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Sunday, August 01, 2004

Historical society prepares for the future

Jerry Bowen

Service, projects bring members state recognition

So far, we have covered the 1950s and early 1960s that marked the startup years for the Solano County Historical Society and included the entry into many major projects of historical value to the county.

These endeavors included the restoration of the Pena Adobe, moving the old Herbert House on Virginia Street to the corner of Kentucky Street and Mare Island Way in Vallejo to serve as a museum, applying for state and national historic registry for many historical sites in the county and preservation of the Hastings Adobe in the Montezuma Hill near Collinsville.

The society earned a superior reputation among the many historical organizations in California.

The society continued to meet monthly in different Solano cities, and visited other county museums and historical sites in and out of the county. Speakers for the meetings included such authorities as Dr. Glenn Dumke, president of San Francisco State College; Dr. Robert Burns, president of College of the Pacific; Father John McGloin, from the University of San Francisco; Dr. W.H. Hutchinson, from Chico State College; Dr. James Hart, director of Bancroft Library; Dr. Aubrey Neasham, from Sacramento State College; and others.

Life for members and guests was anything but boring because of careful planning to interest and educate them about our state and county heritage.

Annual spring outings proved very popular. Tour managers included Wilmer Neitzel Hansen, Geneva Brownridge, Jack Kirkley, “wagon master” Bert Hughes and Mrs. Hughes and Henry Higham. At least one trip was conducted every year and in some years two trips.

Another early project was publishing of the book, “Benicia’s Early Glory.” In 1958 it was commissioned by the society after the state legislature passed and the governor signed the bill to restore the Benicia Capitol Building to “its former glory.” The book was written and edited by talented society committee members. These were Chairman LeNoir Miller (Benicia librarian) and Charlene Erwin, Marion Garibaldi and Clifford W. Tooley.

The book was planned to be available on the day that the restored building was dedicated. All went well until it was discovered that the printer had delivered many books with assembly and printing errors. The time taken to cull out these books prevented any sale at the ceremony. This delay prevented the anticipated profit from materializing, but 1,000 copies finally were distributed.

In December 1985, a magazine, “The Solano Historian,” (published twice a year) was added to the accomplishments of the society. The magazine was the brainchild of Matthew and Lee Fountain who served as its editors until 1999.

For the past 19 years, articles researched and submitted by members of the society have recorded for local history hundreds of stories that may have otherwise never seen the light of day.

The California Conference of Historical Societies honored four Solano society members for exceptional service for local history and preservation.

In 1994, Rosalie Cunningham, of Fairfield, was given the Individual Award of Merit for spearheading the effort to save Solano County’s archives. She gathered other volunteers around her and relentlessly pursued county officials until safe and serviceable quarters were made available. She refused to admit it was an impossible task, given the cost and readjustments that were necessary in county government. Her pleasant persistence over several years resulted in new and functional archives.

In 1991, Vacaville’s favorite historian, Bert Hughes, was given the Award of Merit for his unceasing efforts in preserving Solano County History as a president of the society, as wagonmaster and tour guide for its annual trips, as a founder of the Vacaville Heritage Council, as a dedicated volunteer in numerous organizations, and for his part in renovating Vacaville’s Old Town Hall and saving it from demolition.

Matthew and Lee Fountain, of Vallejo, also received the Award of Merit in 1989 for initiating and editing the Solano Historian, and for recruiting local authors to be concerned with writing stories and articles based on careful research.

Ernest Wichels was honored by the California Historical Society with a Merit Award given at a state meeting at Sterling Wineries in 1983. His “Pages of the Past” weekly column in the Times-Herald, Vallejo; his co-authoring with Sue Lemmon of “Sidewheelers to Nuclear Power;” his monthly Note Book; and his many talks kept history before the public.

The American Association presented a national citation, called the Regional Award of Merit, to Robert Power of the former Nut Tree for state and local history “for his energy, effort, and enthusiasm of his community and for his publications, ‘Portus Novae Albionis Rediscovered’ and ‘Pioneering Skiing in California for VIII Winter Olympics’.”

Outside influences played a big part in the development of the society’s program. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the national bicentennial was being highly advertised and programs and celebrations were being planned. That whipped up patriotic ardor not only for our national pride but also stirred the minds of the heartland to find their particular part in the celebration. It wasn’t long until Vallejo, Vacaville, Benicia and Rio Vista were deep into the museum business. Each community was busy collecting the relics, antiques, folklore, artifacts and history of every main street, valley and prairie in sight. The last 120 years came alive under the scrutiny of local historians.

The old Herbert House Museum is now the home of the Native Sons of California. Society members are active workers in the local museums - Benicia Camel Barn, Rio Vista Museum, Vacaville Museum and the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum.

With the deaths of several key members of the society, projects took a back seat after the 1970s. Regular meetings are still conducted and the Annual Pioneer Days at Rockville Cemetery has survived the many years.

Recently a new spark of interest has renewed the society with younger members. Mary Higham, recently elected president of the society, and Maggie Halls, as vice president, represent a merging of the past and future. Mary held the same post from 1985 to 1987 and this is a first venture for Maggie in the society.

The first project temporarily saved the old library building in Fairfield from destruction. The hard part remains: fund-raising and building a plan for the museum and county archives. Seeing Maggie’s group of activists in operation, I can only see a much brighter future for the society. Other members have plans for reopening the Pena Adobe and museum to the public and possibly restoring the Hastings Adobe.

This completes my series on the Solano County Historical Society. A more complete history may yet be done in a future issue of the Solano Historian. Anyone wishing to learn more about the Solano County Historical Society or to join the Society can write to SCHS, P.O. Box 3009, Fairfield, 94533-0309. Or, if you are online, I would be happy to e-mail you an application. If you e-mail me put SCHS in the ‘subject” box so I can access it from the SPAM filter.