ST. HELENA — Some 300 visitors pored through an exhibit with all the trappings of a small-town historic museum, from the restored farm tractors outside the door to the frontier-era maps, glassware and century-old wedding dresses within. But the sprawling array of articles from across the generations is not in a museum — yet.
Every other year, the St. Helena Historical Society frees much of its collection from a storage shed, a cramped office, even the homes of sympathetic locals to display to visitors as the Museum for a Day.
On Sunday, the society’s fifth exhibition brought Upvalley keepsakes from a century and a half back into the public eye, as local history buffs seek support for finding a museum site to permanently house their collection.
The diaries, old merchants’ signs and photo displays at the St. Helena Catholic School gym offered windows back into distant corners of history, such as facsimiles of the town’s founding land deeds from 1854, the migration of Chinese laborers into the Napa Valley, the heyday of the Aetna Springs mineral water spa, and the annual Vintage Festival that packed the city with 40,000 train-riding revelers.
Even such diversity, though, is but a taste of what St. Helenans could experience with a museum to view the collection year-round, according to Mariam Hansen, a local historian and the historical group’s research director.
“The very rich and diverse history of St. Helena wasn’t in front of our residents or our visitors, and I think this event has really made people understand just what we have and what our local pioneer families have,” said Hansen. “Many of them would love to have an exhibit or items which they could donate and have preserved.”
The society’s goal is to host its collection on city-owned land next to the St. Helena Public Library, she said. Along with Sunday’s pop-up museum, the group is promoting its museum plan on social media, a purpose-built website and at public meetings.
Amid the hundreds of artifacts on display, visitors also had the chance to add a few mementos of their own. At one of the booths was Sue Clark, a historical society member who invited guests to bring decades-old family photos to be scanned, annotated with historical details and saved for the group’s planned online photo gallery.
A St. Helena native, the 65-year-old Clark called her work for the historical society as much a path of discovery to herself as to those visiting the one-day museum.
“It’s fun; I hadn’t done it before, but I’ve been doing this for a year now and I love it,” said Clark, who returned to St. Helena from Lincoln three years ago. “I grew up here and I’m finding out the history of the place I was born.”
Other townspeople, too, shared nuggets of their families’ years in St. Helena pulled from albums, boxes or, in Jack Varozza’s case, the family winery attic.
Arranged at his booth were the tools of his grandfather’s trade a century ago — a hand-operated grape crusher with a wide cranking wheel on one side, and a copper-and-steel “thief” with a perforated cone on a yard-long handle to extract wine from tanks.
“We have an old winery building with an upstairs that’s full of this stuff,” he said. “We wanted to show people the kind of tools my grandfather was using for his winery back in 1913.”
Varozza welcomed the possibility of a full-time museum in his home city, but was content to wait for such one-day events to trot out his family’s winemaking artifacts — at least until he realizes a dream of refashioning the old winery attic into a mini-museum of his own.
“It’s probably not worth much to anyone else,” he said with a smile, “but it’s priceless to me.”