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Students help energy cooperative create award-winning book

July 31, 2013
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"Celebrating 75 Years," is an award -winning written history of the Eau Claire Energy Cooperative in celebration of its 75th anniversary. The book was researched and written by UW-Eau Claire students in Dr. John Mann's public history seminar class.

EAU CLAIRE — A team of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students recently collaborated with the Eau Claire Energy Cooperative to create an award-winning written history of the cooperative in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

The book, titled "Celebrating 75 Years," received national recognition in the 2013 Spotlight on Excellence awards program, sponsored by the Council of Rural Electric Communicators and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, by winning a top Award of Excellence in the Best Special Publication category.

"The students conducted archival research and undertook an oral history project in order to write an administrative history of the ECEC as it prepared to celebrate its anniversary," said Dr. John Mann, who teaches the public history seminar class that took on the project. "In advance of the seminar, one student completed an internship with the cooperative, organizing its archives, searching for secondary sources and identifying likely themes for seminar students to research. Each student then wrote a chapter of the history, which was organized thematically as opposed to chronologically. The students also conducted the oral history aspects of the project."

In addition, students created panel exhibits for the organization to use during its anniversary celebration and Power Point presentations highlighting the book's chapters for a formal presentation to the organization at the end of the spring 2013 semester, Mann said.

Heidi Heideman, who in May earned a master's degree in history and a graduate certificate in public history from UW-Eau Claire, conducted oral history interviews, compiled photos, wrote the chapter focused on ECEC's first 10 years, helped develop two posters that gave an overview of the project and edited a section of the project before it was sent to the ECEC for final editing.

"Through this project with the ECEC, I was able to develop my skills in conducting oral history interviews and writing histories for businesses and other agencies," Heideman said. "Dr. Mann is a great mentor. He gives clear expectations and high standards for his students. As a result, my fellow classmates and I developed a great deal of professionalism and produced quality work."

Heideman said she plans to pursue a career with a historic site or museum and feels the experience working on the ECEC project has helped prepare her for either opportunity.

"The public history program at UW-Eau Claire provided me with a number of hands-on practical experiences," Heideman said. "Through these experiences, I was able to develop and hone the skills museums, historical sites and other agencies are searching for in their newly hired historians. I feel my experiences in the program have set me above other potential candidates for positions in the field."

Matt Carter, who received a master's degree in public history from UW-Eau Claire in 2012, focused his research for the ECEC project on the cooperative's community involvement. He also conducted two oral history interviews, one with a former employee and the other with a business that is serviced by the ECEC.


"The most interesting part of the project was getting to know the history of the organization and the people who worked there in the past and work there now," Carter said. "Every person we talked to had a vested interest in the organization and it was very apparent that they all took pride in it as well.

"The most challenging part of working on the community involvement section was having to limit what I wrote about. There are so many great community outreach programs that ECEC participates in, it was impossible to discuss them all within the amount of space we were allotted."

Carter said he enjoyed working with Mann on the ECEC project and gained first hand experience using all of the skills he learned as a student in the UW-Eau Claire public history program.

"Dr. Mann really understood that the project was supposed to be completed by the students, but he didn't let you forget that it also was a reflection of the university and the history department," Carter said. "For all of those reasons, he made himself available regularly to answer any questions that we had and helped guide us through the project. To this day I continue to use many of the skills I gained in the seminar class and the history department in general."

Carter currently works as the executive director for the Dunn County Historical Society — a position he said he wouldn't have if it weren't for the UW-Eau Claire public history program.

"This experience gave me the confidence to take what I learned in the classroom and apply it to what I do every day in the museum field," Carter said. "It was the first time I had worked with an outside organization to produce something of historical significance for the public, and that's what I do everyday as a museum professional."

The public history seminar class always involves a community partner, Mann said.

"The idea is for students to gain some actual practical experience in one, or some, of the career fields that fall under the umbrella of public history, such as museums, archives, historic preservation and site interpretation," Mann said. "In my experience, having the students be accountable to someone other than the professor, with an outcome where more than a grade is at stake, brings out the best in them and their work."

Mann said that in the past finding community partners for the seminar class was challenging, "But as time has passed and word has spread, organizations now approach us, which is what happened with the ECEC."

Mary Kay Brevig, manager of ECEC communications and public relations, said the organization had heard good things about the public history program at UW-Eau Claire and thought this could be a successful project for the students as well as the cooperative.

"We hoped this book would give the students a real-life experience in historical research and writing," Brevig said. "I thoroughly enjoyed working with them and appreciated their creative ideas. The students were attentive in setting up interview appointments with both current and retired board members and employees. I was inspired by their creative writing and the way they conducted themselves in our office.

"The final book is impressive and I would be honored to work with Dr. Mann and his classes again. His leadership led to a quality book highlighting important milestones in the history of the ECEC, telling the story of how electricity improved the lives of rural families when 'the lights came on.'"

For more information, contact Dr. John Mann, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of history, at 715-836-5850 or mannjw@uwec.edu.

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