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Taking a page out of her book: Madelyn Helling to talk about her friend, Doris Foley

Retired teacher and official county historian, the late Doris Foley, will be the topic of conversation as her friend Madelyn Helling shares stories behind Foley's passion for history and life in general.
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WHAT: Former County Librarian Madelyn Helling will talk about her friend Doris Foley WHERE: Foley Library, 211 North Pine Street (beside the Court House), Nevada City WHEN: Tuesday, March 26, 2 p.m. INFO: Call 530-265-4606 for reservation. Event & refreshments are free.

For someone who never worked in a mine, Doris Foley (1910 – 1982) breathed a lot of dust. She wasn’t exposed to quartz dust like a miner drilling and blasting for gold, but to dust from old volumes and the crumbling pages of manuscripts and letters.

Foley, a retired teacher, writer and official county historian, inspired the local archives which later generations of researchers, writers and family historians call “gold mines.” She founded the Searls Library, archives of the Nevada County Historical Society, and gave her name to the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research, a non-circulating branch of the Nevada County Community Library.

Madelyn Helling, former county librarian, will talk about the Doris Foley she knew and loved at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, March 26 at the Foley Library in Nevada City. As space is limited, call the library at 530-265-4606 to reserve a seat. Refreshments will be served. The event is free.

“Doris’ research and writing are the basis of our knowledge,” Helling said of her old friend. The two bonded when Helling was county librarian and Foley was researching in the library which now bears her name. “She was a person of modesty, wit, and joy,” Helling said.

Their friendship continued beyond the library and especially on adventuresome drives into the high country.

“She was fearless on mountain roads,” Helling said. As she drove through Sierra County, Foley steered with one hand and with the other pointed out landmarks, such as an abandoned mine or neglected homestead.

Foley was raised on a ranch at Pike and as a teenager had filled in driving the mail coach nine rugged miles to Camptonville. When she descended to Nevada City for high school, she boarded at the National Hotel and boarded her horse in a nearby stable. She eventually graduated from San Francisco State College (now University) and became a teacher in Sierra County and then in Nevada City.

Foley had grown up hearing the stories of earlier days in the Sierra from her grandmother. She had a passion for history, was a charter member of the Nevada County Historical Society and driving force behind the Fire House Museum in Nevada City.

“I admired her because she was so thorough,” Helling said. “When I came to Nevada County, I knew it was historical and filled with interesting residents,” she continued, “and I was glad to meet someone so forward-thinking.”

In the early days of friendship with Helling, Doris Foley was researching two books: “Gold Cities,” with photographer Jim Morley, is a lament for Grass Valley and Nevada City as they awaited the bulldozers and the freeway that now bisects the towns. “Divine Eccentric” is a biography of the 19th century performer Lola Montez.

Helling points out that Foley was editor of the Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin and wrote 25 articles herself. She also wrote a history of the Pioneer Monument at Donner Lake and contributed historical articles to The Union newspaper.

As Foley pursued her research, pouring through bound volumes of the county’s newspaper, she was always interested in topics beyond her own.

“I was inspired by her willingness to help others,” Helling said.

Her willingness assumed a new dimension after Foley persuaded the Searls family to donate a former law office in Nevada City for an historical archive. Foley began the Searls Library for the historical society, leading the effort to catalog 3,500 books, gather maps, photographs and historical files, and create a reference index of 25,000 people who had lived in the county.

The Searls Library, which Foley began, moved recently into new quarters at 161 Nevada City Highway, Nevada City. Through the efforts of volunteers, its collections have increased in size and include extensive digital content. Meanwhile Nevada City’s historic Carnegie library, named for Foley in 1992, continues to preserve books, manuscripts, photographs, letters, diaries, business records, official records, reports, minutes, maps, and personal papers relating to Nevada County. The staff assists visitors and online patrons with Nevada County genealogy and research projects. The library also offers online resources, including censuses, Comstock databases, Heritage Quest and Ancestry. The library is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except holidays.

Foley was inspired by pride in the past and in a mountainous region she remembered as accepting of everyone. She also shared the anxiety of those who had lived through war worlds, depression and technological change. Mining, the industry which knitted many people and communities, was gone and logging close behind it.

For Foley and Helling, deindustrialization prompted preservation. Helling will explain how historic preservation satisfied the combined needs of honoring the past while appealing to newcomers.

“People come here for the history,” Helling said.

Gage McKinney is an occasional contributor to The Union. For information on his books visit http://www.gagemckinney.com.

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