By Carol Van Etten
Since prehistoric times, the human voice, with its unique inflections and accents, has possessed the power to draw in listeners and involve them in worlds far outside their own experience. Such was the muse that inspired the collecting of nearly 100 taped oral histories on behalf of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society over a quarter of a century.
In the spring of 1984, acting to fulfill its mission statement, the fledgling board of the historical society voted to purchase a Dictaphone to conduct oral history interviews. At that time, many local old timers were still living (some of them board members), and the practice of conducting taped interviews with those who could remember early history was becoming widespread in the realm of history preservation.
Despite the cost of more than $900, the NLTHS Board voted to purchase a state-of-the-art Sony Dictaphone, and in August 1984, I conducted my first taped interview with C. Don Huff and his wife Bernice, longtime proprietors of Homewood Resort. The Huffs’ congenital hospitality, honed by years of meeting the public, put me at ease and resulted in an excellent recorded conversation that reveals much about early Homewood history.
With the success of this initial encounter, I began to consider additional interviews. During this time, I was renting a house in Lake Forest on acreage belonging to Mildred Watson Collins, granddaughter of Tahoe trail finder Robert Montgomery Watson and only child of Tahoe City pioneers Stella and Robert H. Watson. Mrs. Collins, born in 1910, grew up in Tahoe City and had spent her childhood summers in the log cabin that still overlooks the Tahoe City shoreline. She agreed to be interviewed, and among her recollections was making the whopping sum of $5 a day as an extra in the Mack Sennett two-reelers that were being filmed locally.
Retired Tahoe City schoolteacher Lillian Vernon Farr was another of my early history contacts. Not only were Farr’s comments on several Tahoe City subjects captured on tape, but together we made a complete survey of her parents’ photo collections. As Farr realized my consuming interest in local history, she rewarded me with the gift of these photos, which illustrate much of Tahoe City’s activity during the 1930s and ’40s. I have since donated these collections to the NLTHS.
Further valuable insights into Tahoe City’s past are supplied by a conversation recorded in 1989 with Pat Henry Fox, whose father and brother, Joe and Al Henry, both served as chief of the local fire department. Fox was an avid horsewoman, and her account helps bring to life the active equestrian history of this high Sierra community.
Also among the sizable stack of cassettes is one containing an interview with Fox’s classmate Beccy Brodehl Shontz, who arrived in Tahoe City in 1934 when her father, Daniel M. Brodehl, won the contract to carry the mail around the lake aboard his cruiser, Marian B, the last of Tahoe’s mail boats.
Many summer-only residents are among those who shared their Tahoe recollections on tape. Another 1986 interview was with retired Auburn and Meeks Bay contractor Millard Hollenbeck, the young carpenter hired to dismantle the Hotel Tallac in 1927. Hollenbeck was also proud of pointing out that he was the builder of the popular Auburn eatery Lou LaBonte’s, which closed in 2014 after almost seven decades of operation.
Among the earliest of the Tahoe accounts I collected is that given by Alice Madeley Matthews, a native Sacramentan who could recall having first come to Homewood to enjoy the summer of 1904. Other notable interviewees include Carl Shannon, son of the long-time caretaker of Glenbrook Inn and Ranch; Alfred and Eleanor Ross, early residents of Lake Forest’s first subdivision; Arden Law Throndsen, daughter of one of two Law brothers who alternated spending summers at Emerald Bay; and Ann Milton Wallis, whose father, San Francisco capitalist Maxwell C. Milton, was an early property owner on the lake’s West Shore.
It is planned that these and scores of other oral history interviews will soon be available on the NLTHS website, northtahoemuseums.org, helping modern-day Tahoephiles gain a better understanding of the lake’s interesting past.
~ Carol Van Etten is a North Lake Tahoe Historical Society Board member and a student of local history. She has lived in Coleville for 20 years.
The Truckee-Donner Historical Society also has 50-plus oral recordings posted on its website, truckeehistory.org. One such recording is of Moke Kielhofer, born in 1897, who provides information about what Truckee was like in the early 1900s. He talks about his early life working on motion pictures with Charlie Chaplin in the Truckee area for 16 years, including Call of the Wild, Iron Horse, and Gold Rush. Another recording, called Truckee’s Ice Age, features David Lawlor speaking about the ice harvesting industry in Truckee. Take an hour to sit and listen to a bygone era.