James Dodson considers himself an archeologist of ordinary memories.
From recollections of some “old bums” who lived under a lettuce shed to memories of building a four-bedroom house for $75, Dodson’s oral history library at Valley College is a catchall of commonplace life in the San Fernando Valley during the first four decades of this century.
“I just wanted to find out what life was like for the average person in the Valley,” said Dodson, curator of the college’s Historical Museum, where the library is housed. “I just wanted to know what people ate, what they raised in their gardens, what clothes they wore and so on.”
Dodson, who lives in La Crescenta, became the museum’s volunteer curator--it is financed by private donations--and started the oral history project in 1975, after 25 years of teaching history on the Van Nuys campus.
“I’m just one of the exhibits here,” he said, shying away from mention of his age.
Seated in a back room of the museum, Dodson fingered his collection of 70 audiotapes and glanced at the history around him: a panoramic photograph of the Valley taken in 1912, an egg basket from the Lankershim Ranch in North Hollywood and wooden mailboxes used by Valley College’s first faculty in the late 1940s.
Then he turned on the tape recorder.
“Well, my name is Rose Bundy, and I’ve lived in the Valley since 1923,” one tape begins. It was recorded in 1977, when the subject was in her 80s.
Bundy chronicles the trials of managing a chicken ranch in North Hollywood on the corner of Lankershim and Victory boulevards during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s and raising rabbits there. During World War II, “we went through the rationing period and rabbit wasn’t rationed,” Bundy recalls. “Well, I could sell rabbits before they was born.”
Others in Dodson’s collection also cite memories of life at the chicken ranch, which seemed to be a gathering spot for Valley residents. Dodson interviewed one man who remembers playing on the ranch as a boy.
“He used to take a rooster to the top of the silo, tie a sheet to it for a parachute and toss the rooster off,” Dodson said. “I’ll bet that rooster hated the sight of that kid.”
Dodson finds his subjects, who range in age from 60 to more than 90, through associates who know of older residents in the area. They are sent a list of questions--which focus on social life, religion, education and politics, among other topics--a week before Dodson visits their homes.
“The questions help them consider things they haven’t thought of in 30 or 40 years,” Dodson said.
Charles Canby, who recorded a tape in 1977, said: “I think I was able to give him some information that otherwise would have been lost.”
Canby’s father, Dr. Charles B. Canby, arrived in Van Nuys in 1918 and became the area’s third doctor, according to his son, 75, who also practiced medicine.
On his tape, Canby tells of the Los Angeles River when it was a “little, meandering creek” that wound through the Valley.
“We used to go down there and fish for little minnows and catch crawfish and collect butterflies,” he says, adding that stands of black walnut, apricot and orange trees were once abundant in the Valley.
Dodson recorded his own tape in 1977 to chronicle early life at Valley College. On the tape, he speaks of rival basketball games played between the faculty (“senior citizens”) and the students, calling Mighty Ben McFarland and Walter (Long Arms) Coulters among the faculty’s better players.
Austin Conover, who once served as Valley College’s public information officer, said Dodson has been meticulous in assuring that tape transcriptions are accurate.
“He wants it absolutely correct,” Conover said. “He’s done so much for the museum. He’s recognized that we’re all mortal and will pass on. That’s why it’s so important for oral history to be translated.”
Dodson hopes that his tapes and transcriptions will be used as reference material by future historians. But he would prefer that they listen to the tapes before thumbing through transcriptions.
“A careful researcher will want to listen to the sound of a person’s voice,” said Dale Treleven, director of UCLA’s oral history program. “In no way can there be a one-to-one transfer of inflection, nuance, accent, emphasis and irony in a person’s voice when reading a transcription.”
UCLA’s oral history program, which began in 1959, is financed by the California State Archives Government Oral History Program.
Other oral history projects in the Valley include a library of 30 tapes begun by the Conejo Valley Historical Society in 1975. The tapes are kept at the Stagecoach Inn Museum in Newbury Park, and copies can be found at the Thousand Oaks Library.
The Chatsworth Historical Society began its collection of 21 tapes in 1982. They are kept in the archives at Cal State Northridge.
The San Fernando Valley Historical Society began an oral history project in 1986 and now has a collection of 12 tapes, which are kept at the Andres Pico Adobe museum in Mission Hills.
An Early Resident
In Valley College’s museum, Dodson switched on a tape recorder to listen to one of the Valley’s earliest residents.
“My name is Lillian Rockwell Van Winkle. I’ve lived in the Valley since 1918,” she begins. The voice cracks with 91 years of age, on a tape that was recorded in 1976.
“I came to the San Fernando Hotel and lived and had my meals at Mother Van Winkle’s, who had lived here since 1887. I taught in the Mexican quarter.”
Van Winkle pauses, then sighs deeply as she recalls her first view of the Valley.
“It was a beautiful open valley, lovely stretches of beauty to me,” she says. “It was a joy. . . . It was heaven--literally.”