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The Odyssey of the Human Spirit in Rural and Small-Town California : The Living History That Is a Part of the State's Past Is Explored by Different Speakers in a Humanities Workshop in Santa Barbara

October 16, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Director Mark Rawitsch has to smile when visitors to the Mendocino County Museum in the Northern California community of Willits ask what time his soda fountain opens. The fountain, a town institution for 50 years until it closed in April and was moved piece by piece to the museum, no longer serves sodas. But it is living history, not some relic in a dusty case.

It's the same with another museum exhibit, the dental office of Dr. Withrow, who practiced in the town for 54 years. Just to see that big drill is to recall the terror and pain of a visit to the dentist circa 1929. Rawitsch noted, "People never ask when the dentist's office opens."

Slices of Real Life

The exhibits are, in short, slices of real life. To old-timers, some of whom as children remember visits to the Willits Creamery clutching prescriptions for ice cream cones written by a local physician, will point to a certain counter stool and remember that they sat right there, in that very spot, which of course was not right there at all.

"And you wouldn't believe the guilt stories," Rawitsch said. He told of a middle-aged man recalling, as a child, being dispatched with $10 to take a bus into San Francisco to see the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition; the bus never showed up so the boy blew the whole $10 on ice cream for all his friends at Willits Creamery.

Rawitsch was one of the speakers at a workshop Monday at UC Santa Barbara on "The Humanities and Rural/Small-Town California," sponsored by the graduate program in public historical studies with funding from the California Council for the Humanities.

Even as speakers struggled with different definitions of the humanities, each zeroed in on the theme of what Carola Rupert, director of the Kern County Museum and Pioneer Village, called "the odyssey of the human spirit."

In short, Rupert said, "People like to see things, but people love to know about other people." She suggested, "When the humanity is lost in the humanities, we're all in big trouble."

"An Anthropologist in the Country: The Culture of Small Towns in California" was explored by Elvin Hatch, professor of anthropology at UCSB. Ethnographers studying these little slices of life frequently come up short, he said, because they come up with something not unlike "stamp or butterfly collections, interesting perhaps as curios but not much more."

An ethnographic study of a community, Hatch said, should include its economic organization--for example, "whether the local merchants line up with the farmers against the working people"--the relations between the community and others nearby, how the people sort themselves out socially and community dynamics, or how things get done.

In most studies, he noted, "we don't see how (people) got along with their husbands, or their children, or their neighbors. We don't see how ambitious they were." He asked: "Where is the line drawn between respectable people and the disreputable? . . . What are the symbolic markers that differentiate the social categories?"

Examining 'Little Pieces'

In studying a community, Hatch said, it is not enough to examine "little pieces," such as a school, without asking: "What kind of people got elected to the school board back then? How did people mobilize the district to build this schoolhouse? Where did the profession of teaching stand in the social spectrum?"

Two of museum director Carola Rupert's favorite resources are old etiquette books and "how to type" manuals. The latter, she noted, "tell you so much about women entering the marketplace."

Rupert--whose challenge in bringing visitors into the Kern County Museum includes the general view that Bakersfield is, as she said, "the place to go through to get to somewhere else"--likes to build on old photographs to create exhibits to which people can relate. A photograph of a horseless carriage outing to the woods, for example, might inspire a vintage picnic exhibit with inexpensively authentic props such as Ball jars.

Rupert had brought to the workshop a panoramic photograph of a Bakersfield Motorcycle Club outing in downtown Bakersfield, circa 1915, that inspired her to start asking: "How many photographers had these (wide angle) cameras? Are any of the young people in the picture still alive? Where can I find one of these motorcycles?"

But Rupert's thinking didn't stop there. She was mentioning the collective fascination that Bakersfield has always had with the automobile, the fact that old-timers can still tell you what happened to the first one in town, how it plunged off the Grapevine and its parts were recovered and recycled. . . .

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