Sunday, July 20, 2008

What’s Going On? – California and the Vietnam Era

The landmark exhibition “What’s Going On? – California and the Vietnam Era” is currently featured at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum . “What’s Going On?” provides a timely examination of the impact of the Vietnam War on California life and culture. Home to numerous defense contractors and military training centers (including the Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Travis Air Force Base), the state also served as the primary portal for both returning soldiers and Southeast Asian immigrants following the fall of Saigon. As the epicenter of the war’s home front, California became a hotbed of social and political movements that spread across the county, and ultimately redefined what it means to be an American.

The exhibition focuses on events in California from the 1950s Cold War era to the present, with special emphasis on the tumultuous years from the Vietnam conflict’s escalation in 1965 through its end in 1975. During that time, California was the epicenter of the war’s domestic front. The state was the staging ground for most of the nation’s defense contractors, the location of principal military centers where troops were trained and transported, and the base of legendary peace protests and New Right politics ushered in by Reagan’s gubernatorial election in 1966.

The exhibition includes historical artifacts, photographs, and documents interwoven with oral histories contributed by veterans, activists, and former refugees. Based on a larger exhibition of the same title developed by the Oakland Museum of California, this 1,000 square-foot exhibition provides visitors an opportunity to consider and ask question about this important period in our nation’s history.

The exhibit has been supplemented with material from the collection of the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum reflecting the impact of the Vietnam conflict on Solano County. Much of Solano County’s history has been defined by the strong military presence of the Mare Island Navy Yard, Travis Air Force Base, and the Benicia Arsenal.

The exhibit has been further enhanced by the addition of historical and artistic works by Amerasian artist Ruth Moss, a Solano County native whose work reflects the impact of the era on her and her extended family. Moss’ father served in the US Air Force in Vietnam. Her mother is Vietnamese. After coming to the United States the family helped literally hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants who came to California via refugee camps in Guam, the Philippines, and other locations.

Currently scheduled for installation at more than 10 museums across the state over the next three years, “What’s Going On?” will continue at the Vallejo Museum through September 6th.

The “What’s Going On? – California and the Vietnam Era” exhibition tour was organized by the California Exhibition Resources Alliance (CERA) in concert with the Oakland Museum of California. CERA is a network of professionally operated museums and cultural organizations that collaborate to create and tour smaller, affordable, high quality exhibitions that enhance civic engagement and human understanding. The Oakland Museum exhibition was made possible with support by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The James Irvine Foundation, The Clorox Company Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum is located at 734 Marin Street, Vallejo. For more information call (707) 643-0077.

Photo caption: U.S. Marine and Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton refugee center, 1975. Stephen Peck, photographer

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Ink Bottle House

The Octagon House was an unusual but popular style of architecture in the mid 19th century. The style was most common in the East and Midwest, but there were also a few examples in the West. Five octagons are known to have been built in San Francisco, and two still survive - the Feusier House and the McElroy House. Vallejo's Octagon was known as the "Ink Bottle House” and stood on the south side of Florida Street, between Marin Street and Sonoma Boulevard. According to the Vallejo Times-Herald in 1936, the unusual house was built around 1865 by "an eccentric sea captain whose name even the old timers have forgotten.” In later years, the Daley and Colton families lived in the house. The octagon was torn down around 1908, though some accounts have it standing - abandoned - into the 1910s.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Vallejo's First 4th of July Celebration

When the young city of Vallejo became California’s state capital in 1852, the future looked bright. The fledgling town, located midway between the bustling port of San Francisco and the gold fields above Sacramento, seemed poised for greatness. But unfortunately the State Legislature departed Vallejo after only two abbreviated sessions in 1852 and 1853. Nearby Benicia became the seat of California’s government and Vallejo was rapidly depopulated.

So by July of 1853 the state legislature had fled Vallejo and the U.S. Navy had not yet arrived. More than a year would pass before Captain David G. Farragut would establish the Navy Yard at Mare Island in September 1854. In the summer of 1853 only two families and a handful of bachelors remained in the struggling town. Vallejo’s future seemed grim.

But those early settlers remained patriotic. In The History of Solano County, published by Wood, Alley & Company in 1879, we find an account of the first 4th of July celebration in Vallejo:

“On July 4, 1853, we find the first celebration of Independence Day, in Vallejo, by a dinner at the Vallejo House [a hotel] and bonfire. At the former there sat down two ladies and eight gentlemen, Mrs. Robert and Thomas Brownlee, Captain Stewart, Squire Hook, Edward H. Rowe (elder), West Rowe, Lemuel Hazelton, B. F. Osborne, with Robert and Thomas Brownlee. At an early hour Captain Stewart had donned his full uniform and called on all to celebrate the day with becoming ceremony. A few tar barrels had been procured from the dry-dock and dragged up to what is now called Capitol hill; a pile of brushwood was heaped up to an immense height, and ‘lashings of whisky’ had not been forgotten. At dark the hill was ablaze, making the surrounding country as light as day. Success to the Union was drunk amidst much enthusiasm; the glass and merry song went round; speeches were the order of the day, or rather night, while intense loyalty gave place to noisy enthusiasm, to be replaced by morbid toast making, until one by one the heroes who had braved so many dangers sank to rest on the bosom of mother earth in a slumber which the mighty Bourbon had invoked.”

Happy 4th of July, Vallejo!