History Article – October 2007

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article October 2007.

A River Into Which None Can Step Twice

A River Into Which None Can Step Twice
By Lauren Coodley

Every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves- since historical thought is a river into which none can step twice. –R.G. Collingwood

When I began the research and writing of the first edition of my book about the city of Napa, it was 2003. I had never had the opportunity to write a book until that summer. Aided by the perspective of fifth generation Napan Cathy Mathews, whose father’s photograph would eventually form the cover of the book, by the insights of third generation Napan Ali Tuthill, and finally by the copious collection in the County Library, I immersed myself into what was already known and recorded about the history of the city in which I’d spent my adult life.

Like my first journey to this town when I was twenty-four years old, my journey into the history of Napa turned into a lifetime effort. My dear colleague Jane Smith had provided reams of former newspaper articles chronicling the changes of the city; through the generosity of Nancy Brennan, I also was able to write essays exploring the implications of the past. As my articles were published here in Marketplace, people began to write to me, adding their own descriptions and perspectives on the multi-faceted past of our town.

Many of these voices have been added to the new edition of my book. The most important new voice came from Paula Amen Schmitt (formerly Judah), whose childhood experiences here became essential to me in mapping the intricate relationships that nurtured this small city. We worked together to weave the letters I’d received and the knowledge she holds into a new narrative. And it was fitting that her name is now included on the cover of the new edition. Gathering information is a crucial part of the historical process, but writing about it is an art that demands impeccable wordsmithing skills. Paula’s experiences at the community college Writing Center gave our sentences the burnished elegance that they needed in order to tell our stories with the clarity demanded by the past.

When it came time to redo the Introduction to the new edition, I hesitated. What would I change? In the end, I chose to keep it exactly the same. Although the pace of change has accelerated here since 2003, everything I wrote then seems true:

In the late Nineteenth century, the land where indigenous people had camped by the river and gathered acorns under the oaks for ten thousand years was transformed. European settlers developed cattle ranches and wheat fields, which later became fruit orchards and dairies. These farmlands surrounded Napa into much of the twentieth century, even as factories were established along the banks of its river. Throughout the twentieth century, Napa remained a rural small-town, relatively inaccessible and largely ignored by outsiders.

As this book was written, the City of Napa was in the midst of a profound transformation, in which much of its visible history was fast disappearing. Napa had been “discovered” and the town that had once been little more than a pass-through point on the route to the wineries of the valley became a premier tourist destination. In a very brief time, Napa lost its notoriety as home to the mental hospital, and became inseparable from an image of luxury and easy living. Housing prices shot up, as the downtown was “revitalized” and vestiges of blue-collar life were removed.

While the town changed, many longtime Napans remain, and for them, the past is a living, breathing shadow… For every “Pear Tree” development that goes up, they remember the row of pear trees that was there before. As busy intersections replace open fields, they remember childhood games in the grass. As their children leave town in search of affordable homes, they remember a time when few people left town and fewer newcomers came.

Although Napa is unique in some important ways, it has participated in many of the struggles that define American life. In the nineteenth century, Napans planted orchards and established industries so that men and women could earn a living away from the farms. In the twentieth century, Napa was a blue-collar community, in which men and women found good, union jobs at local factories or at the nearby naval base. Young people participated in the anti-war movement and feminist activism, as their parents attended meetings at the Elks Lodge and the Women’s Club.

This historical record is still largely hidden in yearbooks, family photo albums, and boxes of yellowing newsletters. It is this story that the new field of social history tries to tell. The stories I sought were not those of the rich and the famous, but of those heroic individuals who tried to save farmlands, raise wages, and create and maintain family businesses. I wanted to capture what ordinary Napans experienced throughout the last century, what they did for entertainment, and how they felt about this town. I wanted to record the memories of the past as I watched the town transform into something new.

And yet, not all has changed, and the Napa of old continues on along the streets where tourists rarely walk. It is there in the old-fashioned family businesses still trying to survive. It is there in gatherings in back yards bursting with the fruit trees that still love the climate here. In this Napa, people drink beer and play softball, they bowl and buy tamales, they wait in line at Buttercream Bakery, and they remember and try to pass on to their children, and to inquiring historians, what life was like here in the almost vanished past.

The second edition contains new photographs, a new Epilogue, and delicious first-person accounts that we captured as we worked. Lauren Coodley and Paula Amen Schmitt will be discussing and signing copies of the new edition of Napa, the Transformation of an American Town, at Copperfields Books, on Tuesday, October l6, at 7pm, along with Todd L. Shulman of the Napa Police Historical Society, author of Napa County Police.



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