December 15, 2011
Forty Years Toiling in the Historical Vineyard
by Larry E. Burgess Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
An Unexpected Beginning
“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland remains a favorite childhood memory. Substitute “Toad” for “Burgess” and you have a reasonably adequate description of my forty year career at Smiley Library, especially the fourteen as archivist and head of special collections. Characters and philanthropists, the generous and miserly, the vain and the humble, the dour and the witty, and friends and foes all appear in the days that evolved to forty years.
My Career Journey
It began on a fateful day, unrecorded and unremarkable, save for it having taken place near the circulation desk of Smiley Library. It occurred in the fall of 1971. Phyllis Irshay, Director of the Smiley, happened to see me and came over to ask how my dissertation progressed. I responded in the hubris that is the code of dissertation writers: miserable, frustrated, behind, inundated by faculty changes in language and thought, but otherwise entirely cheery and hopeful of a successful conclusion and awarding of the Ph.D. in history by June .
Just as I was about to begin on a lamentation of the horrible job market for college teachers, Phyllis asked me if I had taken any Civil War course work. Well, yes I had, and I noted that I had studied and been the graduate intern for Allan Nevins, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian who wrote much about the Civil War.
Bea Knight, the enthusiastic and dedicated curator of the Lincoln Memorial Shrine, whom I knew well, was moving from Redlands. Phyllis wondered if in the spring I might like to take on the part time Curator’s job. My eyes glazed, a rush of adrenalin hit me, and then a futuristic vision of a job, money, and maybe even a car, and an end to dependency upon my parent’s charity churned in through my head. “Larry?” I heard a voice say, “Are you interested?” “Yes!”
My other historical life ran parallel with this story. I remember reading the Redlands Daily Facts on September 9, 1971 and seeing a photograph of Frances Redman, assistant Smiley Library Director sorting through “interesting old photographs to help catalogue a pictorial history of the community of Redlands.” The collection’s new home was to be in the Heritage Room of the Smiley to be provided by the Zonta Club of Redlands. Even though no such room existed, it was a dream whose promise seemed certain of reality.
As an undergraduate at the University of Redlands, I was urged (“shoved” is a better word) by my advisor, history professor Davis Applewhite, to study Redlands city history. I had wanted to focus on a large topic worthy of my capacious student knowledge, something like who created the universe, or how the pyramids were built, or is epistemological optimism really valid? Fortunately, Dr. Applewhite kept me focused, and because of it, my life would be forever changed. My senior honor’s thesis, Redlands in the Golden Years, seemed good enough at the time and it earned a cum laude, but today I cringe at its amateur approach and worse, at its often jejune style. I was never a good typist or a keyboard computer artist, and I managed to spell arc lights, as “arch” lights throughout the manuscript.
Nevertheless, it imbued in me a strong sense of local history and of the importance of a sense of place; a concept upon whose carapace I would lecture and write about for the next forty years.
My odyssey in history at the Lincoln Memorial Shrine began on a lovely April day in 1972 where I sat at the desk Robert Watchorn had purchased for the curator in 1932. The walls of the octagon adorned with books and Civil War memorabilia, the ceiling canvas mural of female muses depicting Lincoln’s characteristics looking down at me, and the cozy jewel box atmosphere excited me.
Only as the summer progressed did I realize that with no air conditioning the jewel box became a sweat box. And, the indignity of hanging out a “be back shortly” sign on the door in order to take a break of any kind never quite seemed comfortable.
Ah, but the contents. The documents, the pamphlets, the holographs, the books, the relics, the maps, the paintings, the engravings, and the etchings - what a treasure trove. Opening a desk drawer one day, I came across a folder containing one of three copies that Lincoln had corrected and signed of his famous Conkling letter, an 1863 defense of utilizing freed black soldiers addressed to northern skeptics. It’s one of Lincoln’s most famous addresses and we had it here…in Redlands.
No sooner than had I immersed myself in the illimitable possibilities of the Lincoln Shrine’s historical collections, Phyllis Irshay called me into her office.
The Library Board, she told me had endorsed her plan to create a local history program to be a part of “Special Collections,” a new division at the Smiley. It would include local and California history, as well as the daily operation of the Lincoln Memorial Shrine. A new division with personnel and resources committed to history, art, culture, and collection management.
Enter the Heritage Room
I had attended a“mini opening” ceremony on St. Patrick’s Day March 17, 1972 at the Smiley to celebrate the $3,000 gift from the Zonta Club that enabled the partitioning and furnishing of the eastern end of the Reference Wing for the “Heritage Room.” I had no idea on that Patron’s Saints Day, honoring the Smiley Brother’s, this humble “temple to local history” would play such an important role in my life. An article in the Facts called for “donations of memorabilia,, photos, letters, diaries, business papers, journals, advertising, maps, flyers, and programs…properly catalogued…for those who will be studying our history for time to come.”
So there I sat in Phyllis’ office listening to her explain about how a new staff position must be created, the Board having approving such at its January 10, 1972 meeting.
An offer came in a gracious letter from Phyllis on behalf of the Board and her. I accepted, and in June 1972 agreed to stay at least one year serving as the first archivist and head of special collections in the 78 years of the Smiley. At the time I had no sense that my one year would become forty.
Whether it was the traffic ticket or the brusque interruption by City Manager Pete Merritt that marked the most memorable moment of my first day as archivist is still unclear in my mind. While having a welcome orientation in Phyllis’ office, the closed door suddenly flew open and in came City Manager Merritt firing off a series of questions about various items for Phyllis, including these words: “And now tell me about this archivist position. What in hell is the board up to now?” After an awkward pause, Phyllis said “Pete, meet Larry Burgess, the new archivist.” “What.” Oh, yeah, hi,” said Merritt as he reached to obligingly shake my hand. “Well, Phyllis, I’ve got to go.” And he left shutting the door behind him.
Later, after looking about the tiny Heritage Room, I realized no matter how small, it augured a beginning of better things to come. It was a space for history, and a place for me. I ended my day by walking out the front door and going to my car parked in the driveway in front of the Library. There was a pink slip of paper under my windshield wiper- a ticket for $5.00 for parking more than two hours. Well, of all the nerve…. And on my first day…. I later found out when the ticket was voided that the area in which it was given was not even a street, but a drive that is part of Smiley Park. Welcome to the City of Redlands. New signs at the town’s entryways were not yet up: “Redlands, The Friendly Place.”
Encouragement and generosity are the two words that marked the first year of the archives operation. One of the most important decisions made regarding the development of a research collection came from the Redlands Area Historical Society. I was one of the charter founding members and board officers of that group in 1971. When I told them the news about the Heritage Room and my coming role, a wide-ranging discussion took place and the organization pledged its full cooperation and enthusiastic support. Most important, they agreed that the Society should not create its own library and archive, but rather throw its efforts into building up the Smiley and providing donations to help. This wonderful organization has given funds for forty years to advance our work.
The Library staff took me up in their guiding arms. At the time, I was twenty-six, one of two men on the roster. Because arranging and cataloguing material for archival format differs in great degree from library science, my earliest challenges involved being a non-librarian in a world of librarians.
When I asked that we keep the books on California and local history in the Heritage Room, it raised eyebrows because strictly speaking, it was not what the archive nor library world called acceptable practice. Yet, the decision to let it happen placed a synergy between the printed words in books in a useful and productive relationship with the nascent collection. Today, books have long outgrown their proximity to the manuscripts and ephemera, but all is still housed within the administrative purview of special collections.
I should have realized early on that “special collections” served as a synonymous term for “where-else-can-we-put-this?” It was less than three months on the job as full-time archivist that I came face-to-face with objects and a collection quite unrelated to California: the Putnam Egyptology collection. Given to the Library in the 1900s by trustee Charles C. Putnam, the small but interesting collection had come because Putnam was a donor to the British Exploration Fund. For years it had been displayed in a case now occupied by the Heritage Room.
Also there was an array of objects given over the years by patrons, including dolls, sculptures, and art. In fact, the art had so many pieces of quality that I early on approached the Director and Board and asked if the Library’s art could be placed under the direction of Special Collections. It was done and today constitutes a major collection enhanced by dozens of paintings by local and regional artists awaiting display in the would-be Redlands Historical Museum (the 1940 old City Hall). As I write this paper, I look up on my office wall at Barnyard Scene by noted Flemish painter, Eugene C. Verboeckhoven. Painted in the mid-nineteenth century, a gift in 1936 by then library trustee Kirke H. Field, it is another example of the generosity from one of the Library’s greatest supporters.
Soon it made sense that the Carnegie Indian Collection, as well as the Rare and Autograph Collections should be placed under the direction of Special Collections. Yikes, what had I asked for? There was but one of me and I was racing back and forth from the Library to the Lincoln Shrine, and then back to the Library. Clearly, I needed help. It came in the form of docents.
Docents and Volunteers to the Rescue
I began the docent program in May, 1972. I was able to recruit about a half dozen people, mostly women and one man. Later the proportion of men and women about equalized, and in recent times has included students, as well as those working adults and retired people.
“Docere” is Latin for “to teach.” In piecing together the docent hand book and the course of instruction, it caused me to be focus anew on the Civil War, its complexities, as well as its poignant hold upon the American historical memory. The docent’s dedication of their time enabled the Lincoln Shrine to expand its hours and its effectiveness to patrons. It also for the first time regularized the possibilities of school tours, an important constituency in our educational mission. Loyalty marks my experience with docents, and I am fortunate to have been amongst their circle. The docents will celebrate their fortieth anniversary in May 2012, some of them serving for 35 years.
An aside about the perils of organizing a new program marks that first year of their existence. Volunteering was a woman who had retired from serving as an executive secretary in the banking industry. She dressed smartly, possessed an articulate and dignified demeanor, and knew her history. We had a gadfly in Redlands, who inhabited a capacious home and was the son of a noted Hollywood director, but he also had emotional challenges that led him to occasional institutionalization. My new docent quit abruptly without explanation. It seems our gadfly came into the octagon one afternoon with only the front door as entry, or from the point of view of the docent, escape. With no one else in the building, our gadfly told this sixty-something docent that he had admired her physique, had determined she was of strong stock, and would make his best choice to bear his children. She fled.
Frankly, that incident and many others led me to realize that the jewel box Shrine needed additional space, not only for the jewels, but also for more docents to be on duty at a time, and also guards which we call museum attendants. It took until 1998, but the expansion of the Lincoln Shrine proved to be the right course for many reasons.
An inquiry from Johnston College in September, 1972 asked if I might be open to mentoring a student intern interested in archives. Indeed, I replied and it proved to be a successful partnership. She received experience in dealing with primary materials, learned about selection of historical materials, and direct “hands on” training in processing documents, as well as preserving them. This led the next year to a formal class of archival internship and forty years of University of Redlands students providing valued assistance to Special Collections. Subsequent years added California State University, San Bernardino, graduate students from University of California, Riverside (through my affiliation as an adjunct history professor in the graduate program), and even from UCLA. Over the years many of these students went to graduate programs in history, while others became supporters of historical efforts in their home communities.
The Imperative of a Public Speech
Forty years ago in May, I delivered my first public speech as part of the Smiley. It was delivered to an amiable and hospitable group called the San Bernardino Corral of the Westerners. A chapter of an international organization that is a hybrid of member interests and backgrounds all centered on the history of the West. It more closely resembled a combination of Rotary and the American Historical Association. It was through that wonderful group that I learned the importance of such contacts for support of the archives work, as well as for donations of collections.
The art of story-telling is important in delivering the historical message to diverse lay audiences. People are interested in the human condition and the whys of how collections are formed. They also want to know about research being conducted and exhibits organized. Making history come alive helps advance the necessity for preserving history and inculcating the importance of history in providing a sense of place.
Early on it became important to relate both the good and the bad contained in the human story in which all of us share. That is when I learned the important lesson that local history is personal history. In the more than 1,600 hundred talks I have given, I have never once had a relative or close friend of long deceased Civil War or California history figure ever raise a hand during a talk and voice an opinion or objection. But with local topics it happens all of the time. Even more daunting is the role that we as stewards of local history enact when we reveal that some cherished historical site, event, or person may not actually be what it is. Many an historical bubble would be broken by me over the decades and reactions were not always pretty. In fact, one led to a lawsuit.
It was not in the original job description nor had I intended to become a fundraiser. After all, in my youthful naiveté, I thought that armed with an advanced degree in history, I would be a “public professor” with a museum and collection as my classroom. Alas, I could not have been more incorrect. I quickly came to realize that the limits of my effectiveness were largely based on money, or, the lack of it. My goals exceeded my grasp during that first year, and at that time endowed funds for income to the Heritage Room and the Lincoln Memorial Shrine were not even on my operating radar screen. Quickly my limited horizon expanded.
Phyllis Irshay, active in the Soroptomist Club, took interest in my quest for air-conditioning for the Lincoln Shrine. Not only was it a human convenience, but the collection’s preservation demanded it. She orchestrated the plan and I gave a talk to the Soroptomists and met with them. In September of 1972, the result of a generous gift by these women and a discounted installation from a local contractor, we had finally come into the twentieth century. As a result of air conditioning, our attendance climbed, people actually came in to see exhibits and stayed to read them. The books, the art, the manuscripts, and the photographs all seemed to freshen up and even smile…..sort of.
I had completed involvement in my first fundraising effort and knew it would not be my last and that it would alter the nature and job of the archivist, head of special collections.
Collections: Savers vs. Throwers
In the summer of 1972 I journeyed to Lake Mohonk, New York where the Smiley family maintained and operated their resort ninety miles above New York City. Established in 1869, Mohonk Mountain House had played a role in United States history in matters dealing with nineteenth century Native Americans and federal policy, and with the movement for International Arbitration.
The Smiley family had known me since 1968 when I visited them to search for materials for my Master’s thesis which became a biography of Alfred and Albert Smiley and their younger brother Daniel. Ruth Smiley Sanborn Drake, who lived in Redlands, had arranged for my introduction, a kindly deed that presented another change to my life.
The Smiley family had elected to let me take back materials relating to the Smileys in Redlands, believing that the archives at Smiley Library would be a more logical location for their preservation and for research. Ultimately, that collection would consist of thousands of pieces - manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, and ephemera. It was our first major collection and really began the archival collection. It proved to the Board and to the patrons that such an archive would realize their dream of advancing education and knowledge to Redlands and its residents. It also helped to educate the skeptics. And, there were plenty of skeptics. They require their own paper.
I came to realize that doubters were not necessarily intellectually challenged or especially antagonistic. They simply belonged to the group known as “throwers.” The accretion of historical materials, even in this digital, internet, spacial cloud age, is still (in the words of the historian J.H. Hexter), far less than their destruction. From my experience about three out of ten people are savers. The rest, unless there is a vague monetary potential attached, and often times not even then, are content to utilize the furnace, the shredder, and the trashcan for all that “old stuff.” If historians and the archival profession have an enemy, it is the “throwers.” We may like the person, but we sure as hell do not like the “sin.”
The Hubris of Failure
During the summer of ’72, I began to plot strategy for collecting materials related to the citrus industry. Even during those early years of the 70s you could hear the buzz of the saws, the roar of the bulldozers, and the hammering of new frames for homes in the former orange groves. Packing houses stood abandoned and forlorn, seeming as condemned prisoners awaiting execution.
So, I came up with a brilliant idea: start a collection called the Redlands Orange Growers Association, a collection that would house all the materials that growers would care to send. I had not realized that in choosing that name of a formerly powerful cooperative for marketing navel oranges, that I had touched upon a raw nerve. Simply put, Pure Gold growers hated Sunkist, Bryn Mawr fruit growers were not content in being lumped with Crafton, Lugonia groves competed with south Redlands fruit, advocates for prorated citrus marketing clashed with free market advocates, and various associations were not about to be affiliated under the name of one of their competitors, even if I thought it more of a catchall name defining a collection.
The result: no one contributed anything. One brave grower came to me and kindly, but firmly, asked me if I was nuts? I did penance and over the years we would get many important collections and conduct an extensive oral history project on the citrus industry in Redlands. I had learned a valuable lesson: local history is personal history.
Because I had come out of the academy, I tended to think of terms of the academy. The archives seemed destined to be the preserve of scholars. In September, a professor from the University of California, Riverside made use of our small, but growing collection. Shortly after that I began to reflect on how few historians were using the Heritage Room, as opposed to a diverse number of people with no interest in writing monographs or presenting professional papers. We began to get many inquiries about historic homes from owners, as well as realtors and viewers of these structures. Patrons wanted to know about pioneers, see photographs of certain buildings or sites, lawyers looked for descendants of estates, businesses wanted historical photographs for their walls, and City offices wondered if we had information on various subjects before the burning of City Hall’s records in 1939. And on the inquiries went. The academic researcher did come to call and to mine the collection, but ninety percent of the customers represented the diverse nature of history and its uses.
By year’s end it became evident to me that the newly formed archive served a broad range of patron interests. It held materials that through exhibits and publications might inform the public about a variety of historical and educational issues. It housed treasures that made the Smiley distinctive among many public libraries—an added jewel to Redlands’ cultural assets, and provided a consistent and enduring message about the necessity for inculcating a sense of place among Redlands residents.
Future Developments: Goodness Stained and Motives Clouded, Clio’s Denizens
This paper concludes on a few notes about the future after 1972, 40 years already known to me. In looking back, I continue to be amazed by the unexpected intrigue and window into the human soul that came by working in Archives and Special Collections. My years as head of the operation, 1972-1986, probably broke a stereotype to many people. In those days, I was young, and more often than not, I would be greeted at talks or meetings with “Oh, my, I expected some one slightly stooped, with long grey hair, perhaps a beard, with some musty dust on their shoulders—you know, an archivist!” It is difficult to overcome such preconceptions but I worked diligently at it, and for the most part was successful. As I look into the mirror now, the years have conspired to make me resemble the very image of the old records keeper that I eschewed.
To my delight, in the years following 1972, our program at the Smiley became a model for many cities. San Bernardino, Corona, Riverside, Colton, Bakersfield, Fontana, Gilroy, and others sought our advice about local history centers and historic resource inventory collections. Museums, civic groups, non-profits, the University of Redlands, and California State San Bernardino came to us for advice about creating programs advancing their special collections and archival holdings.
Along with these developments came the story behind the story about acquiring certain collections. Diplomacy, patience, measured language, legal assistance, negotiating skills, a thick skin, an understanding of greed, hatred and bitterness among family members, commitments broken as pie crusts, dangling promises, lonely game players, intellectual density among some people in sectors of power, and the continued, unabated need for money often marked the quest for historic material. Add to all this in the future the need to understand duplicity of some mangers of donor finances, the need to attend cattle school and understand bull to heifer ratios, deal with felons, a potential covered up murder in the form of “accidental death,” a battle to save funds promised to the Library when a close advisor of the donors sought to garner the funds, and, well, you then have a good story.
That story, however, must perforce await my retirement, and in some cases, name changes, until my death. But what a wild Mr. Toad’s ride it will show. It gives me my title for such a book vouchsafed long ago to me by a friend in the press: Hanky Panky on the Sankey. Stay tuned.
Biography of the author, Larry E. Burgess Ph.D.
A graduate of the University of Redlands with a B.A. in history, Dr. Larry E. Burgess received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history at the Claremont Graduate University.
He served as founding Archivist and Head of Special Collections of the A. K. Smiley Public Library from 1972 to 1985. In that capacity he supervised the local and Southern California history collection and served as curator for the Library's sister institution, the
Lincoln Memorial Shrine, a museum dedicated to Lincoln and the Civil War. From May 2000 to November 2000, he served as Interim City Manager for the City of Redlands.
As the Library Director of the A.K. Smiley Public Library since 1986, Dr. Burgess gives between 50 and 60 programs a year on a variety of subjects relating to the history of Southern California, the West, and Lincoln and the Civil War.
Dr. Burgess serves on many regional boards and commissions. He was vice-chair of the California Historic Preservation Commission (1982-84); chair of the City of Redlands' U.S. Bicentennial Committee (196); the University of Redlands' 5th Anniversary Committee (1981-82); and the City of Redlands' Centennial celebration (1988). He is president of the Zamorano Club of Los Angeles, a rare book association, and is on the advisory board of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
Dr. Burgess is an adjunct professor in the graduate department of history at the University of California, Riverside and at the University of Redlands.
He is the author of many books including The Smileys: A Biography (1969,1993)
Mohonk: It's People and Spirit (1982,1993); The Hunt for Willie Boy (1994) co-authored
with James A. Sandos and named Outstanding Book on the subject of human rights in
North America by the Gustavus Myers Center For The Study of Human Rights in 1995; and
Willie Boy in Two Worlds: An Episode in Indian-White Relations co-authored with James
A. Sandos in True Stories From The American Past: Since 1865, edited by William Graebner
Dr. Burgess resides with his wife Charlotte, Dean of Students at the University of Redlands, in their 110 year old Victorian house in Redlands.