have learned that the best solution for hard times is to pour more money into bankers’ pockets.

Many of the dozen or so young people employed on the project were what we would now characterize as hippies and flower children and were part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. Yeah, I suppose that I fit in that category, too, to some degree.

Most were not trained historians, although the majority had college degrees. One might expect that the project would reflect the radical campus journalism of the time, but the writers seemed to have an understanding that their work was designed for the ages, so they avoided interjecting their own political views for the most part.

At the time, I absorbed like a sponge every edition hot off the press. Looking at it now, I see a terribly flawed document.

Much of that can be blamed on the technology of the time. The four editions were printed on newsprint, never the most durable or readable after a short time. Scanners were not in use, and apparently the photomultiplier process turned the photos to mud. Computers for typesetting also were not yet in common use; consequently, the authors did not have access to spell check. Pages had to be pasted up without the tidy process that is now all done by computer.

The papers are riddled with typographical errors, crooked lines of type and enough goofy design to drive a professional nuts. Little evidence is ever given for statements made by old-timers who may or may not recall the past accurately.

Not long ago, the Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve took on the job of reprinting the Kickapoo Pearls. That was no small task, but the end product came out nicely and will add to the dwindling inventory of the original publication.

What the Kickapoo Pearls did do well was capture a little bit of history of nearly every town in the valley. Memories of lumbering, farming, rural electrification, ginseng hunting, traditional medicine, home-grown music, and many other topics were explored and shared by folks who had lived through the times. I can imagine that most of them must have been surprised to find a hippie on their doorstep inquiring about that “old stuff.” But they didn’t shoo them away, and because of the effort, not only do we know much more about the history of the valley, but also vintage photographs mined from basements and attics now are preserved for the record, rather than shuffled away on the auction wagon.

Looking back through the Pearls certainly is an exercise in sensing how time flies. One story on the Ontario dam includes a photo of Duane Obert and Lewie Brieske, both gone now. The two, along with Merle Hammon, recalled when the Ontario dam supplied electricity to the village. I bet that few canoeists visiting Ontario realize that once there was a dam on the Kickapoo, not to mention one that generated electricity to light the village.

Bikers zipping down the Elroy-Sparta State Trail are probably clueless that they are peddling past the site of Norwalk’s last feed mill. But, in Pearls, the late Lloyd Dreier recalled when Norwalk had three mills.

Americans have little trouble documenting the major milestones of history: the World Wars, the invention of the automobile, or the walk on the moon.

But to me, history comes alive only in the stories of ordinary people. What were their struggles, their triumphs and their failures? What did they value, what did they eat, what did they wear, what did they accomplish in the time they were here? Why did they abandon Norwalk and Wilton, Conn., and make the treacherous journey to what was then the untamed West?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a Kickapoo Pearls that tells us about those earliest pioneers. But we do have this one, and as time recedes, it is well worth a look at what is now rapidly becoming the distant past.