Where Have All the Records Gone?

Let's say you want to find out how wide the right-of-way is for a road somewhere in San Joaquin County that was created in 1890. What historical sources would you consult? You're right if you said "the county supervisor's records." Where would you go to view them? You get bonus points if you said "the San Joaquin County Historical Museum."

San Joaquin County Courthouse, Stockton (ca. 1950).

San Joaquin County Courthouse, Stockton (ca. 1950).

Historical questions like this can often be answered easily. But others can be more challenging. Even if researchers know which county records to consult, they don't always know where to find them. At times, researchers don't even know whether the records still exist.

San Joaquin County and the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum have embarked on a joint project that promises to make research in the County's historic records easier. The goal is to locate all existing historic records generated by the San Joaquin County government since the 1850s. The results will be compiled in an inventory, which will be made accessible to the public.

The motivating force behind this project is the County's Historic Records Commission, recently reactivated after years of inactivity. The Commission, which was appointed by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, consists of Supervisor Larry Ruhstahler, former Board of Supervisor clerk Lois Sahoun, and Bank of Stockton archivist William Maxwell.

The project updates another inventory of local civil records published in 1989 by a previous incarnation of the County's Historic Records Commission. A close reading of that document indicates that many of the resources it lists have changed location over the past quarter century and that many others were overlooked.

The project welcomes insights, sent to the project coordinator at the following address, about the location of previously overlooked historic county records: leighjohnsen@sanjoaquinhistory.org.

Genealogy Made Easier

Some of the most tenacious people I know are genealogists. I have the honor of working with genealogists all the time here at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. Piecing together tiny bits of biographical data from hundreds of different sources can be rewarding. However, I also know from personal experience that it takes lots of time and calls for a lot of patience.

Genealogical paydirt: marriage license from 1874.

Genealogical paydirt: marriage license from 1874.

Genealogical research might be getting a little easier. Last week, the Museum received an announcement for the Thirty-third Annual Ancestor Roundup Genealogical Seminar, conducted by the Commodore Sloat Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. The event takes place at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1024 Noche Buena at Plumas Avenue, Seaside, California, on Saturday, January 25, 2014, and runs from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The seminar will include more thirty classes. Those who attend can learn more about newspaper research, state and national archives, cemetery records, DNA, genealogy software, and lineage societies. They can also gain new insights into Portuguese, Irish, and Mexican research.

The keynote speaker for the day will be Ralph F. Severson, the director of the Oakland FamilySearch Library. Severson will also teach three classes: "Using Family Search and Family Tree Optimally," "Why Mormons Do Genealogy," and "Azores/Portugal Research."

For additional information, phone Serita Sue Woodburn at (831) 899-2121, or e-mail her at seritasue2@comcast.net.

Stockton’s Stillborn Aircraft Industry

I like to travel on airplanes. But my attitude would change if I discovered they had a nasty habit of falling apart in midair. In-flight disintegration would surely be a public relations nightmare for any airline or airplane manufacturer and probably shatter the confidence of customers. So it was with efforts during the 1930s to build the Capelis Safety Aeroplane in Stockton.

The Capelis Safety Aeroplane XC-12 (ca. 1938).

The Capelis Safety Aeroplane XC-12 (ca. 1938).

Last week, the San Joaquin County Historical Museum received a small collection of historic material related to the Oranges Brothers Airport, in Stockton, the site of which is currently occupied with houses. Among the contents was a prospectus to raise twenty-five thousand dollars for construction of a factory and hangers, as well two six-passenger airplanes.

The founders had big plans: "Several sizes of airplanes from two to fifty passengers are now being designed," reads the prospectus, "construction of which will begin immediately after the Company is completely established in Stockton." Small planes would be sold to "individual fliers at a nominal cost," and large ones placed with "new proposed transcontinental and transoceanic airlines."

The Capelis was the brainchild of Socrates H. Capelis, later modified by University of California professor John E. Younger. Both men valued safety. The only Capelis ever built, the twelve-passenger XC-12, incorporated such revolutionary features as safety glass, retractable landing gear, and gas tanks that could be dropped in an emergency. Plans called for monocoque construction, "the most rigid of all types," entirely of aluminum, and a cockpit "so designed that the pilot has perfect visibility."

Despite its many innovations, the Capelis XC-12 had a fatal shortcoming: Much of the skin was attached with screws, rather than rivets. The screws vibrated, worked their way loose, and frequently needed tightening. (Pilot to terrified passengers: "Don't mind that attendant inching her way across the wing, she's only securing that panel flapping in the wind.") In 1938, authorities grounded the Capelis XC-12 over safety concerns. Moviemaker RKO Pictures bought it the following year for use as a prop.

Memory of the Capelis Safety Aeroplane faded quickly. In 1943, RKO Pictures apparently scrapped the XC-12 after using it in five movies. The most famous of these was Five Came Back (1939), a melodrama whose positive reviews of Lucille Ball's performance helped launch her career as an A-grade actress.

Stockton's fledgling aircraft industry never recovered after the death of the Capelis, for reasons still needing to be explored.

A White Christmas?

Are you dreaming about a white Christmas? I'm not—not in California's Central Valley, anyway. In my view, the words "snow" and "San Joaquin County" usually don't belong in the same sentence.

Giant snowman, Stockton, California, Jan. 1, 1916.

Giant snowman, Stockton, California, Jan. 1, 1916.

But that doesn't mean they're totally unacquainted. The San Joaquin County Historical Museum holds more than twelve thousand photographs in its archives, many of which give insights into historic weather conditions. According to these images, the County has experienced snowfalls in 1873, 1880, 1883, 1916, and 1930—at least. One longtime resident tells me he also remembers snow sometime during the 1970s. It probably fell at other times, too.

The winter of 1915-1916 was especially noteworthy. According to the January 3, 1916, issue of the Stockton Daily Report, the snow that fell on Stockton during the early hours of New Year's Day was the heaviest the city had ever seen. "The air was filled with flying flakes of snow," it reported. "It looked like a real old fashioned 'Down East' storm."

Stories printed in the newspaper suggest that the urge to throw snowballs was irresistible, especially among young people, whose wayward missiles shattered at least one street car window. Meanwhile, older, more staid members of the Elks Club—who should have known better—climbed to the upper story of their building to pelt passersby with snow "bombs."

The revelers included members of the Stockton Fire Department. "You may have seen one of those big American La France fire trucks going up the street," reported the newspaper, "but it was loaded with snowballs instead of fire hoses. The firemen were having their fun along with everyone else."

Chief M. D. Murphy gathered some of his men and invited a newspaper reporter along for a visit to Stockton State Hospital. "At every street corner the firemen exchanged snowballs with the crowd," wrote the reporter. The group toured the hospital grounds then posed for a group picture before making the rounds of the city and dropping the firemen off at their stations.

Will we get snow again sometime over the next couple weeks? Who knows? If we do, remember how much fun it can be. Remember not to focus on numb fingers, muddy slush, and cars sliding out of control. Keep in contact with your inner child. Repeat to yourself: I'm having fun; I'm having fun; I'm having fun….

All in the spirit of our fun-loving ancestors.

If it worked for them, it can work for us.

When a Docent Cheats

I admit it! I cheated on the Museum! I spent volunteer hours with another organization in a far-away and exotic place. Can I ever be forgiven?

“Delightfully similar” children. (Photo Russ Livingston)

My plan for my month-long trip to Thailand was to spend time in a Buddhist monastery and temple, meditating and studying, and teaching English to novice monklings. I arrived at the Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (really), on the top of a hill far above the town of Maehongson, which is in farthest northwestern Thailand a few miles from Burma, after trips in five separate airplanes and a tuk-tuk, a sort of suicidal golf cart taxi.

My "cell" was a small room with a cement bench for a bed platform, and it had a tiny rudimentary bathroom attached. I added a foam pad decorated with smiling stars and sleepy teddy bears, since my "bed" was a blanket with a sheet around it. The temple and pagodas were ornately decorated with gold gilt and scores of statues of Buddha and other manifestations of Thai Buddhism, angles and spires and lattice and a virtual riot of decoration, color, and, exuberance.

After two weeks of studying, meditating, and giving English lessons to novice monks, I felt I was as learned and enlightened as I was likely to become for that time, so I moved to a simple room in a hostel-like "guest house" in town. I spent evenings conversing with travelers from many lands in many linguistic combinations, and in fascinating daisy-chain translations: one night in English, Yorkshire, Spanish, Thai, Karen (hill tribe), French, Danish-English, and Rice Whiskey. Other nights found differing combinations of languages, though nearly always including Rice Whiskey.

My hosts, Noi, a Karen tribe man, and his Chan Chinese wife, Boodt, were helpful and friendly, as were indeed all Thai people I met (except for one small group of rice harvesters who, when I stopped to take a picture of their traditional labors, expressed their opinions of my action most clearly…). Noi, using government grant money, has established a traditional Karen village and a large meditation complex some thirty miles from Maehongson, to which Boodt motor-scooted my raggedy old bod.

During the next two weeks we visited, via scooter, other villages populated by diverse ethnic groups, including Kayan ("Long Necks" and "Big Ears": brass rings about their necks, arms and legs, and large earlobe inserts), Chan, Karen, Chinese, LIsu, Hmong, Mien, and others, all having different languages and different colorful styles of dress.

I continued to help the monklings with their English pronunciation whenever scheduled. Junior high and high school students seem delightfully similar whether Thai, Central American, or U.S. American (silly twits), just as my Fellow Travelers from around the world are so akin in many ways. We, all of us, truly are The Family of Mankind.

Russ Livingston is a retired K-8 principal and a docent at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Stockton’s Industrial Foundations

Have you ever wondered why history has taken the course it has? Those of us who work at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum sometimes do. One of the questions that arises at times is why Stockton developed a manufacturing base in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Wagon factory (lower right) in early Stockton.

Wagon factory (lower right) in early Stockton.

The San Joaquin County Historical Museum recently acquired two photograph collections that offer insights. One is comprised of images taken by an employee of Holt Manufacturing Company early in the twentieth century. The subjects range from family to work-related activities. The other includes what appear to be official photographs from Samson Tractor Company, one of Holt's competitors. The images in that collection range from factory scenes to tractors that Samson produced.

Holt and Samson weren't the only heavy equipment manufacturers based in Stockton during that era. Other notable companies produced LeTourneau earthmoving equipment, Harris harvesters, Graham cars and trucks, and the Stevens Brothers boats. Smaller suppliers of goods and services dotted the city, too. I recently came across evidence that businessmen in the Stockton even considered making—and may have actually made—airplanes locally during the 1920s or 1930s.

Why did all of this happen in Stockton? Several possibilities come to mind. One crucial ingredient was the presence of innovative entrepreneurs like Benjamin Holt and R.G. LeTourneau. Both men not only understood the challenges of farming in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but also recognized the potential for personal profit by addressing those challenges with marketable products.

Geographically, Stockton offered a number of advantages. Not only did it afford inexpensive access to raw materials by water over the San Francisco Bay and San Joaquin River, but it also stood close to an extensive market that stretched inland throughout California's Central Valley. Furthermore, local wealth acquired over decades of farming in the productive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta assured the availability of capital for investment in machinery and factories.

There was one other crucial element, as well, which is illustrated in the Museum's two new photograph collections. Stockton had a critical mass of skilled workers—machinists, mechanics, and technicians—that seems to have grown steadily after the end of the Gold Rush. Without those workers, the assembly of each complex piece of machinery in that labor-intensive setting could never have taken place.

I offer this scenario as a hypothesis, not as a definitive explanation. Perhaps somebody, someday can use this model as a point of departure, tease out historic details, and develop a compelling narrative that helps us understand more fully the history of Stockton, San Joaquin County, and this part of California.

Meanwhile, I intend to savor each new addition to the Museum's collections and try to figure out how it fits into the puzzle.

Do Museums Make People Smarter?

Can museums make you smarter? A team of researchers based in Arkansas thinks they can. But what about California? Those of us who live in San Joaquin County have some handy tools in our own backyard that can help us answer this question for ourselves.

Having fun getting smarter: Pioneer School at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Having fun getting smarter: Pioneer School at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

According to a recent New York Times article, the researchers have found a positive correlation between exposure to museums and a number of skills and personal qualities. The study focused on visitors to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, of Bentonville, Arkansas. It was conducted by Brian Kisida and Jay P. Green, from the University of Arkansas, and Daniel H. Bowen, of Rice University.

The project lasted about a year. Thanks to the gift of a generous donor, the researchers had the ability to select a random sample of school groups and invite them to visit the museum for free. Among this group were significant numbers with little exposure to cultural institutions like art museums. Another group of students not invited served as a control group, against whom findings about the visitors could be compared. Altogether, about eleven thousand students and five hundred teachers participated.

The researchers assessed both groups several weeks after the invitees visited the museum. Doing so enabled them to compare not only knowledge about art, but also tolerance, historical empathy, and interest in visiting museums in the future. Coded tickets given to all participants allowed the researchers to determine which subjects returned to the museum.

In the end, the researchers found notable differences. "Students…selected to visit the museum on a field trip," write the researchers, "demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy, and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions."

In a word, the visitors had become "smarter."

The study has limitations. For instance, it focused on one specialized art museum. Obviously, additional research is in order. What better way to do so than to visit a local museum on your own?

Two that come to mind offhand are the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, in Lodi, and the Haggin Museum, in Stockton. Both have impressive collections, and both have a number of educational programs to enhance the experience of visitors.

But why take my word? Why not take your family and/or friends to a museum and test the research? My totally unbiased opinion is that your own experience will probably end up supporting the findings from Arkansas.

Celebrate Christmas with Festival of Trees

Even Scrooge would get in the holiday spirit gazing at the more than seventy beautifully decorated unique Christmas trees at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum's twenty-second annual Festival of Trees.

Ho, Ho, Ho! Santa with three happy visitors, 2011.

Ho, Ho, Ho! Santa with three happy visitors, 2011.

This family event will be held December 7 and 8 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the museum, which is located in Micke Grove Park south of Lodi, about one mile west of Highway 99 and south of Armstrong Road.

Docents dressed in vintage Victorian and pioneer clothes will make those attending feel as though they have stepped back in time to celebrate Christmas.

The museum's seven exhibit buildings will be brimming with dozens of festive trees, each decorated according to a unique theme by different individuals and groups from throughout San Joaquin County. The festival also features charming Christmas exhibits, entertainment, model trains, and many activities, including vintage craft demonstrations like wood carving, woodturning, jewelry making, and quilting.

For children, there will be many hands-on activities, including decorating cookies, making cornhusk dolls, dipping candles, and punching tin ornaments. There is a nominal fee of one to three dollars for children to make the crafts. Children also will be able to visit Santa and Mrs. Claus, and families can purchase photographs of their children with Santa.

Entertainment will be held throughout both days and includes the dancing of the Unique Vision Dance group, holiday harmonies of the Stockton Portsmen, and bagpipe music of the White Hackle Pipe Band.

Also throughout both days, visitors will be able to rest their weary feet and enjoy riding around the museum grounds on a trackless train. Food and drinks will be available for purchase.

In addition to all the holiday festivities and decorated trees, visitors will enjoy the museum's historical exhibits. The county museum features one of the largest collections of tractors, agriculture equipment, and tools west of the Mississippi.

General admission tickets are ten dollars, and one dollar for children two to twelve years old. Children under two are admitted free. Tickets may be purchased at the event or in advance at the Music Box in Stockton and Lodi or by calling the museum at (209) 331-2055 or 953-3460. By getting tickets in advance, the six-dollar parking fee into Micke Grove Park is waived.

Festival of Trees is the museum Docent Council's fundraiser of the year. The funds raised at this event support the youth education programs, which include Valley Days and Pioneer School. More than 150 San Joaquin County classes of third- and fourth-graders participate in these two living history museum programs each year where children experience 1880s pioneer life. Other education programs operated throughout the year include museum tours and classroom visits by docents with "Grandmother's Trunk."

For more information, call the museum at (209) 331-2055 or (209) 953-3460, or see www.sanjoaquinhistory.org

Christi Weybret manages publicity for the Museum’s Docent Council.

What’s in a Name?

Aren't old family photos fun? Pictures of relatives from the past can put flesh and bones on the skeletons of otherwise dry, meaningless names. They can also bring back pleasant memories and reawaken our sense of belonging.

If only we knew. Unidentified football player, possibly from Lodi High School, during 1940s.

If only we knew. Unidentified football player, possibly from Lodi High School, during 1940s.

But they can also be all but meaningless if we don't know the identities of the subjects.

Yesterday, a patron came into the Museum's with a box of old photographs. She told a story about a close friend of her sister who had died somewhere in the Pacific Northwest without any known relatives. As the sister sorted through her friend's belongings, she came across a lovely framed picture of a woman dating from the 1930s. Alongside it was this box of old black-and-white prints.

I'm guessing that most of them were taken sometime during the 1950s, probably with one of those old Brownie cameras that looked like a matchbox on steroids.

Each of the pictures told a story. A man and woman pose in front of a shiny new car. A family flashes saccharine smiles at the camera. A toddler laughs as it takes what must have been one of its very first steps. It isn't difficult for me to imagine the memories that arose whenever the sister's friend got that box out of storage.

But all I can do is imagine, because neither the friend nor anyone else ever bothered to record the identities of the subjects or describe the occasions. Those of us who view these photographs today can only guess.

"This represents her entire life," said the patron with despair, sweeping her hand over the box. "It's so sad."

The story didn't need to end this way for the sister's friend, and it doesn't need to end like this for us. So here's a challenge: This weekend, reach up into your closet and take down those boxes of old photographs. Turn over each image and write lightly (in pencil) the names of the subjects. Then date it and briefly describe the occasion.

I'm willing to wager that this simple exercise will bring back a flood of memories, just as it could have done with the sister's friend. I'm also willing to wager that it will remind you of your roots and earn the undying gratitude of your children, grandchildren, and their children's children for a long time to come.

The Long Walk

"Dad, are we almost there?"

Remember how boring it was to ride long distances in the family car when you were a kid? Except for the excitement of violating that invisible boundary in the back seat that separated you and your brother. But that had its downside, too.

Maintenance supervisor Mike Mason discovers how heavy the Elliott wagon is.

Maintenance supervisor Mike Mason discovers how heavy the Elliott wagon is.

"If you kids don't quit fighting, your father will stop the car. Then you can walk home!" Mom must have never been a kid.

So there you sat, mile after boring mile, your brother silently taunting you, tears streaming down your cheeks, your eyes riveted to the back of Dad's head. You'd have given anything to be free from that prison.

Did you ever wonder what would have happened if Dad actually HAD stopped the car? The Elliott children, early Lodi pioneers, could have told you. In 1859, they and their family walked from Illinois to their new home in Lodi at the pace of an ox.

The San Joaquin County Historical Society is pleased to announce the restoration of the freight wagon that accompanied them. The wagon is made of hardwood, apparently grown in New England. At its highest, it measures eight and one-half feet. The distance from front to back spans sixteen feet. Each rear wheel—the larger of the wagon's pairs—weighs approximately five hundred pounds and measures about five feet in diameter.

The wagon is huge, rugged, and incredibly heavy. Pioneer families like the Elliotts typically loaded their wagons with sixteen hundred pounds to a ton of food and other necessities. I'm told that westbound travelers like the Elliotts relied on bacon, flour, and beans. This monotonous diet, supplemented with game and other food picked up along the trail, sustained them over the five months it took to reach California. Many pioneers showed symptoms of scurvy by the time they arrived.

Imagine a wagon like this rumbling through Nebraska, an ox slowly leading it. The father guides the beast, while the mother sways on top cradling a baby. A dog trots alongside. Two young girls and a boy do their best to keep up, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, sometimes hitching a ride on the wagon. On good days, the party moves twenty-five miles down the trail. On other days, five.

Wildlife, unfriendly natives, and the possibility of accidents keep the family on its toes. There's little time to complain, bicker, or engage in self-pity. Nor is there any uncertainty over what it means to "walk home."

Plans are currently underway for a permanent exhibit at the Museum that will feature the Elliott's wagon. So stay tuned. No family with children who get antsy in the back seat of the car will want to miss it.

The wagon's restoration and the exhibit have been sponsored by Dr. Ross Bewley and his family, who trace their heritage back to the Elliotts. Tim and Judy Hachman have provided additional funding to publish a forthcoming issue of the San Joaquin Historian that will feature excerpts from two diaries the Elliott family kept as they traveled to California.