The West, 2021: Days 8-9: It's Complicated

Annette on the Road

If you're new to Non-Boring History, welcome! Right now, I'm on the road in California, with my tolerant spouse, He Who Shall Not Be Named On the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti). I’m reporting on historical discoveries on the journey, and I'm posting more often than my usual 2-3 emails each week.

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Greetings from River City, The Camellia City, the Farm-to-Fork Capital, or however Sacramento has rebranded itself this week!

Hoosen and I are in SACRAMENTO! Home of Lady Bird, director Greta Gerwig, Joan Didion, birthplace of Hoosen, the place in which this Brit came of age, and, oh yes, it's the capital of California, but this fair city is just too modest to point that out. So modest, in fact, that until Lady Bird, most Americans were largely unaware of its existence.

The Gates of Early California (as in Bill Gates)

The Leland Stanford Mansion, Sacramento, California. I forgot to take a photo from the front, so feel free to Google something better. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

Bill Gates became stunningly wealthy, setting up much of today's software infrastructure, as you may have heard.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Leland Stanford, Sr. became stunningly wealthy (a billionaire in 21st century dollars) setting up infrastructure you could see: Railroads. He was one of the Big Four investors who made possible a railroad stretching from coast to coast.

Leland and his wife, Jane, had all the goodies of the mid-19th Century super-rich, including, at one point, a huge edifice in San Francisco’s posh Nob Hill district.

This being California, that house was destroyed by earthquake and fire in 1906.

That leaves the Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, a historic house that also serves as a reception place for important visitors to the State Capitol, and schmoozing politicians. Much more important VIPs Hoosen and I visited today in company with our 14 year old niece, SWMNBNOTI (She Who Must Not Be Named on the Internets), pronounced Swimmin Benoti.

Because if you want to test the entertainment/educational value of a house museum, bring along a skeptical teenage girl who reads and thinks.

Let's be clear: Swimmin loves history. She just hasn't visited a historic house before, and, honestly, she'd probably rather go to Disneyland. Wouldn't you? I would. I love historic houses, but, come on, Disney!

However, since Sacramento is a good eight hours from Los Angeles, and we're in a pandemic, we eschewed the joys of the House of Mouse, and headed to the Leland Stanford Mansion. I wasn't optimistic about its entertainment value, and told Hoosen and Swimmin as much.

Last time I visited the Mansion, I was turned off by the tour, which is, sadly. a typical experience for me. Too many historic house tours, especially in the States, are a bit too keen to talk up the graciousness of the former residents, and show off all the lovely architecture, furniture, and china, and a bit too reluctant to discuss the stories of the many ethically questionable (and sometimes criminal) ways in which the owners often came to afford such luxury. Think of all the British stately homes and Southern plantation houses that are rapidly revising their interpretations after suddenly remembering recently that they were funded by slave labor, something historians have been keen to chat about for years. Next up for a bit of truth-telling: Mansions funded by corruption and exploited “free” labor.

I'm not asking that we invite Senator Bernie Sanders to give historic house tours. Although you gotta agree that might be pretty entertaining, whatever your opinion of Senator Sanders. It's time to say to these Victorian billionaires who have forty-four rooms in their house, no! Enough is enough!

But I equally don't like tours that aren’t truthful, and that invite us to pretend we're dear friends with (and invite us to care about) very rich people when, in reality, if we did try to drop in on, say, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, for a cup of tea and a chat, we’d probably be greeted by a missile coming down the driveway.

So the Stanford Mansion is one of those historic houses that doesn’t deal with Where the Money Came From in Detail, and makes us feel like we’re friends with the Stanfords.

That’s only surprising in that what we’re talking about is a State Historic Park (so-called park, Brits, not really a park) in supposedly crazy-liberal California in 2021.

The Stanford Mansion is interpreted as deferentially as though it were Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in the 1990s, back when a docent on my tour stoutly denied my college students’ pointed (and let’s be honest. mischievous) questions about the relationship between MISTAH Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings. The docent insisted that MISTAH Jefferson was a high-minded gentleman who would never be so tawdry as to have sex with an enslaved woman. And then no-nonsense and brilliant lawyer and historian Annette Gordon-Reed basically established that, yes, of course he did. And Monticello’s interpretation changed.

The past doesn’t change, but history does, because history is not the past: It’s the interpretation of the past. And no, I didn’t write that last sentence. I wish. But I do love to quote it at everyone every chance I get.


All that said, here's the thing about our visit to the Stanford Mansion: We had a fabulous time anyway.

So let me explain. There's a very human story to this house, possibly including a ghost, and while I may be a skeptical academic normally, I'm a sucker for both these things. And, as you will find out, Swimmin, my niece was charmed. Anyone who can get a teenager excited about a historic house visit is a genius. More about that in a bit.

Which is not to let the interpretive authorities in Sacramento off the hook: Seriously, guys? Really? It’s 2021. Let’s admit that Leland Stanford wasn’t some unassailable role model. He was a robber baron, one of the originals, and NOT mentioning this essentially politicizes the story you tell.

But don’t worry, I’m not asking you to cancel him. I hate that stuff. I’m asking for a more complete picture. And do keep the story I’m about to retell, because it humanizes its subjects.

(P.S. Could the interpreters wear costumes, rather than being dressed like security guards? That would definitely project accessibility. Also, everyone in Sacramento with a long memory, including me, knows that the Mansion’s conversion from children’s home to museum/fancy hangout for politicians was deeply controversial. That ought to be covered, too.)


The Lost Heir of Sacramento

Leland Stanford, Sr. had been married to Jane, whom he called Jennie, for 18 years, and they still had no kids. When Jane finally got pregnant at age 39, they were thrilled.

Leland Stanford, Jr. was born in 1868, at home in the Mansion, and immediately became the apple of his parents’ eyes.

When he turned three, Leland's parents invited the entire neighborhood round for ice cream.

When he was fifteen, Leland's parents took him to tour Europe.

But the trip of a lifetime did not go to plan.

Leland, Jr. came down with typhoid in Athens. In search of better medical care, his parents brought him to Italy, desperately transporting him from Naples to Rome to Florence in search of a cure. He spent several weeks in a hospital in Florence, carefully nursed by nuns.

But to no avail. A few weeks before his 16th birthday, Leland Stanford, Jr. died.

His parents were inconsolable.

And then there was the long, indescribably sad journey back to California. The life the Stanfords had built around their heir was over. Their purpose in life, and especially Jane’s, must have felt like it had ended.

That was when they decided to adopt the children of California, so to speak. They founded a college that opened seven years later, in 1891.

It was named Leland Stanford, Jr. University.

You may have heard of it. Apparently, it's doing very well these days.

Leland, Sr. died two years after the University opened (Future President Herbert Hoover was among its first students, which somehow seems appropriate). Jane died in 1905, in a bizarre episode involving strychnine poisoning, a maid who may or may not have been responsible, Hawaii, and David Starr Jordan, Stanford University president. You can read about it on Wikipedia, but I warn you it's disturbing as well as sad.

Jane left the mansion to the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, in gratitude for the Italian nuns’ care of her poor lost son. The huge house was to be a children's home, operated by one of the religious orders.


The Tour

It didn't start well. Hoosen, Swimmin, and I had time to kill before our 2:30 tour. We had only started looking at the displays in the Visitor Center, when the orientation video started in the same room. This was before I had a chance to hook Swimmin with non-boring stories.

I knew I was in trouble when the video began by talking about Leland Stanford's becoming California governor. It went on to tell the Stanfords' tragic family story, and I saw a flicker of interest in Swimmin's eyes. But then it talked about architecture. Oh nooo.

It was only five minutes, so I dragged Swimmin out to ask her what she thought. She's actually a very polite kid, so it took a moment to get out of her that the video was “boring”. I assured her that I thought so too.

I showed her on Google how the house looks very much like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland Paris, and that helped. We went back inside, and inspected Leland Jr's toys. Swimmin looked closely at a photo of him, and wondered how old he was in the picture. We agreed on thirteen. We were both off by a couple of years, but at least here was a point of engagement.

We enjoyed finding out that the house was originally smaller, and built, not for the Stanfords, but for a merchant who reminded me of Ledyard Frink. He had made money selling stuff at high prices to wannabe gold miners in Sacramento, and built his first house with a tarpaper roof. When work was done on the Stanford mansion, builders found a bit of that tarpaper roof, and it's now in the visitors center. It's not every day you see time-traveling tarpaper. Here it is!

And into our life experiences bounced Cindy York, a smiling force of enthusiasm, and our tour guide. Now I'll admit here that she and I had already chatted before the tour began, and that she had already checked out my website, so we may have gotten a luxury tour because of that.

But, and this is very important, you can't fake knowledge and enthusiasm, not only for history, but for teaching. Cindy is the best historic house tour guide I've ever had in America.

As the auntie who didn't want to botch her teenage niece's first historic house tour (although I had warned Swimmin before we arrived that the tour might suck) I was mightily relieved. Cindy, a former teacher, quickly turned her attention to Swimmin. She explained that a railroad theme runs through the house, and encouraged Swimmin to spot railroad imagery. And she didn't just issue that invitation and then forget all about it: Cindy knows how to teach. She gave Swimmin clues, but never pressured or patronized her.

Swimmin was fascinated by the hideous Victorian sideboard that looks like a locomotive from the front.

I had a great time, too. Just as Cindy suggested I might, I saw the lights flicker in Jane Stanford’s bedroom when Cindy showed us Leland Jr’s painting. Yikes. Hoosen says this is just normal electrical stuff, but phbbbbt to mundane boring explanations. I love ghost stories and, after her difficult life, Jane Stanford surely deserved to be a great ghost.

Note that Jane Stanford's horrific death wasn't mentioned on our tour, and if it's never mentioned ever, that is a shame, because while bizarre, it’s a draw. Most people are engaged by horrible stories, and kids most of all. Ask everyone responsible for the UK's wildly popular Horrible Histories empire of books, TV shows, and stage productions if you don't believe me.

I don't want to do too many spoilers, but Cindy opened up kids’ lockers in the room depicting the Mansion’s children's home era, and showed teen graffiti (“Kevin is a good kisser”) Swimmin was thrilled.

In short, this tour was a winner because everyone was engaged, and nobody came away hating history. That is a rarity among historic house tours, which is why I often prefer those with headphone tours or self-guided. If we could just clone Cindy, though, and dispatch her to historic houses around the nation, and if the bosses could reinterpret the Stanfords (Leland especially) in a more clear-eyed way, it would be perfect: A terrific host who knows how to engage adults and kids alike is a rare find.


The Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe warmly welcomes you to a very surprising exhibit.

And don’t you dare call the cancel police until you read this.

A collection of Indian kitsch to get us all to think (even as it evokes a bit of nostalgia we’re embarrassed about) Photo: Christy Keith, 2021.

A follow-up to The People Who Never Left, my post on the Nisenan people of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Swimmin (my fourteen-year-old niece), my old friend Christy, and I visited Nevada City, California, in the Gold Country, to check out an exhibit at the new ‘UBA SEO—Nisenan Arts and Culture, a fantastic outreach to all, an exciting collaboration between Nisenan people and non-Nisenan artists, and a great way to raise awareness of the campaign to restore the rancheria to the Nisenan people.

We were greeted by artist Ruth Chase, director of the film Belonging, who gave us a quick, friendly intro, and welcomed us.

The current exhibition features a fascinating series of pictures by a non-indigenous artist who was funded by FDR’s New Deal back in the thirties, in which he depicted a traditional Nisenan tale that would now otherwise be lost.

But of even greater interest to us three, however, was the collection of Indian kitsch drawn from the Judith Lowry collection.

Wait, a museum owned and operated by Native Americans that presents an exhibit about Indian stereotypes, featuring lots of stereotypes? And we three non-Indians enjoyed this?

Before you reach for your cancel phasers (pew!pew!), think about it.

There’s much silliness right now suggesting that we can get rid of racism with the aforementioned cancel phasers (pew!), and that people in the past who thought differently should have been psychic enough to know they were wrong.

Or, you know, we could talk about it like sensible people! And the exhibit prompts us to do just that!

So all three of us fessed up to having cheerfully embraced stereotypes in the past.

I told Swimmin that I played cowboys and Indians as a kid in England, thanks to the influence of unrealistic Hollywood Westerns. Now I think of it, though, I took turns playing each side, so it wasn’t the “traditional” version. Even so, it’s not something we do now, but, you know, we could just play Elon Musk and Friends versus the Martians instead, and not hurt anybody, except Mr. Musk, maybe, and it would be the same game, and we would have fun.

Christy recognized the Avon totem pole as one she had gotten from her grandma, the Avon sales lady.

I spotted the plastic cowboys and Indians my brother and I played with as kids.

Swimmin admitted to liking Disney’s Pocahontas. This gave us a chance to compare Disney John Smith:

…with the real thing.

Here’s a label from the museum which Swimmin found very interesting. Later, she grew quite excited when I did a historian demolition job on Hamilton, The Musical’s history, even though we agreed that it was perfectly fine to appreciate it as art. So much to think about!

Swimmin and I looked at all the early 20th century colorful fruit box labels which sold California fruits around the country using stereotypes of Indian peoples.

We three agreed that this exhibit was really interesting, that it was great to be invited to think about stereotypes, and that it’s a good thing that we don’t automatically think about indigenous people like that anymore, and that learning about Indians, as they were in the past and are in the present, is also a good thing.

And then we bid the friendly Ruth farewell, and went to get chocolate at a tourist shop.

You know what? That’s more than a start. That’s awesome. And the chances are very, very good that the welcoming space is drawing in more people than just the historian, her niece, and her dear friend from high school and college. Because that’s what happens when you set out to engage, teach, and seek truth.

And the more people feel comfortable talking about the past, warts and all, the more we all benefit. Do I really think that? No, I don’t. I am certain of it. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life.

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