So my sister and I were glad that our old family home in San Jose seemed pretty clutter-free when our mother died at the age of 94 in September. Our father had died 10 years before so there had been time to go through his notorious "den," a collection of correspondence, programs, history books, photographs, family records, booklets, cigar boxes, postcards, yearbooks - and more. A nephew and his wife tackled that project, cataloging everything and sending out lists to family members so we could all claim what we wanted. I took possession of a few calliope records - 78s. You don't hear that kind of music much anymore. Actually you never heard it much "back then" either but my dad sure loved it.
Once the den was cleaned out and made into a guest room, the house seemed devoid of clutter. But it turned out that all those cupboards, drawers and closets held much more paperwork, books, photos and memorabilia, as did the workshop in back. My sister donated quite a few books to the San Jose Historical Museum, where my parents had been active at one time. My father even had a part in its founding. He was born in San Jose in 1905, a descendant of Maggie Caldwell, the first Anglo-American born in Santa Clara County.
I called Beverly Lane, curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, to see if she receives similar donations from old-time families. She said that she often gets calls from people who've lost a relative. They ask if the museum is interested in newspapers or other old things their relatives might have saved.
"Sometimes they just say, 'Should I take this straight to the dump or do you want it see it?'" Beverly said. "They are often tackling just a really big project."
She always tells them to bring the items in. She said she has volunteers who are also good at deciding if an item reflects the history of the Valley, such as programs, newspapers, tools that have been used. It's important for people to remember that times we can remember may now be history: The museum has embroidered Levi shirts from the '60s.
"In August and September we will have an exhibit from the 1940s," Beverly said. "We have some newspapers that indicated Pearl Harbor, and the end of the war."
Everything accepted at the museum is logged into its computer with its date of origin. Staff was able to ask for items from the 1940s and see what was available in the collection, then decide what would fit the exhibit.
She said groups such as the Alamo-Danville Senior club have donated scrapbooks from the early 1970s that help with historic research. "I've begun to realize the value of scrapbooks with names," she said.
Some things she mines for information then passes along to other collections. She recalled an old composition book that contained the minutes from the meetings of the old Tassajara Fire District. These she passed on to the archives of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District. Luckily someone thought to look inside the book, she remarked.
"One thing I've finally gotten used to are boxes appearing on our doorstep," Beverly said.
There has been a pretty steady stream of items from the San Ramon Valley Branch Line of the Southern Pacific, which used to run along what is now the Iron Horse Trail. Someone turned in three old railroad lanterns. People watched the rails being dismantled and brought home spikes, which now get donated regularly. A volunteer cleans them up and they're for sale in the gift shop with a little memory card.
One man brought in a railroad sign saying, "My teenage son collected this and it's been in our garage," recalled Beverly. "He preferred it to be donated anonymously."
The museum also has boxes of commemorative magazines and newspapers with headlines about Kennedy's assassination, the ends of wars and travel to the moon. Or closer to home, the opening of the freeway.
"Sometimes people forget we're here," said Beverly. "They think, 'My kids don't want that,' and throw things away."
Then they're lost forever.