Americans tend to view the phrase “California history” as an oxymoron. Of all the states, this is the one most often imagined to dwell in the present tense.
No one comes here to see Paul Revere’s house or the place where Washington slept or some famous Civil War graveyard. Still, the Golden State does have its past, and occasionally events conspire to remind us how much we value it.
Last weekend, a second-story apartment caught fire in the 101-year-old river town of Locke, a National Historic Landmark. Just about every fire department from Walnut Grove to Sacramento turned out to keep the worn-but-picturesque wooden community from burning to the ground.
The fire took everything but the lives of the family who had just moved into the rickety upstairs rental unit. But, as The Sacramento Bee’s Loretta Kalb and Jessica Hice reported, an exterior sprinkler system and quick action by neighbors bought enough time for firefighters to save the combustible neighboring structures and the country store downstairs.
Local merchants expressed gratitude to the 26 members of the Walnut Grove Fire District, an all-volunteer force that has guarded the close-set streets of Locke for some years.
Deputy Chief Mark van Loben Sels, in turn, credited the force’s dedication and good training, the outside departments that provided backup, federal grants that paid for its new equipment, and a fortuitous, last-minute shift in the wind.
But the rest of us are glad Locke was saved, too. Settled in 1915 by Chinese laborers who were displaced by fire in that era, Locke is an Old West portal into another, earlier California – one whose lessons are worth preserving, particularly in this xenophobic campaign season.
Locke makes us think about who, exactly, harvested the asparagus and pears around which fortunes were built in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and who built the levees that guard thousands of acres of farmland. It stands as living testimony to the determination of generation after generation of immigrants to fit in.
It reminds newcomers to this Golden State who was here before whom, whether or not the history books name them. The community may not be the thriving place it once was, but Californians have guarded it – and continue to guard it – for reasons that matter, both to posterity and in the present tense.