Surprising speech 75 years ago launched Nevada County Historical Society |

Surprising speech 75 years ago launched Nevada County Historical Society

Gage McKinney
Special to The Union

When in August 1944 Dr. Robert Burns of the College (now University) of the Pacific spoke to the Grass Valley Lions Club, the men found his talk so compelling they invited him back to Grass Valley to repeat it.

In November 150 citizens, including civic leaders, professional women and service club members crowded into the banquet room of the Bret Harte Inn for a dollar-and-a-half chicken dinner and to hear Burns at the rostrum.

Given the momentous events of 1944, one might have expected a talk on the achievement of D-Day or the liberation of Pacific islands. One might have welcomed an explanation of the new monetary regime which emerged from an international conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. But, no, Burns spoke about none of these things.

Dr. Burns’ topic was California history.

The enthusiasm locals showed for the subject reveals what they were thinking. By the autumn of ’44, civilians in the Allied countries had exchanged thoughts of victory in war for thoughts of re-building in peace. They began to assume responsibility for shaping a post-war society by searching for what was usable from the past.

War Wrought Change

As Nevada County people pursued this project of reflection and re-building, some were more self-aware than others. Yet probably everyone recognized what Editor Edmund Kinyon had written repeatedly in The Union: the war had changed Nevada County forever. The war had replaced the pioneer values of the individual, family and tight-knit community with the collective values of the nation. Those who went to hear Dr. Burns wanted to acknowledge those older values even as they recognized such values had to find a place in an emerging new world.

Burns’ talk that evening included “a clear-cut program” for organizing a county historical society. At a meeting two weeks later, locals began implementing the program when they elected Elmer Stevens president; the Rev. Frank Buck, vice president; and Betty Eldridge, secretary-treasurer of the new Nevada County Historical Society.

The officers spent several weeks mustering support and drafting bylaws for the new organization. On March 22, 1945 — almost 75 years ago — the society adopted as its purpose the “discovery, preservation and dissemination” of the county’s history. Yet the unexpressed purpose was clearly more ambitious. Through its actions the society sought to increase historical awareness.

Museums & Quarterly

The society pursued several strategies to promote history. In 1945 it began the county’s longest-running speakers’ program. Among its earliest speakers the historical society hosted Leslie Edgar Bliss, librarian and curator of the Huntington Library, San Marino, and Rockwell D. Hunt, the historian California’s governor dubbed “Mr. California.” “We are who we are largely because of what has gone before,” Hunt said. Over the past 75 years a succession of knowledgeable speakers has become a defining element of the society.

Alongside its speakers’ program, the society began accumulating historical artifacts representing past ways of life. In November 1945 the Board of Supervisors supported the effort and the following spring a collection of artifact cabinets lined corridors in the County Court House.

In October 1946 Nevada City made its obsolete Firehouse No. 1 on Main Street — itself an artifact — available as a museum. In the early years two local teachers, Doris Foley and Elmer Stevens shuffled between society president and museum chairman.

In 1948 Nevada County Historical Society began publishing its Bulletin, a combined newsletter and historical journal. The original publication appeared sporadically, and as historian David Comstock said, “there was similar inconsistency with regard to content.” Early issues showed a keen interest in the indigenous people of the region and non-white settlers, especially the Chinese. Over seven decades the Bulletin evolved into a quarterly with increasing well-researched and well-documented articles, an important repository of local and regional history.

Awakened by Silence

Just as the upheaval of the war had wakened historical awareness two decades earlier, so in the 1960s members of historical society awoke to the silence of the stamp mills. The clearest response to the end of the industrial era was the opening in June 1968 of the historical society’s “Mining Exhibit” on Mill Street in Grass Valley. The exhibit included artifacts, a replica assay office and blacksmith shop.

The exhibit became the core of the North Star Mining Museum on the banks of Wolf Creek in Grass Valley, one of the West’s best displays of historic technology. The City of Grass Valley, the Rotary Club and local businesses supported the project, which opened in 1970 and included a 30-foot Pelton wheel. Museum director Glenn Jones prized above the artifacts the work of volunteers. “Without their work,” he wrote, “the museum could never have become what you see now.”

In 1972, the historical society opened a research library and archives in Nevada City. “Doris Foley persuaded the Searls family to donate their law office building for use as the Searls Historical Library,” said current director Pat Chesnut. Today the collection includes more than 3,000 volumes of local history, 6,500 maps and 29,000 photographs, and continuing indexing and digitizing makes archival materials readily accessible. As her friend Madelyn Helling recalled: “Doris Foley showed what one woman could do.”

A Preservation Movement

The building of the Golden Center Freeway prompted a rage for preservation. In Nevada City, preservationists rallied to save the Nevada Theatre, which reopened in May 1968. Preservationists influenced a redesign of the freeway to save historic structures, including the Ott Assay Office. Both Nevada City and Grass Valley created historic districts. Meantime, the State of California acquired the Empire mine for an historic park. While none of these efforts were the direct work of Nevada County Historical Society, all were inspired and led by society members.

The most recent museum, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum, developed following a 1983 meeting of railroad buffs and historical society members. The vision of the city manager and others in Nevada City, plus the generosity of landowners and business leaders, led to the opening in 2003. The museum expanded historical awareness beyond documents and photos, reviving the past in the rebuilt rolling stock of the long defunct railroad.

Beware of Success

Someone could point to the lack of manufacturing jobs and young families in the county today and wonder whether preservation has succeeded too well. At the same time, heritage has become part of the economics feeding the towns. More importantly, the county values its elders and respects their memories.

Three-quarters of a century ago, as war still raged in Europe, a young philosopher named Simone Weil worked at Free French headquarters in London. She had experienced a nation and a world uprooted by war. She wrote: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

Over 75 years, the Nevada County Historical Society has helped to root longtime residents and newcomers alike in the foothills of California.

This quarter’s Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin contains a fuller, annotated account of the organization’s 75-year history. For more information about the historical society, its speakers and other programs, and to become a member, visit The current historical society officers, including President Daniel Ketcham, are listed in the Bulletin.

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