By THERESA BERGER
MARTINEZ, Calif. – Students from Deer Valley High School in Antioch received a crash course in archiving and local history last Thursday as they toured the Contra Costa County History Center and Alhambra Cemetery for a school project on researching and writing inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.” Volunteers from the Contra Costa County Historical Society led students on a tour of the History Center’s collection of over 200,000 maps, court records, photographs, and other primary source documents used in historical research.
“I wanted them to understand that research can be more than something just pulled from the Internet,” English teacher Joan Setka explained.
The students, 11th graders and members of Deer Valley’s Law and Justice Academy, were given information on prominent figures in Contra Costa County history who are interred at the cemetery, including Elam Brown, Delilah Frazer, Carolyn Holpin, Salvio Pacheco, William Rankin, and Joseph Walker. Using the various photographs, obituaries, probate records, and newspaper articles provided by the Society, the students will write and perform a three-minute monologue in the voice and presumed character of their assigned figure. In addition to channeling what Setka described as her students’ “talkativity” into creative energy, the project and visit to the History Center and cemetery were also meant to “make history real” and emphasize the importance of primary sources.
A quick tutorial of the Center’s Public Access Computer Terminal (PACT) by volunteer Bill Mero exposed students to how archival research queries are performed as well as how to locate and read various source types that were included in the tour. Volunteers John Greitzer, Lisa Gorrell, Janet Stapleton and Peggy Bloisa further explained the parts of the collection as students moved through the rooms of the archive. Perhaps the biggest hit with students was a sampling of the Center’s mugshot collection, in which volunteer Janet Stapleton explained the level of detail involved in recording a prisoner’s physical features, details that included everything from a wide ear shape to a specific hat size and other details that are sure to come in handy as students develop their person’s character and appearance.
Nearly 40 students and over a dozen volunteers participated in the event, which ran the entire day and without any major hiccups. Volunteers Kaori Evans and Steve James coordinated and kept everyone on track, and intern Theresa Berger provided backup. Priscilla Couden, Executive Director of the History Center, welcomed the students and later demonstrated the Center’s collection of Naturalization papers. Not only were students respectful of the Center’s collections and volunteers, they were also intrigued by the vast amounts of history available for them to learn about and discover on their own.
“If we were able to inspire these kids to learn more about their county’s history and to visit an archive on their own, then we’ve done our job,” said History Center Volunteer Lisa Gorrell. Given the number of questions asked and the enthusiasm expressed throughout the day, it appears that the Society was able to do just that.
The Contra Costa County Historical Society has long planned for an education program for students of all ages. This day with the Antioch students provided the basis for working with a wider network of schools and organizations on similar programs.
The History Center is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the third Saturday of each month when special programs are often scheduled.