Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article June 2006.
Fancy Fair & Community Projects
-Women’s History in our Town
By Lauren Coodley
When hearing that I taught “women’s history,” people have responded with confusion and misunderstanding for many decades. That’s not surprising, because most people don’t study the history of women, nor women’s organizations. Thus they don’t realize that women’s history encompasses the stories, not only of renowned national figures, but the quiet heroism of members of our own towns. Though much scholarship has focused on women’s voluntary contributions to civic life, it is the responsibility of every town to note and to remember these contributions.
One such contribution is charitable work through fund raising events. How would we find out the history of the “fancy fairs” that were held at the Fairgrounds for many years? And if we discovered the women of Community Projects created them, how could we find out how that organization began? How did it run so successfully, and who were the personalities that kept Community Projects thriving since its inception during World War I? So much of local history depends on who wrote for our local papers and what they chose to write about. Did journalists ever investigate the history of Community Projects? And if they did, have the archives been preserved and indexed? These are the kinds of questions we will be pondering as we develop the Napa History Project at the community college library.
In the meantime, if we talk to even one person, the origins of this important history begin to be woven. Maryellen Simmons was one of hundreds of women who belonged to Community Projects (CP). Her experiences in the organization both as a newcomer and as its 1975-76 board president begin to paint a picture of what this organization achieved. She remembers becoming aware of Community Projects, “by following CP in the newspaper. I was impressed by what the organization did—great things were accomplished as a group that one could never accomplish alone.”
Maryellen remembers: “I was working as a checker at Food Fair Market on Silverado Trail around 1963 when Pat (Vernice) Gasser, who was regular customer, approached me about joining. She emphasized that the organization was one of work, with camaraderie, yes, but with all things done through work, not pure socialization.” [Gasser’s mother was a founder of the group whose first project was rolling bandages for the WWI soldiers]
The overall mission of Community Projects was to benefit the people of Napa County. Members were required to log a minimum number of volunteer hours and attend monthly meetings, which Maryellen describes as “all business” with an agenda that included a strict accounting by the Board of Directors for every penny brought in and spent. During her time there, CP purchased a new van for Napa Valley Head Start, replaced Red Cross vehicles and gave countless scholarships to local high school students. She remembers that its first project was the modest one of purchasing a whole set of dishes for the Parks Victory Hospital, which once stood on a tree-lined Jefferson Street. “The women held their first little “bazaar” right there in the hospital with the goal of replacing the bits and pieces of donated dishes patient meals were served on back then.”
Years later Community Projects became the auxiliary support for Queen of the Valley Hospital where CP greeters in their blue monogrammed smocks were a welcome sight to patients and visitors for decades. That affiliation generated the organization’s principle that “no CP volunteer would ever fill a job that should be done by a trained, paid employee.” Many members fulfilled their hour commitments by working at the Thrift Shop. Maryellen describes a typical day there: “Volunteers arrived, bag lunch in hand, and gathered in the back room where donations were stored. They unpacked, sorted, mended, and priced items. In the early years of the store, if clothing arrived soiled or wrinkled, the women themselves would take it home to launder, iron, and return.”
The shop’s annual Spring Opening became a much-anticipated event in the community, and in the 70s the Thrift Store expanded, buying the corner service station next door. CP also took on the task of coordinating all the transportation for the Kaiser Golf Tournament (later Anheuser-Busch). The tournament became a major fund-raiser, but CP’s annual Fancy Faire was its signature event for many years. Preparation and planning for Fancy Faire was an enormous undertaking. Groups of women worked in their homes year-round making craft items and preparing baked goods and other consumables; in addition, the women and their entire families invested hours of sweat labor converting a cold exhibition building into a festive and beautiful place to kick off Napa’s holiday season.
As Maryellen recreates those years in the 60s and 70s, it reminds us that everyone experiences each decade differently. “Some Napans remember the blooming of civil rights and the anti-war movement in their town during these decades; others recall the simplicity of life in a small town encircled by orchards, with drive-in restaurants, a skating rink and two bowling alleys. Napa women joined clubs, made crafts and also worked outside the home in factories or in their own stores.” (excerpt from Napa: the Transformation of an American Town (Arcadia Publishing, 2004).
Within Maryellen’s own family, this period of the late 60s has a different meaning, as described by her son Michael Amen later in the Napa book: “In February 1969, I headed across the City of Napa to attend a concert … it seems more fitting to think of it as a pilgrimage.”
Amen had seen an ad in the Register for a concert for the Grateful Dead at the Dream Bowl. He writes: “My mother tells me that during World War II, couples were looking for some romantic way to spend their time because it could very well be their last time together…when the Dead performed, I was totally captivated… I feel lucky that I got there at that particular nick in time.”
Fancy Faire and the Dream Bowl are gone, to be
remembered as long as the last people to visit them are alive. Community Projects thrived, with new generations of women volunteers. It is housed as it always has been on 7l5 Franklin Street. Women’s history, the stories that women tell, can restore us to the memory of Fancy Faire, the triumph of Community Projects, ventures which knitted our community together in charity and craft. My deepest thanks to Maryellen Simmons for helping us to make sure this story is not forgotten.
Note: Tony Kilgallen in his Napa: an Architectural Walking Tour (Arcadia Publishing, 200l) tells us, “In l905 G.W. Young announced his plans to build a plunge bath tank.” It was originally a wood frame building with a tank 30 by 90 feet. In l9l2 the pool was floored over by the Catholic Church, and Dominican Sisters taught classes there. In l920, the building was remodeled, and shortly after, Community Projects hung out its sign. For more information on the Napa History project or fall class,
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