Sunday, April 4, 2010

Why Niles?

A neighor's wisteria.

Here is my home, an old farmhouse built at the turn of the 20th century. You can see many other old houses like this one throughout the Niles district. That is me sitting with my faithful research assistant, Bailey, on the front porch steps. In the lower photo, you can see the nose of my vintage 1971 VW bus; it still runs great!

I have always felt a vital connection to the past. If Dr. Ivey loves 20th-century history, for me it has always been about the 19th century, particularly California during the 19th century. As a kid I loved looking at cabinet photographs of people wearing old-fashioned clothes, never dreaming that one day I would make my living looking at those very types of photographs. I also loved antique furniture and Victorian houses, and simply could not figure out what anyone ever saw in so-called modern architecture. (Well, Frank Lloyd Wright has changed my opinion on that score, at least when it comes to his version of modern architecture! Fallingwater and Hanna House, to name just two of his creations, are two modern houses I would not have any trouble whatsoever living in.)

I initially chose library work as my life’s work because I became passionate about reading the moment I figured out G-o, D-o-g, G-o spelled out Go, Dog, Go and if I turned the pages and read the words and looked at the pictures, I was going to get to go with this dog, wherever it was he was going. And I could go as often as I wanted to pick up the book. This lifelong love affair with reading was very helpful when I decided to leave thirty years of library work to become a historian.

Being a historian--thinking so much about the past while I’m at work or when I’m researching and writing an article or a book or restoring a historic garden--is a big part of why I wanted to move to Niles once I discovered it. Hearing the old steam engine whistles blow, seeing the original Niles train depot still being used, driving along wide streets lined with very old buildings still being inhabited, and living in a very old farmhouse brings everything I love about history literally to life.

As I wrote earlier, Niles is all about the past; the vast majority of businesses in this small community stem directly from the history of the area. They include the running of trains for tourism, a multitude of antique and collectible stores, a museum featuring silent films made in the area and a nursery being run on the former grounds of the 19th-century California Nursery Company. Most of the downtown stretch of Niles Blvd. looks as it did a hundred years ago since many of the original buildings and storefronts still exist.

My aim in exploring Niles’s past is partly to satisfy my own curiosity but it is also to make others aware that this community that depends on the past for much of its living is a great place to visit. You can ride a train pulled by a steam engine, eat Bronco Billy pizza, watch silent movies accompanied by a live theater organ, or reminisce over a Buffy and Jody lunch pail inspired by that TV classic “A Family Affair.” Remember Mr. French?

More importantly, Niles is a community that did not develop in a vacuum, nor does it live is some isolated bubble today. The local merchants work together to bring in tourists by staging various events throughout the year and they have been feeling the recession like everyone else. Foreclosure signs can be seen in front of a house or three and no doubt there are recently-laid-off Nummi employees who live here. Maybe part of the history I will discover will be how Niles has weathered such hardship before. What businesses came and went before tourism became such a central focus? As always, the “so what?” aspect of historical research does not immediately present itself to me; I will have to think about why Niles history is significant beyond the notion of “understanding the past tells us how we got here and where we are likely to go.”

P.S. On my way over to my mother's house for Easter Sunday dinner, I drove through Niles Canyon. First I passed a restored diesel Southern Pacific locomotive but, even better, the old Robert E. Dollar steam engine was pulling several carloads of passengers on their way to Sunol. I lowered my car window as I drove past and over the music of John Lee Hooker jamming with B.B. King I could clearly hear the steam engine hissing and puffing. Smoke was billowing out of the smokestack and the American and California flags were streaming back from their mounting on the cowcatcher. I'm going to get in touch with these volunteers who drive the train and keep this particular aspect of Niles's history alive and running; I can't wait to talk to them and take a ride on the train!

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