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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Council continues historic journey

Jerry Bowen

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Past still lives in the collections

One of the folks who recently moved to Vacaville dropped into the Vacaville Heritage Council in the Old Town Hall the other day and asked if we were a museum of some sort.

I replied that I’m not quite sure how you would describe the organization. We certainly aren’t a museum. That title is properly held by the Vacaville Museum on Buck Avenue.

After thinking a couple of microseconds, I blurted out that we are an archive. After giving her a tour and describing what we do, she agreed with me that’s the correct term.

When she left, I hit the dictionary just to be sure, with the following results:

“Museum: an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value; also: a place where objects are exhibited.

“An institution dedicated to preserving and interpreting the primary tangible evidence of humankind and the environment. In its preserving of this primary evidence, the museum differs markedly from the library, with which it has often been compared, for the items housed in a museum are mainly unique and constitute the raw material of study and research.”

“Archive: a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved; also: the material preserved - often used in plural.”

An article in the Encyclopedia Britannica began with: “Archives, also called records, or record office repository for an organized body of records produced or received by a public, semipublic, institutional, or business entity in the transaction of its affairs and preserved by it or its successors. Archives are collections of papers, documents, and photographs (often unpublished or one-of-a-kind), and sometimes other materials that are preserved for historical reasons.”

OK, the last sentence fits the Vacaville Heritage Council just right, except the Heritage Council is also a little more. It’s also a library of sorts defined as: “a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale.”

The Vacaville Heritage Council is a pretty unusual archive in Solano County as far as a guardian of local history goes and has a history of its own. In 1969, a group of Vacaville residents, most of whom were members and officials of the Solano County Historical Society, formed the Vacaville Heritage Council in an effort to halt the loss of historical materials and historic sites.

At the time, Vacaville had no museum. Old pictures and accounts were being thrown away, as were historic documents. Old buildings were fast deteriorating and old-timers who had important stories to tell were passing away.

Longtime Vacaville citizens responded to calls for historically important material by bringing in old photograph albums to be copied with the originals being returned to their owners. In addition, they gave permission for the Heritage Council to use these collections for research and public use. The current president of the council, an original member and the oldest surviving member, Bob Allen, spent untold hours of his time copying and developing the photos and negatives.

For several weeks, members photographed the inside and outside of many of the heritage homes on Buck Avenue. Pictures were taken on color slides and black and white film. With the use   of a borrowed microfilm machine, many church records and old newspaper collections were committed to microfilm.

The members collected early assessor ledgers and tax books and for a time, stored collections belonging to the Solano County Historical Society.

An early project of the council was to preserve the Old Town Hall. As one of the most nearly fireproof buildings in the county and with the facilities to lock items up in the cells for protection, the Old Town Hall was an ideal place to store the valuable collections.

At about the same time, Mayor Barbara Jones suggested at a city council meeting that the building would be an ideal place for a museum. But the building is not large enough to display adequately large collections of items and is too small for a museum.

In the early 1970s, the Heritage Council attempted to obtain the Carnegie Library for a museum in Vacaville. That project failed, but the council continued its efforts to preserve Vacaville’s history in whatever forms it could.

Then teenager, Melodee Beelard, a history buff and Vacaville Heritage Council member, began serious research in 1977 with an eye to nominating the Vacaville Town Hall as a national landmark to the State Historical Resources Commission. After three months of tedious work by Beelard, the town hall was nominated as a national landmark by the state Historical Resources Commission. As a result of her dedication, the California Historic Preservation Committee voted in 1978 to place the building on the register of historic buildings. The only other building in Vacaville to share this distinction is the Pena Adobe.

The city granted use of the town hall to the Vacaville Heritage Council in 1978, and it undertook renovation of the historic structure.

Artifacts, photos and documents began to pile up in the old building and it became painfully obvious that more complete repairs and restoration of the structure were needed. Vacaville also needed a museum for the accumulating treasure of historical artifacts. Members of the Vacaville Heritage Council joined others in the community in 1978 with the goal to build a museum from the ground up. The museum committee was formed to “preserve the best of old Vacaville and the county.”

The Reporter stated in its Feb. 8, 1981, Sunday issue,

“... the Heritage Council has been one of the most active groups at collecting bits and pieces of Vacaville history. ‘We formed the group on the basis that people had become aware of the need to save the Vacaville many of us had grown up with,’ said Vacaville Heritage Council President Bert Hughes. The city was no longer using the town hall and donated its use to us.”

The Solano County Genealogical Society joined the council in the Town Hall in 1981. This was a fortuitous move, since both organizations have continuously worked closely together with the same goal of preserving the records of the past and to serve the public.

The Vacaville Museum became a reality in 1984 and the Heritage Council’s artifacts were transferred to the magnificent new facility.

In 1985, The Reporter stated, “... the push to improve Vacaville’s downtown historic area was bolstered by an award of a $60,000 state grant to redo the city’s first Town Hall.” The first face lift was completed in 1987.

Much water has passed under the bridge   of time since the Vacaville Heritage Council began its historic journey. There are two remaining old-timers still working at the nonprofit organization, Bob Allen, president of the council, who is also still very active with the Vacaville Museum and Ruth Holtz, who is affectionately referred to as “the boss.” Her steady hand and dedication to keeping the rest of the members organized is a tough job, but she is still at it after so many years.

The rest of us are “newbys” with only a few years on the quarterdeck of local history.

Past Vacaville Heritage Council members have had their fingers in most of the county’s historic projects including restorations of the Pena Adobe, Hastings Adobe, Green Valley Schoolhouse, and the Gomer Schoolhouse. The council has assisted authors of books including “Vacaville, The Heritage of a California Community,” “Omo I de-Memories of Vacaville’s Lost Japanese Community,” “Berryessa, The rape of the Mexican Land Grant,” and “The Heritage Collection - Sites, Structures and History of Fairfield and Vicinity” just to name a few.

Lately we have been involved with much of the local historical art springing up in the county such as Victoria Miraglio’s fine mural in the new Town Square Library, A Wells Fargo Bank mural and a mural to be painted on Pepperbelly’s building in Fairfield and the glass sculpture at the new county building.

The Vacaville Heritage Council has also recently established a working relationship with Town Cryer Pro Video in Vacaville. The goal is to record the fast-disappearing history anywhere in the county for the future and possible re-enactments of historic events using local county acting talent.

The Heritage Council’s cup is pretty full and more volunteers are needed, but the dedication of the likes of those already mentioned, as well as Frank Neitzel, Brian Irwin, Carol Noske, Mike Galbreath, Don Heimberger, Ted Haskins and Jesse Haydon most certainly will accomplish much for the benefit of the public when it is all said and done.

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A picnic and open house at the old Gomer School on Abernathy Road in Suisun Valley will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday. This will be a good chance to see the restored school that holds many fond memories of the past.