The Star’s archives offered a window into St. Helena’s past for 11th-graders in Evan Blasingame’s U.S. history class at St. Helena High School.
Each student used the Napa County Library’s online archives to study the Stars from a particular year and compare what was happening in St. Helena with national themes and trends.
“It was fun to see how things have changed and what was important back then,” said Jenifer Sanchez. “It was like time-traveling.”
Ryland Campos chose the year 1953, which was full of Cold War-era fears of communism. There were also Red Cross events and charity drives to raise money for polio victims at a time when Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was just being introduced.
Economic boomtimes were evident in the planning of major infrastructure projects, including the Monticello Dam and St. Helena’s new City Hall and firehouse.
Sanchez found that those trends continued into 1954. The polio vaccine, concerns about juvenile delinquency, and the post-war economic boom were all reflected in Star articles about public health initiatives, youth athletic and summer programs, and the new City Hall, which opened in 1954.
“St. Helena saw a rise in kids stealing and committing burglaries – minor crimes, but still it was a big issue,” Sanchez said. “St. Helena implemented a lot of programs to help give kids something to do.”
Typical of the patriarchal attitudes of the 1950s, references to women sometimes took on a condescending tone, with women called “crazy” or lectured on what they should and shouldn’t do, Sanchez said.
Students were also struck by the conspicuous absence of the Civil Rights Movement, which didn’t seem to generate much interest in St. Helena, and the extensive coverage of people’s travels and social activities.
“There was a lot of ‘This person went to San Francisco’ and ‘This person went to a party at this person’s house,’” said Holden Smith.
Consistent with the Roaring Twenties, 1924 was full of parties and celebrations, Smith said.
St. Helena must have been heavily Republican, since the Star’s editorials were very fond of Calvin Coolidge. There was also news of bootleg alcohol being sold to high school students and a massively attended Ku Klux Klan rally.
The rally, held in a field in south St. Helena, featured a burning cross and a speech by Dr. J.R. Bronson that the Star called “temperate but firm in its tone.” Drawing an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people, the meeting was described as “without doubt the largest crowd of people ever in St. Helena,” although most of them were apparently spectators rather than participants. The Star buried the story on its back page.
Smith even found one article that used the N-word, referring to a party in which St. Helena High School’s girls Associated Student Body dressed up in costumes that relied on racial stereotypes.
Those attitudes were characteristic of 1924, when nativist sentiment ran high and the federal government enacted immigration quotas, Smith said.
By 1934, the decadent parties of the ‘20s had vanished in much of the country. But St. Helena seemed relatively well off, said Jackie Sierra. Charitable events by the Red Cross and other groups continued, and the end of Prohibition fueled innovation in the bottling and marketing of wine.
“I started to see signs of the prosperity that now defines St. Helena, with wine and agriculture,” Sierra said.
New Deal programs were in full effect, with the Civilian Conservation Corps working on projects on Howell Mountain and Mount St. Helena, Sierra said.
While the Star’s language and attitudes were dated, students did find some parallels to today, such as the community’s interest in public health, education and youth activities.