Express Yourself: Discover life in the Monticello community at the museum

Living carefree in Berryessa Valley: these youngsters wheel through the streets of Monticello, and not comprehending that their world is about to be upended. Only a few years later, this valley would be 125 feet below the Lake Berryessa waterline. (Courtesy photo)

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By Woody Fridae
President of the Historical Society of Winters
Special to the Express

The Monticello Exhibit is now up and available to view, Thursday through Sunday, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Winters Museum at 13 Russell St. We had a grand opening Thursday and it was gratifying to see the museum was full of folks from Monticello or who had relatives who had lived there, the town that is now covered by the water of Lake Berryessa.

Over 80 people came to see the new exhibit, and we had guest speakers who told stories about life in the town that once existed in Berryessa Valley. If readers did not have the chance to come to the opening day, the exhibit will be up for the next few months.

I have always been intrigued by the idea of a community that used to exist just 17 miles to our west. It was a town that flourished with townsfolk meeting in the local stores and restaurants, saw children riding to school on bikes or horseback, ranches that raised cattle, and an annual rodeo that drew thousands each May.

The idea that the whole community was suddenly ended when the valley was flooded meant that it was not only the destruction of someone’s home, but the end of the entire community and way of life for everyone that lived there. The decision was made by the Federal Government to sacrifice the livelihoods, ranches, and homes of that entire community for the greater good of many. But that sacrifice should not be forgotten.

Life Magazine commissioned Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones to document the final year of Monticello in 1955. So for the next year, Lange and Jones visited the Monticello and tried to show the final harvest, the last round-up, the relocation of the cemetery, the destruction of the houses, and the town’s way of life before the valley was flooded.

The collection is magnificent. These black and white photos are stunning portrayals of a community dealing with loss and dramatic forced change. But for some reason, perhaps because the subject was too morose for a magazine with a name of “Life Magazine,” the collection of photos never ran. Our collection shows some photos from that collection, some that may have never been printed before.

An interesting feature of our Monticello exhibit is the comparison of the Lange/Jones collection with the collection of photos found in the attic of Norma Muller. She had some 3,000 photos taken by her brother Bill Clark in Monticello from the late 40’s into the early 50’s. While these photos are not always in crisp focus or the exposure might be poor, they are, however, full of life. They portray a town at work and play. The contrast between the two collections is remarkable.

I want to thank many people who helped bring this collection to Winters. Most prominently is Carol McGuiness Fitzpatrick. Carol is not old enough to have ever seen Monticello, but she grew up with the history all around her. Her house is one of the few that was moved to higher ground. She remembers annual gatherings of Monticello “old-timers” that would gather at the cemetery to honor their lost town.

After watching so many of aging, former Monticello residents pass on, she decided to put together a museum in Spanish Flat, just above the lake level on the western shores of Lake Berryessa. She ran the museum for about a decade. She became the repository of photos, artifacts, and stories about the valley and the town of Monticello. The museum was nearly destroyed in the LN4 fires and they were forced to close. Carol contacted us at a time we were looking for the next exhibit. The timing was perfect.

I also want to thank Gloria Lopez. Gloria curated the first five exhibits at the museum and was looking for a break. I proposed to oversee this project, little knowing the amount of work it takes to curate a museum exhibit. Fortunately for me, she ended up helping me from start to finish.

I want to thank the entire Historical Society board for bringing this exhibit to reality. Thanks to Bill and Nancy Young and Tom Crisp who helped take down the previous exhibit to make way for this one. Thanks to Lorie Alexander, Vicki Jacobs, and Loraine Rominger who helped hang the exhibit with an artistic eye that I just did not have.

Thanks to Charley Wallace who tolerates us to be in his space and lets us use his copier, cutter, and laminator. Thanks to George Griffin for his donations for the snacks. And, thanks to Rob Coman for staffing the museum and doing a ton of other things that go on in the background that most people don’t see, but are crucial to the functioning of the museum.

Berryessa Gap Vineyards sponsored the reception for the Monticello guests, donating a case of wine for the earlier reception. Thank you, Corinne Martinez for that donation. The Buckhorn generously donated a large gift certificate for the featured guest speakers so they could enjoy a nice dinner between the two events. Thank you Emarie VanGalio for that donation.

Readers are encouraged to come see this exhibit. Our regular hours are 1 to 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. For large groups or tours, special arrangements may be arranged by calling 530-204-8563.

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