Winters Museum revives lost memories in “Remembering Monticello” exhibit

(Winters Museum/ Courtesy photo)

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Sitting at the bottom of Lake Berryessa are a lot of memories. Memories of a town set in a fertile valley with ranches, a one room schoolhouse, a general store, a blacksmith shop, an annual rodeo and community hall, swimming holes in the once vibrant Putah Creek and more.

Lost in the depths of Lake Berryessa lie memories of the town of Monticello. From the town’s early beginnings in mid-1800’s to its final chapter in 1957, those memories have been brought back to life in the Winters Museum’s new exhibit, “Remembering Monticello” that opened on April 7.

The Historical Society of Winters has been gathering photographs and memorabilia to curate the exhibit and fortuitously teamed up with Carol McGinnis Fitzpatrick, whose family lived in the lost town of Monticello.

Society President Woody Fridae said, “It would have been impossible if it weren’t for Carol (Fitzpatrick) specifically, and then she opened the door to everybody else.” 

For about 10 years, Fitzpatrick operated a one room museum in Spanish Flat, displaying Monticello artifacts and memorabilia until 2020 when the LNU Complex Fire threatened her building and she lost her lease.

Fitzpatrick, who spoke at the opening, said Fridae connected with her after the fire, asking to borrow a few items for the Winters Museum.

“It all worked out,” Fitzpatrick said. “We needed a place to put the stuff for people to see.” 

From there, Fitzpatrick said, “It kind of went full circle because this building (Winters Museum) was the ‘damn’ building” and explained to a room full of laughter that it was built as the headquarters for the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation to oversee building of the dam. 

The exhibit reflects on many aspects of life in Monticello from the time Jesus and Sisto Berryessa received a land grant in 1843 to the flooding of the valley and creation of Lake Berryessa in 1957.

The demolition of Monticello was photographed for Life magazine by renowned documentary photographers Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones; however, for some unknown reason Life never published the commissioned feature. The exhibit is presenting their photos, along with many others to provide a visual history of the town’s creation, its descendants — and ultimately — its destruction.

On hand for the opening were past Monticello residents and descendants of former residents who came together to share memories and celebrate Monticello. At its height in the years before the town was razed for construction of the dam, its population topped-out at about 250.

One former resident and perhaps the oldest surviving one, Murray Clark, was born in 1933 and grew up in Monticello. 

Clark said his great-grandfather Abraham Clark arrived in Monticello from Ohio in 1864 with his wife, brother-in-law and two-and-a-half dollars to his name. Clark said 10 years after their arrival his great-grandfather owned 10,000 acres in the Berryessa Valley and made a fortune growing wheat.

Clark’s great-grandparents built a 26-room mansion where they raised six children. The home had running hot water and 13 fireplaces, but unfortunately burned to the ground in 1926.

In 1934, Clark’s father purchased 700 acres of his great-grandfather’s land and continued farming wheat, raising livestock and a family of five boys and one girl. 

Clark attended Monticello’s Oak Grove School, a one-roomed schoolhouse until eighth grade and from ninth grade forward was bussed to Winters High School.

When the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation began securing properties to build the dam, Clark said his father went to court and fought for two years to receive $90,000 for his farm, which at the time he said was “pretty good money.” 

Clark, the last survivor of his five siblings and a resident of Red Bluff, was excited to travel to Winters to attend the opening and see his forefathers and the lost area of his childhood celebrated.

Another prior resident, Buddy Gardner, spoke of growing up in Monticello. He fondly recalled his childhood summers riding horses, playing in the creek, attending the annual rodeo and when asked what he had thought of Winters at that time, Gardner responded, “Winters was cool. It was a big town.” 

The Winters Museum is located at 13 Russell St. and open to the public Thursdays through Sundays between 1 and 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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