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Sunday, January 05, 2003

Eleanor Nelson - a Vacaville gem

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Teacher touched many lives

During my years as curator at the Vacaville Museum, one of the people often mentioned as having helped shape our community was Eleanor Dexter Nelson.

Born in Illinois around 1897, Eleanor May Dexter grew up in Lodi. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she received her teaching credentials. After her graduation she accepted her first teaching position in Vacaville to begin in September 1920, fully expecting to be there for just one year and then to continue to teach in the Philippines.

“Miss Eleanor Dexter has accepted a position on the faculty of the Vacaville High School. She will teach Spanish and history,“the Vacaville Reporter announced that summer.

“I considered Vacaville to be a small, remote town - but beginning teachers had to start somewhere,” she later recalled. “After I accepted the job, I couldn’t find the place on the map .. and I couldn’t find out how to get there.”

Little did 23-year-old Eleanor imagine when she finally arrived in Vacaville that she would not only spend the rest of her life here, but also contribute so much to the community. Her first glimpse of Vacaville, then a town of 1,200 citizens, did not impress her much. She remembered that day in a letter that is now part of the museum’s collection.

“After five hours on the train from Berkeley at 50 miles an hour, I must be at least 250 miles from the Bay Area when I alighted in Vacaville from a faded old passenger car being pulled ignominiously at the tail end of a slow freight train, a status I had acquired in Elmira when I changed trains from the main line to the Elmira-Rumsey branch.

“It was now almost noon and the dusty station stood alone in the hot September sun except for a busy brakeman and the station agent bustling around to unload and get the rest of the freight on its way to Rumsey.

“For me there was no problem about where to go. There was only one street and it led toward what was obviously the town. A broken wooden sidewalk beside some fenced gardens in front of the modest houses protected the healthy onion patches from the fenced-out chickens that strutted proprietarily down the street or dusted themselves in deep wagon-wheel ruts. Through this I picked my way to a paved street that looked more hopeful. A cement walk led past a gray, gloomy building, obviously a school, and then an elbow-high walled terrace around a huge, well-kept lawn led my eye up to the top of a hill where, I couldn’t believe it, stood a tall, stately, pink castle - overlooking the entire town - and a sign on the front said ‘Vacaville High School 1897.’ My headquarters for the next school year. Things weren’t so hopeless, after all.”

It took only a couple of days for Eleanor Dexter to settle in. Her first lodgings were at one of the boarding houses. On her first day in town, the boarding house did not serve meals. She had to visit one of the dining establishments “which was a horrible place.”

The boarding house owner added her own advice for this newcomer to small town living: “Don’t talk about anybody in town, because everybody is related to everybody.”

The following Monday, “ started with 70 students enrolled, some arriving in a rickety bus from Elmira. Others walked, rode horseback or drove a horse and buggy to school.”

She quickly realized what was important to the community, overriding her own high teaching standards. “I had already learned from the few people I had met that Vacaville High School was known for its successful basketball teams. In those days county regulations were minimal, and good school grades were not required in order to meet certain standards for student participation in sports.

“In two of my classes I had three boys who were about two years younger than I . They came to class when they felt like it and were completely unprepared. They received failing grades, but they were STARS on the basketball court. All of Vacaville interested in school attended every high school game, and rare was the occasion when Vacaville didn’t win. We were the Solano County Champions.

“On the Monday after the close of the basketball season, there were empty seats in my classroom. Who was missing? The stars of the basketball court. And I didn’t see them again until the next September. And once again, there they were - to keep up space and do Vacaville proud.

“This continued until the S.C.A.L. (Solano Co. Athletic League) became active and began to make and enforce a few rules, such as requirements for players to make passing grades and play only so many years.

“Thereafter Vacaville’s prestige in the basketball field varied from year to year. No longer were we the champions and our previous heroes were loading fruit cars in the fall.

“Thus ended a glorious chain of victories and school became hum-drum once again.”

Eleanor’s resolve to stay in Vacaville for only one year must have changed at some time. For one thing, she quickly became a part of the community. Among other endeavors she joined the Saturday Club in 1920, where she stayed an active member throughout her life.

Her marriage to Harry Nelson on October 27, 1923, changed her into a permanent resident of the area. Harry Nelson owned the Nelson ranch in Lagoon Valley, which his father Ole had deeded to him the previous year.

An unidentified newspaper clipping in Eleanor’s scrapbook captures the moment: “A quiet wedding which took place in Stockt on Saturday noon was that which united in marriage Miss Eleanor Dexter of Acampo and Harry Nelson of Fairfield. Rev. Shirley R. Shaw, pastor of the First Christian Church, read the ceremony.

“The bride was attired in a dress of black canton crepe, with viridian blue trimmings which matched her hat.

“After the service, luncheon was served in Hotel Stockton, for the couple departing later for Southern California, where the honeymoon is to be spent. The trip is being made by motor.”

The couple lived on the Nelson ranch until highway construction cut through their land. They sold the ranch and built the Vaca Valley Inn in 1938 (next to the old swimming pool, along Butcher Road), which they operated until 1961. This time the highway needed to be widened, once again forcing the Nelsons to sell and move.

Eleanor Nelson retired from teaching in 1951. Her students remember her as a firm, strict, demanding and beloved teacher. One of them was John Rico, who said in her obituary on February 15, 1993: “Of all the teachers I had, she really stands out. She was strict. You were there to learn and she made sure you learned.”

Once retired, the Nelsons traveled around the world in 1961 and continued to travel until Harry’s death in 1969. One of Eleanor’s last trips took her on safari in Africa at age 85.

Eleanor’s activities in the community remain legendary. Besides the Saturday Club and its monthly blood-pressure clinic, which she helped found in 1975, she was instrumental in the creation of many parks and recreation programs as well as the founding of the Vacaville Museum. She served on multiple boards, often as president, and was active in the Upper Solano Republican Women Federated, the Solano County and Vacaville Republican Assembly and the Soroptimists.

In 1967, Eleanor and Harry Nelson founded the Vacaville Community Foundation, a scholarship fund that awards annual scholarships for Vacaville-area students.

When Eleanor Nelson died on February 13, 1993, former Museum Director Ruth Begell said of her “She was one of the strongest women around. ... She, more than anyone else in terms of energy, was a prime mover in Vacaville.”