Shelley Klein embarked on a journey gathering stories from local Santa Marians about their personal or family history in World War II and received more than she expected for a new exhibit at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society Museum.
“I told my board, ‘I think I bit off more than I could chew.’ It’s a lot more people than I thought it would be,” Klein said.
The museum had exhibits on the Civil War and World War I, but never emphasized other wars in U.S. History, said Klein, the museum’s curator and director.
“I thought: We need to start bringing in people who remember their fathers and grandfathers and uncles and get that memory and memorabilia and those stories before they are forgotten,” she said.
After sending out a call on Facebook, Klein said she heard back from several community members willing to bring in letters, documents, and memorabilia for the display; Klein helped document all of the personal stories from people in the war and stored them in the museum’s archives for future reference. Called On The Home Front, the display is available until Dec. 22 for locals and families to come see and honor local World War II veterans.
“We have letters from families, a whistle and an arm band from the local air raid. We have ration books, we have a cake topper with a military man,” Klein said. “We have all kinds of things that show what’s going on.”
From surviving torpedo hits in different battles, to having their home and business destroyed by a war plane crash, to someone being one of the first volunteers called into the Army in 1940, Klein said she heard a variety of stories of those impacted by the war.
“We’ve got tons of people who came here and made this their home, so their families wanting to share these things was just amazing,” Klein said.
Because Allan Hancock started an aeronautical school in Santa Maria, the Army was looking for an air base in this area, which led to the development of the Santa Maria Airport’s current location and caused many families to relocate here for their service in the military, she said.
Originally, Klein said, she relied on local high schools’ yearbooks to find families who served, but she later realized many people moved to Santa Maria after the war.
“What happened was some ended up remaining in the military and ended up in the Camp Cook area that continued to grow and became Vandenberg [Air Force Base] and a lot of people were hired,” she said. “Our town grew, almost doubled in the late ’50s and ’60s.”
Once the exhibit wraps up, Klein said that she plans to make it a smaller permanent feature in the museum where she rotates stories and memorabilia on display. Artifacts that locals brought into the museum were scanned so the originals could be returned while still being preserved and stored on file at the museum—making them easier to access and care for, she added.
“I’m still collecting, and I’d love to have more and people share more of their stories. It’s one of those things we want to remember and gather up before the history disappears on us,” she said. “We are trying to have four Our Valley History presentations a year, and I would love someone to come share about World War II, about their father, grandfather, or uncle who has that knowledge.”
On The Home Front will come back again next Veterans Day but it will focus on the Korean War and then the Vietnam War to continue documenting the part locals played in U.S. history. Klein said she has started folders for both of these exhibits and is welcoming people to come and share their stories with her for future use.
“Part of our responsibility is to collect and preserve this history, and this is one area we’re losing. We’re losing the memories, the people,” she said. “I want to gather and make sure we share these stories before they are forgotten.”
• The Orcutt Christmas Parade returns to Old Town Orcutt after 61 years of entertaining families and the community. The parade will start at noon and make its way down Clark Avenue with the American Legion Color Guard leading the way. The parade will feature 75 to 90 entrants, including local school bands, floats, families, service clubs, classic cars, and businesses decked out in their holiday best. The Orcutt Volunteer Fire Department initiated the annual Christmas parade in 1961. Eventually, a group of residents formed the Orcutt Community Foundation and with the support of the Orcutt Lions Club, donors, and volunteers, the parade has become a highlight of the Orcutt Christmas season. Visit orcuttchristmasparade.org to enter into the parade by Nov. 24. Call (805) 863-2842 or email [email protected] to donate or sponsor the event.
Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].