The Founding of the Napa County Historical Society

As we gear up to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of historic Napa, it is fun to look back at the founding of the Napa County Historical Society.  It was in anticipation of another anniversary seventy-four years ago, when the Napa County Historical Society met for the first time.  They met at the Plaza Hotel on April 16, 1948 as they prepared for the centennial of the founding of historic Napa.  The purpose of the organization was to carry on the centennial work they had been preparing for the previous three years.  They codified their purpose as the discovery and preservation of the history of the county, both the tangible and intangible by meeting monthly up and down the valley, collecting stories and objects.  Ivy Loeber, who recorded the first meeting minutes, noted:

“It was decided that as May 8th seemed to be the only important date given for Napa County for the year 1848, and as the first written account of pioneer relaxation appeared to be the picnic at Rector Canyon on July 4th, 1846, that we have a picnic at Bale Mill on May 8th [1948] and invite everyone interested to attend.”

At the April meeting a slate of officers were established making Hensley Davis the President, Anne Issler the V.P, Margaret Hoover the Secretary and Sam Kellert the Treasurer.  Ivy Loeber, D.T. Davis, Margaret Ferguson, Hubert Peter, and Leo Martin were also elected to the Board of Directors.  At the inaugural meeting the group also established membership; $3.00 per year for Active members and $1.00 per year for student membership.  Student membership was considered to be non-voting.  They established that the annual members meeting would be on the 2nd Monday in January each year.  Then they adjourned the meeting and continued on with their dinner.  They collected dues from the attendee establishing the founding charter members and collecting $54.

By the end of the month President Davis had sought out legal counsel.  The Articles of Incorporation were ready for the Board of Directors signatures.  By early May, Coombs and Dunlap Attorneys at Law, filed The Napa County Historical Society Articles of Incorporation with the California Secretary of State.  The Historical Society also filed with the State Tax Franchise Commissioner requesting a tax exemption.  On May 14, 1948 California recognized The Napa County Historical Society and granted it non-profit status.

Virginia Hanrahan wrote the article for the Napa Daily Journal announcing the Historical Society formation, which was published in September of 1948.  She harkened back to the first pioneer meeting called on August 16, 1866 inviting settlers from Napa and Sonoma to the American Hotel in Petaluma.  Her article points out that “Napa Valley is desperately in need of a museum to hold intact what tangible relics remain as a heritage of the past for the future.”

Over the years the Articles of Incorporation were amended in the mid-1960s, again in 1981 and 1984, and finally in 1996, refining the governing rules.

The meetings were a bit sporadic in the first years, but settled into a monthly routine within a couple of years.  The locations varied from homes of the members to elementary school cafeterias, to church halls, libraries, and women’s clubs.  The business side of the meetings was short so that attendees could enjoy the history topic of the meetings.  Topics varied widely and reflect common themes still being discussed today — water rights, stone bridges, First People village locations, prominent historic authors, river traffic, and 19th century pioneers.  The discussions also involved creating permanent museum locations in the Valley for the objects being donated to the Historical Society.  Calistoga was the first to develop a museum and the members of the Napa County Historical Society fully supported the effort.  By 1970, the Historical Society membership was large enough that the locations were consistently public venues and posted so that members knew where the upcoming meetings would be held.

On April 4, 1976 the Napa County Historical Society opened its “headquarter” at the Goodman Library.  On May 15th, one month later, the historic library was rededicated.  Goodman descendants, along with local politicians were all present.  The minutes of the monthly Historical Society at that time clearly reflect the holistic attitude toward the countywide history with Sharpsteen Museum Project and Calistoga Museum Project updates discussed regularly, as well as the Bale Mill preservation and Leveling Home Project.  Indexing collections and social event planning were also regularly discussed.  It was announced at the April meeting that the Goodman would be open to the public from 12pm to 4pm on Tuesdays.

Today, forty-six years later, the Napa County Historical Society is still housed at the historic Goodman Library, which celebrated its 120th anniversary last year, making it one of the oldest continuously running libraries in California. NCHS has grown from those original 18 brave members to over 400 members today.  Many of the aspirations formed back at that first Historical Society meeting in 1948 have come to fruition.  The Sharpsteen Museum and St. Helena Historical Society along with NCHS work together to discover and preserve Napa history, lending voice to the rich and robust stories of the county that Virginia Hanrahan wrote about in the Napa Daily Journal over seventy years ago.

Over the years, through amazing and dedicated volunteers the Historical Society has been able to accomplish many of the original goals even through earthquakes, wildfires and pandemics.  Today, NCHS is open to the public five days a week and is still free.  At the Goodman, the men’s billiard room, now dedicated to Jess Doud, hosts two exhibits per year and welcomes over 17,000 visitors annually.  The NCHS research library continues to field over 400 enquiries per month via the online catalog and in-person requests.  The ladies tea room, where commemorative plates and coin were once showcased for fundraisers, is now home to the Society’s prospering gift shop.  As the City of Napa kicks off the 175th anniversary of its historic founding, the Napa County Historical Society and its partner historic organizations throughout the valley are well positioned to answer the call continuing to discover and preserve the histories that make Napa so interesting.

1948 Charter Members of Napa County Historical Society

Mr. Hensley Davis

Mr Dee Davis

Mrs Charles Davis

Mr. Charles Davis

Mrs Margaret Ferguson

Miss Virginia Hanrahan

Mrs. Earle Holmes

Mrs. Margaret Hoover

Mrs Anne Issler

Mr. Sam Kellert

Miss Ivy Loeber

Mr. Leo Martin

Mr. Phil Malloy

Mr. Hubert Peter

Mrs. Edith Schmitt

Miss Evelyn Peat

Mr. George B. Yount

Mrs. Florence Yount