Thursday, June 2, 2016

Silicon Valley Historical Societies, Aging Pioneers and Locked Doors

I thought it might be time to comment on some of the historical groups and associations in our region, many of whom are doing amazing work to preserve our local history and keep their doors open. Sadly, some seem to be failing in their mission to inform newer residents about our past, or to display what they own in online collections, keeping some local city histories locked up in file cabinets behind closed doors, due to an aging volunteer base, poor leadership and other chronic issues.

I make that latter comment with a compassionate caveat, since it is our choice as residents to support historical institutions and associations with our personal and corporate volunteer time, money, skills and resources, and to insure that our neighborhood's pasts and histories are preserved and displayed for future generations, online and in person. 

(Pinterest - Unknown Source)
Yet, it is also our role as residents to ask historical societies and museums for more accessibility to their records and the artifacts in their collections, when repositories seem more often closed than open to residents and visitors, especially on evenings and weekends, or when their events seem more tied to local fiction authors than presentations by historians. 

(Yes, I can hear museum executives and boards exclaiming over funding and the lack of volunteers, yet many historic associations are supported by area Rotary, Chamber and City Council members, who could more effectively seek regional support for the museums in their cities, so museum curators may focus on managing and growing their volunteers and collections, rather than constant fundraising efforts.) 

Why maintain strong museums, from a local business point of view? Strong museums draw new and continuing tourism and trade to our cities.

Historically, preserved historic regions draw greater foot traffic to local restaurants and businesses, as residents have observed on North Santa Cruz Avenue and the west end of University Avenue in downtown Los Gatos, on Big Basin Way in downtown Saratoga, on Castro Street in Mountain View, on Old Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale, in the quaint neighborhoods around the Rose Garden and the University of Santa Clara, everywhere in historic downtown Los Altos and on the west end of Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen. Typically, historic associations and museums crop up in these historic districts, often in historic buildings.

Since strong museums in historically preserved areas are profitable for cities and the local businesses which surround them, they deserve more dynamic support from local corporations, Chambers of Commerce and City Council members.

CDC: Zombie Preparedness
Don't let me scare you off, this is not going to be a plea for your money or time, since many in SV are already overwhelmed with work, kids' schedules and lack of downtime, while battling some of the worst urban traffic north of LA. 

If you can stay with me for just a bit longer, I promise this won't be painful and you might learn something interesting about your region. Will you hang in there a bit longer? Great, thanks so much.

Why preserve our history? Because it is fascinating, unexpected and varied:

1. Did you know that our area was a home for East Coast and European sea captains who retired from hauling men and goods to the 1875 Gold Rush in San Francisco, then brought their vineyard and wine making knowledge to what is now Silicon Valley? Captain Elijah Stephens ("Stevens Creek Boulevard" has his name, although misspelled) was one such English captain known for his brandies in West Side (now Cupertino.) His vineyards became part of what is now Blackberry Farm.

2. We have the oldest commercial winery in Northern California (pre-dating the loudest claimant, Buena Vista Winery. )  Old Almaden Winery still sits in a small park in San Jose. Sadly, corporate donors have not yet been found to retrofit the old brick winery structure to make it and its underground wine cave safe as a future wine history museum.
Ollivia de Havilland Wikipedia Commons

3. Did you know that Saratoga was once the childhood home of Gone with the Wind actor Olivia de Havilland, her sister, Joan Fontaine (Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion), and their mother, Lost Weekend actor, Lillian Fontaine? Both daughters won Academy Awards for their roles in the above movies and were active in local Saratoga school productions.

4) Did you know that Monte Sereno's Fred Hitt ran a fireworks factory there? (His pharmacist brother, Thomas Hitt, made fireworks in Washington State.) Both brothers were noted for producing the battle scenes, explosions and fires for All Quiet on the Western Front, the burning of Atlanta scenes in Gone with the Wind, and a re-enactment of the eruption of Mt. Lassen including lava pours, explosions and smoke, when that National Park was opened to the public in the 1930's.

Disneyand Railroad Wikipedia Commons
5) Did you know that Los Gatos was home to an orchardist and former railroad roustabout, Billy Jones, who built a railroad line around the perimeter of his Los Gatos ranch, then gave neighbors rides on that steam locomotive every Sunday, attracting Walt Disney when he heard about Jones' generosity to local children? When Disneyland opened in Anaheim on July 17, 1955, Jones was asked to be the first engineer on Disneyland Railroad, taking the first visitors on the Grand Circle Tour around the new theme park.

6) Did you know that Sunnyvale's Fremont High School, formerly known as West Side Union High School, and the old Cupertino Union Grammar School, reportedly produced many notables and millionaires from their former study body members? Notable names have included members of the Paul Mariani family and Apple's Greg Porter.

7) Guess how many of these stories I discovered at local museums and their online sites? (Answer: Only story #3, at the Saratoga Historical Foundation Museum, run by Foundation President, Annette Stransky.)

Kudos to the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County for placing many early recovered Santa Clara Valley home and commercial videos online in converted digital editions, and to Jim Reed, Curator Emeritus, and Cate Mills, Curator of Library and Archives at History San José, for making many images and documents in the extensive HSJ collection searchable online.

Kudos also to the continuing work of Mary Hanel of the Santa Clara Central Park Library Heritage Pavilion and SCCHGS, who continues to work with local historical groups in retirement. Applause to the California History Room: Local History Collection at the Martin Luther King Jr. Branch of the San Jose Public Library System, for their resources which may be accessed seven days a week.

Likewise, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the astonishingly comprehensive work of John Hollar and the team at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, who offer visitors an imaginative visual and hands-on experience with our digital history.

Yet, there are still so many historical groups in this region doing their best to preserve one small corner of early Valley life with dwindling resources and volunteers, let alone digital collection, preservation and presentation skills.

Some historic groups still resist using email to distribute their membership newsletters and event updates, and many do not respond to email requests nor update aging Web sites, despite prodding by newer board members (who sometimes quit in frustration, when their advice to modernize meets chronic resistance, month after month.)

Local residents may share their early videos, images and documents with the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, with History San José, with SCCHGS, with SJPL and with the Online Archive of California, to preserve our local history.

If you have a moment, stop by your local museum or history association one weekend to see what they have to offer. If their doors are frequently closed, write to your local Chamber of Commerce, your local Rotary Club and your City Council members, to ask their support in making the rooms and resources of your local museum or history association more available to working residents, so families may explore regional holdings together.

If the doors of your local museum or history association are open frequently, both on weekends and perhaps even one weeknight, please drop a $1 (or as much as you can afford) in their donation box, then find out what their future plans are for expansion, both online or on site.

The collected information about our regional roots will amaze you, once you finally gain access to museums and history associations responsible for our collective pasts.

---Catherine Alexander Bright,