Last year, the lives of St. Helena Historical Society board members Mariam Hansen and Susanne Salvestrin were taken over by an all-consuming project — the creation of a book about St. Helena’s beginnings using historic photos spanning the decades between 1880 and 1960.
“We were joined at the hip,” Salvestrin joked last week as she, Hansen and Helen Heibel Nelson sat upstairs at the St. Helena Library in the corner that currently serves as the society’s home base. The three were busy documenting the society’s latest acquisitions, an ongoing job that continued despite the year-long focus on the book, “Images of America St. Helena.”
The idea for a pictorial history of St. Helena had been on their minds since 2006 but it wasn’t until 2009 that Hansen had time to put together a proposal for Arcadia Publishing, considered the leading publisher of local histories. “St. Helena” is number 3,825 in the lineup of books preserving the history of cities large and small across the country.
Once accepted, and with a rigorous set of guidelines and deadlines to follow, Hansen and Salvestrin put out a request for historic family photographs.
When they didn’t get the response they had hoped for, the pair made phone calls, knocked on doors and encouraged longtime residents to sift through their collections, many of them tucked out of sight in old albums or in boxes stored haphazardly in closets, attics, basements and garages.
Photos came from the society’s own collection, from the photo archives of Kathy and David Kernberger, Calistogans Jack and Marcey Smith, the George and Elsie Wood St. Helena Public Library, the Napa Valley Wine Library Association, the Napa County Historical Society, the fire department, the school district, local churches, wineries and local residents — including a congressman and the town’s mayor.
Photographs that families weren’t ready to relinquish were scanned and returned. Next, the pair sorted through prints, trying to place them in a town timeline. Eventually, there were too many to include in the 128-page book and in the end, 229 photos made the cut.
“It was really hard to narrow it down,” Hansen recalled. “It just pained us. Some of them were so wonderful.”
It was a labor of love if there ever was one.
“In a lot of cases, we were able to talk to the people involved,” Hansen said, as she showed a photo of then-California governor Ronald Reagan at Aetna Springs Resort during a 1965 meeting of the Napa County Republicans. With him are Helen Heibel and her father, George Heibel, and in the background, loaded down with cameras, the St. Helena Star’s legendary editor, Starr Baldwin.
The history sleuths put in hundreds of neck- and back-wrenching hours peering at hazy images on the library’s microfilm of the St. Helena Star or poring over decades-old editions of the newspaper to piece together information. But mostly, the researchers relied on microfilm. During one period, when Hansen was trying to determine dates of the various harvest festivals, she came across the mention of a camel. When she found an undated panorama of costumed festival participants, it was the camel in the background that caught her eye and pinned down the photo’s date as September 1913.
The book also contains early photographs of Main Street (at one period, saloons and hotels predominate), of homes, churches, schools and school children, of families and crews working the land and making wine, of churches, local businesses and noted personages, municipal bands, sports teams, carriages, wagons and trains — and the old making way for the new.
There is evidence of fun and hijinks, too. Several movies were made in St. Helena and Yolanda Pincus and her camera were there to capture the stars — Hayley Mills, who starred in Disney’s “Pollyanna,” and Elvis Presley, who came to the valley to film “Wild in the Country.”
Photos of Pope Valley arrived from Joe Callizo, and the family of Harold Smith Sr. had numerous depictions of work at their White Rock Mine in the 1920s.
“We learned a lot about mining and Pope Valley in general,” Hansen said. “We learned about hop picking, prune drying, about politics and why Reagan came to Aetna Springs, and we learned a little about St. Helena Hospital history. We also realized what a tremendous resource the Star is and we wish in our heart of hearts that the Star could be digitized and searchable.”
Other wishes: that they had been able to find photos of the town’s Chinese population around the turn of the last century, as well as early photographs of Hispanic residents. That there are a few is due to the efforts of Rafael Rodriguez, Hansen said.
By October, Hansen and the growing research crew of Salvestrin, Kim Farmer, Sarah Lane and Lynn Rice were facing back-to-back deadlines. Robyn Orsini had already volunteered her services as proofreader and copy editor. (Farmer was instrumental in researching, scanning and computer support; Orsini’s professional copy editing experience made the book correct and readable, Hansen said.) Everyone scrambled to check grammar and spelling, and double-check facts to make Arcadia’s March 1 publication date.
They made it. Although one or two spelling errors escaped correction, those will be caught in the next printing, Salvestrin said.
For those new to the town, the book will serve as an introduction to the history of the place, to what made it what it is today, Hansen said. For longtime residents, the book offers a way to relive memories and to talk about them with others.
“This is a wonderful way to share these photos,” she said, “Otherwise, how would you do it?”