The SFA had planned to create an oral history of Bowens Island before the recent fire, and that tragedy in no way deterred historian Amy Evans from tackling the project. “The fire underscored the importance of getting stories while you can.” Thus, she spent a rainy week in January — all day, every day — out at Bowens Island waiting for something to happen.
Evans contacted the restaurant’s owner Robert Barber and told him of her plans, but she says that he was “still amazed and a bit confused that I was out there for seven days.” When asked about the project, Barber expresses his utmost appreciation for the SFA’s efforts. He says that he tried to record some history when his grandparents, the founders of the restaurant, were still alive, but it was simply not as pressing.
Evans defines an oral history as, “an interview that gets stories from the subject’s mouth that are not manipulated in any way.”
“The only editorializing I do is in the bio,” she says.
She set her goal for the Bowens Island project at five to six interviews, and she walked away with six. She took these interviews in the midst of the rebuilding effort, and this is exactly what gives such power to an oral history. Evans loves to be behind the scenes with her subjects, observing “the ants in the hill.”
At Bowens Island she interviewed Jack London, a longtime employee, as he drove nails into walls. She missed going out with the oyster pickers due to the bad weather, but she spoke at length with Victor “Goat” Lafayette, who has picked oysters for the restaurant since he was a child. He told vibrant stories of Mrs. Bowen and her generosity with the children from Sol Legare who worked for her. “Whenever they would come in from picking oysters, she would stop whatever she was doing and make them a plate of food,” says Evans.
More stories came from longtime customers like Paula Byers who described Bowens as “a place for misfits.” She does not even eat oysters but remembers skinny dipping in the creek behind the restaurant. She told Evans there was always “a feeling of home and camaraderie.” Barber attempted to show Evans just such a time by inviting family and friends to the island for an oyster roast during her visit. “It was wonderful for me from a documentary point of view to see Bowens with people eating and drinking and having a good time,” says Evans. There, she met Barber’s parents who regaled her with stories from long ago when the Bowens had their first restaurant at Folly Beach. She heard of Mrs. Bowen baking pies and customers arriving just when they came out of the oven.
Evans describes fieldwork as “going out there and getting people to trust you and tell you their life stories,” and it seems obvious she accomplished that goal. “It [the oral history] tells multiple stories of Bowens Island,” she says. “It paints a picture of what was and the cusp of what will be.”
The Bowens Island Oral History will appear on the SFA website — www.southernfoodways.com — in May. It will include abridged transcripts from interviews, links to the full transcripts, audio clips, and photographs (all compiled by Amy Evans.)
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