Oral history stories usually provide the reader with historic anecdotes from ordinary people who want to pass on their heritage and traditions to future generations.

Fred Ranco wanted to write an autobiography about his heritage as a Maine-born Native American of the Penobscot tribe who called himself a “modern man.” He found a writer to help him.

Ranco was born on the Penobscot Indian Reservation, near Old Town, more than 75 years ago.  He sought out Tara Marvel, a newspaper writer, when she was in Conway, N.H., writing about another Native American from the Mohawk tribe.

Ranco asked Marvel to help him write his life story.

Together, they wrote “Muskrat Stew and Other Tales of a Penobscot Life: The Life Story of Fred Ranco.” Ranco’s plainspoken storytelling combines colorful tall tales with touching personal stories. 

His experiences as a U.S. Army paratrooper in World War II and the Korean War are intermingled with tribal anecdotes describing the traditions he learned from his Native American culture.

“I consider myself a modern man” he began his story. “I am, however, proud to belong to the ancient tribe of people of which I will speak. Their beginning seems to go back to the beginning of time,” he said.

Ranco describes learning the “ways of the tribe” from his father, who told stories about the Indian Happy Hunting Ground after death where it was “never cold.” He learned how to hunt and fish for food.

Sadly, Ranco died on Feb. 3, 2008, shortly after Marvel’s book was published. He was 75 years old at the time he told his stories to Marvel which he recorded on audiotape.

“Muskrat Stew” was published by the Maine Folklife Center, at the University of Maine in Orono in 2007. Ranco lived long enough to see and hear his words put to print.

In fact, Ranco’s widow Jacqueline Ranco, of Farmington, says that just one week before her husband died, she read the book to him from beginning to end.

“It was my great privilege to be married to such a sweet man,” she said during a phone interview.  

One copy of Ranco’s audiotapes is archived at the Folk Life Center, says Marvel.

Marvel says interviewing Ranco was an interesting opportunity for both of them.  “I am inspired by the spiritual philosophy of the Native Americans, especially how they respect the natural world,” she says.

“The big thing about Fred was that he was not a big tribal chief, but he wanted to talk about his life as an ordinary man.  It’s a side of Native Americans most people don’t know,” she says.

Included in Ranco’s many folk tales are descriptive stories about the eating traditions he learned. His title “Muskrat Stew” describes some of the wild meat Ranco says his family prepared when he grew up on the Indian reservation. He explained how they ate deer, moose, maple syrup, fish, pan fried bread and muskrat.

“How can you eat the head of a muskrat?” he asked. He claimed it was the animal’s best part. His amusing account is especially funny when he describes how soft and tender the muskrat’s tongue is to eat.  But, he says, muskrat is best to eat in the spring and fall. They are in their dens during the winter so a hunter can’t get them out of their holes unless you “dig them out,” he wrote.

Ranco’s widow continues to teach about her late husband’s traditions during the classes she leads for the Senior College at the University of Maine in Farmington. Her late husband’s book is available at The Moccasin Store on Route 1 in Wells and at the Maine Historical Society bookstore in Portland.