When Madeline Miedema came to Oxnard, the year was 1918. While the great guns still echoed along the Somme, American troops in Europe were helping to win the war to end all wars. The next year women throughout the United States would win the right to vote. And Oxnard boasted only about 4,000 inhabitants.
Seventy-five years after her arrival, Miedema helped to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Oxnard--a hometown she knows as well as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple knows St. Mary Mead. And like the fictional heroine, chances are Miedema knows where all the bodies are buried.
But this genteel sleuth is no hard-boiled gumshoe. Miedema, a director of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, is a history hound. And for the last 30 years the retired educator has made a hobby of investigating Oxnard's early days.
"I think people should know the history of the area they live in," she said during our recent telephone conversation.
"I'm always impressed with the great optimism of the early residents of Oxnard," she added. "They thought it was the greatest little town on the West Coast."
Miedema is as big a civic booster as any of them. She went to Haydock Elementary School, Oxnard High School, then left the area to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she majored in English and minored in French and history.
But she returned to Oxnard High to teach English and world history between 1949-1959. Next she was a vice principal at Hueneme High School. And from 1966 until her retirement in 1975, Miedema was a curriculum director with the Oxnard Union High School District.
After retiring, Miedema served on the school board for nine years. And as chair of the Oxnard Public Library Board of Trustees, she is a strong advocate of library funding. "It's very discouraging to have to close your public libraries. . . . I consider them as much an educational institution as the public schools."
When she is not reading political science, history or biographies, Miedema enjoys mysteries--both reading and solving them. And living in a real-life version of "Our Town" for the best part of a century has given Miedema a perspective that Thornton Wilder might envy.
Yet when quizzed about her age, the Michigan native demurely responded: "To answer that question I tell people I came here with my father, the Rev. William Miedema, when he came to be minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Oxnard in June of 1918 when I was a small child. And I let them figure it out."
Fortunately, she is not so cryptic when it comes to sharing information about Oxnard's early history. She frequently gives slide presentations, and she contributes articles to the quarterly Ventura County History Journal.
"I've done a lot of research on Oxnard's opera house," said Miedema. "It was built in 1906 as a skating rink called Dreamland on C street. It didn't work out as a skating rink. So once a week they had traveling repertory companies that put on one or two nights of musical comedy. It burned down in 1922. Of course, by that time it was just a second-rate movie house."
Miedema's interest in Oxnard's history began three decades ago when she was to teach a unit on Ventura County history at Oxnard High School and discovered that there was a shortage of available material. "So I volunteered to look up a few things and took a few pictures," she recalled.
Using a German Exacta camera with a special lens, she obtained permission to take pictures of the photographs in the museum's collection of early Oxnard. She then converted them to slides. And friends sent her their old picture postcards.
Her hobby of collecting such postcards can be painstaking work, she said, but wading through primary sources has its rewards.
"When you've discovered something in an old newspaper or archive, it's like finding a nugget of gold. And the thrill is just as great."
Seniors age 55 and older are invited to "Tell the Truth or Fiction," Thursday at the monthly luncheon presentation of the Forever Young Organization, sponsored by the First Baptist Church, 936 West 5th St., in Oxnard. Beginning at 11:45 a.m. participants will share their most embarrassing moment. Prizes will be given for the best true and fictional account. A catered lunch, $6 per person, will be served at 12:30 p.m. Reservations are requested by Monday afternoon, 483-2205.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Madeline Miedema will lecture and show slides on Oxnard's early history on Sept. 30 at 6:30 p.m. in Heritage Square Hall, 731 S. A St., Oxnard. Admission is free and the public is welcome. For details, call (805) 483-7960.