Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Niles - Local Keepers of the Past

Today's images were all taken at Shinn Park, starting with a plaque telling the history of the Shinn family in Niles. The large mansion with the roses climbing the front porch was the family mansion, built after James and Lucy Shinn lived in a tiny cottage on the property that is still there. I do not know when the Japanese garden was put in yet. There are many old trees growing on the property and the local Friends of Heirloom Flowers group volunteers to keep the grounds up. The old railroad car in the last photo is sitting underneath a protective overhang in a section of the grounds devoted to old tools and farming implements.

Niles has two local archives – the Museum of Local History in Fremont and the tiny Shinn Historic House and Arboretum on Peralta Blvd., tucked back against Alameda Creek. The Museum of Local History is only open one weekend out of the month, from 10 to 4 each day. The Shinn house is only open two hours one Sunday each month, so you need to plan accordingly. You really need to know in advance what you would like to look at as you do not have a lot of access time.

I had been once before to the Museum of Local History and had mixed reactions to it. Like many local history societies, it is staffed by volunteers who have varying degrees of knowledge about the collection. There was a lot of very noisy talking amongst locals going on the last time I had been there, and one of the volunteers willingly pulled items for you, but wanted you to look at them very quickly so that she could re-shelve them promptly. The notion that one might require considerable time and quiet to analyze primary items seemed nonexistent. However, I knew this was a place I needed to go to for information about the California Nursery Company so I nerved myself up to return.

I found a local high school student working alone that day. She was hesitant about locating materials but obligingly looked up the California Nursery Company for me in her computerized database. I suspect it was FileMakerPro, or something similar, as she was working on updating the catalog. She found a scrapbook that was kept by George Roeding, the owner of the nursery from 1917 until his death in 1928. I was able to go through the entire scrapbook page by page, and Corinne allowed me to take digital photos of the multiple newspaper clippings of articles written by Roeding, in addition to advertisements of the nursery. This was more like it! I rejoiced too soon.

About a half hour before closing, the “noisy” volunteer showed up and made any further work impossible. Talking loudly with another local who had wandered in earlier looking for her, she then informed me she wanted to go to The City the next day (Sunday) with friends, so the archive would not be open its one Sunday of the month. Counting my blessings that I had had at least all day Saturday to get some truly productive research done, I kept my response to myself, thanked Corinne for all of her help, and left.

This kind of behavior and work ethic is totally unacceptable from my library-oriented public service background, but you get what you get with these small local history societies. I’m sure this woman considers herself dedicated, but her deciding willy nilly to post a sign on the door saying “Closed for the Day” when the hours are posted--not only on the building but also on the web-- is the worst of the worst in public service. The loud atmosphere coupled with no understanding of how time consuming it is to use primary materials just adds to the down side. That said, I will certainly be going back the second weekend in May, assuming the museum will be open that one Saturday and Sunday. I will probably ask if I can work in the back room where the collection is stored. Even though it is freezing cold, it is somewhat quieter than the public sitting space where locals appear to congregate and chat, based on my last two visits here. To be fair, locals sitting and chatting is typical for some local history societies; this is certainly not the first archive where I have run into this particular problem. The social aspect of this type of volunteerism is important to the volunteers themselves. I get that but it can make things challenging for the researcher.

The following Sunday I made my way to the Shinn Historic House and Arboretum. The local Friends of Heirloom Flowers group keeps up the grounds and they have outdone themselves. Spring blooms were bursting out everywhere, so I ran around and photographed both the buildings and the grounds. The archive is one small room of the old Shinn residence, and they are open 1-3 the third Sunday of each month. I knew I wanted to look at primary materials relating to the Shinn Nursery, the strongest nursery presence in Niles before the California Nursery Company opened in 1882. I ran into a husband and wife volunteer team dressed in Victorian costume. They did not know where the librarian was, but let me loose in the archive and allowed me to look through the open shelf materials, mostly books and atlases about local areas. The librarian showed up at about 1:30 and found a Shinn Nursery Catalog for me. She thought it was OK for me to scan it, so I jumped into my car and drove home for my laptop and portable scanner. Luckily I live on the opposite bank of Alameda Creek (the Shinns probably owned the property my house is sitting on back in the 1860s!) so I was home and back in just a few minutes. I was able to scan the catalog, and another out-of-print pamphlet about the Shinn family.

In the meantime, it turns out Al Minard (the husband half of the docent team) is a local history buff when it comes to the railroad, and he has just submitted a nomination for Niles Canyon and Niles to the National Register of Historic Places, based on the railroading that has gone on in this area. He promised to let me read his nomination, and gave me digital copies of some scans he had made of one of the 1904 California Nursery ledgers. He also gave me his contact information, in case I had any other railroad-related questions he could help with.

Barbara Anderson, the archivist, told me to let her know if I needed more time; she would be happy to come in and open the archive for me some additional time and let me look at more materials. She was off to Monterey for a week, but told me to call her once I was ready. I really appreciated both Al and Barbara’s offers of help and will certainly call Barbara after I get a chance to assess what I looked at this time. I mentioned Barbara earlier; she is the woman whose mother used to camp out in Niles Canyon when she was a child. Barbara is a volunteer docent at four different places, one of them being Ardenwood, the historic farm/park off of Decoto Road.

Both archives produced fabulous primary materials. The Roeding scrapbook tells the story of how George Roeding, a national figure in horticulture, changed the California Nursery Company from how it was run by John Rock and fellow investors between 1882 and 1904, when Rock died. Roeding bought the business from one of those remaining investors in 1917 and made several innovative changes that reflected not only the evolving differences in the nursery industry (from fruit to ornamental horticulture, more on that later), but also the change in how people bought plants from nurseries (Roeding establishing several visible road-side “outlets” where automobile drivers passed daily). The Shinn catalog reflected the earlier emphasis in California horticulture on fruit production, more also about that later.

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