The Pacifica Historical Society formed about 20 years after cityhood. In the fever of the Bicentennial Committee, Shirley Drye, a charter member, recalls that the idea of forming a historical society seemed to always be present.
The Pacifica Historical Society constituted in 1976, with Dema Savage, then city historian, as the first president and Bob Seibert leading a membership drive. The first meeting was held at the Fairmont West Recreation Center. Early plans included creating a “tour and talk” program of local historical sites. A project was initiated to collect slides of early photographs of Pacifica. Tobin Station was considered a potential museum site and plans were made to see if it was obtainable. Around the same time, Drye was offered the position of city historian, and as she was about to accept, the Pacifica Historical Society stepped in to fill that role.
The Historical Society carried on through 1979, conducting quarterly meetings and inviting the community to discuss their own recollections. At this time, Savage and her husband bought the Vallemar Station and much of her energy was directed to it. Drye says of Savage that she was a very competent leader but unable to delegate. Without her leadership, the Pacifica Historical Society fell into hiatus for the next five years.
During this time, the Historical Society was not completely inactive. Proposition 13 passed in 1979. San Mateo County reacted to the ensuing lack of tax income by closing many public buildings. The Sanchez Adobe was tented the next day, Drye recalls. Not wanting such an important part of pre-incorporation history to be neglected, the Historical Society formed a committee to keep the Adobe open on the weekend and serve as its docents. Because this group had to go through Savage for everything, she eventually suggested that the committee separate and form their own non-profit organization – Friends of Sanchez Adobe.
In 1983, a group formed to gather pictures to commemorate the city’s 25th anniversary with a display at the Pacifica Art Center. While reminiscing over the pictures and the history they represented, they decided it was time for the Pacifica Historical Society to have another meeting. The organization reconstituted and Donna Starr was elected as the new president. Grace McCarthy suggested that identifying and protecting local points of historic interest be a priority – 43 sites were listed initially. Two years later, in 1985, Clifford Hollander was elected President.
Celebrating the rich pre-history of the area, in August 1986, the Pacifica Historical Society, with Friends of Sanchez Adobe and San Pedro Park Volunteers, presented a day on the Ohlone Indians. They organized native California games and crafts. In April 1987, Dick Baldwin donated the first type writer to the PHS with which to record their history.
Grace McCarthy was awarded the Robert J Koshland Prize by the Peninsula Community Foundation in 1987. The foundation would donate $10,000 to an organization of her choosing. Her test in choosing an worthy organization was:
McCarthy continued, “the Pacifica Historical Society met my test. In the four short years it has been reactivated, much has been accomplished. Enlargements of old pictures have been secured and exhibited; the first interview tape made; video, tv tapes, and slide collections are growing; informative quarterly meetings are being held; and files were made available for research” (Pacifica Tribune, 1987).
In January of 1989, Helen James starts school district history project. She encouraged anyone interested to join in preserving school history, explain “the fun far outweighs the work” (Tribune, 1989). The next year, a February meeting focused on school memories. Kay Kirkland moderated and Helen James worked to transcribe the filmed meeting for use in a booklet on school history.
In August of 1990, the PHS participated in History Lane at Victorian Days.
The Pacifica Tribune donated their morgue of papers to the Pacifica Historical Society. Out of this, the Clippers and archives were born in September 1990. Ensuring that each edition has a double, the Clippers carefully read through the articles and cut out the ones of historic importance. They are then coded into the archive system. A later newspaper article (Tribune 1995) would describe the process of copying articles to have a backup in the case of aging. In the following year, April 1991, Elliot Blackstone was elected president. He asserted that the society’s main challenge was to piece together local history.
With a unique approach to history and fundraising, the Pacifica Historical Society hosted a special dinner in October 1991. Each course of the progressive dinner was served at a different place of historic interest. Dinner guests enjoyed dinning and discussion at Anderson’s Store, Dollaradio Station, the Community Center, and Sanchez Adobe.
In 1994, Sharp Park Restaurant considered expansion. The Pacifica Historical Society was invited to join the discussion as the voice of historic integrity. In the same year, a quarterly meeting focused on the military importance of Pacifica in the first half of the 20th century.
In February of 1995, JoAn Blackstone became president. Under her, the “Discovery Committee” was formed to push for improved access to Sweeny Ridge and the Portola Discovery Site. The hope was that an all weather road would bolster the local economy through tourism. This was a difficult proposition because Sweeney Ridge is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area land, which limits access to footpaths and trails. However, the Historical Society continued to push for better access and openly opposed further city and park measures that would limit access.
Jerry Crow was elected President of the society in March 1997, following Shirlee Gibbs who had been serving as President Pro Tem after Lee Forster resigned due to a time conflict. Fall of 1997 was busy for the society. They made their twelfth appearance at Fog Fest, with a display of local history. In celebration of the City of Pacifica’s 40th anniversary, residents were invited to the community center to discuss their experience of living in the area with Paul Azevedo. These were recorded as oral histories.
Azevedo, along with Helen James, Karl Baldwin, and Clara McDonald, continued to appeal to the community to help recall important events throughout 1998. During the summer, Azevedo’s self guided tour of Pacifica’s historic hotspots became available through the Chamber of Commerce. In October of 1998, Grace McCarthy encourages Pacificans to donate to the historical society’s collection to be displayed in a future museum.
In 2001, the Pacifica Historical Society committed to a long term project – saving a local historical landmark and creating a community museum. The Little Brown Church was built in 1910 and served as a church and a community meeting place throughout the community’s history. The topic of the June quarterly meeting was memories of the Little Brown Church. However, the discussion quickly turned to the building’s future. In the same month, the Historical Society held an open meeting about the old building’s future. They then moved to urge the Pacifica City Council to keep the Little Brown Church building as a local museum. The cause was brought to the public eye at Fog Fest by the historical society. Connie Brown composed “Our Little Brown Church” to the tune of “The Little Church in the Vale,” a favorite of Reverend Harkins, the former minister of the Little Brown Church. Dennis Leach, a Bay Area performer, sung the song at the event.
However, in February 2002, the City of Pacifica determines that it does not have the funds to save the building. The issue is taken to the election ballot. The city and the historical society were both represented in similar measures. The city’s measure received more votes but this still ensured that the building would be saved in its current location. The Pacifica Historical Society would be responsible for the restoration. The historical society was busy planning the building’s future before the lease process was complete.
The Pacifica Historical Society remained committed to several with other projects in 2002 as well. A book on the history of area, simply titled Pacifica was published in September. Several of the society members worked on the book and several of the photographs used were found in the collection. In October, Paul Azevedo led the society in joining the California Stories campaign, sponsored by California Council for Humanities, California Center for the Book, and California State Library. Individuals discussed their part in Pacifica’s history. Over the next several years, the Pacifica Historical Society worked tirelessly to restore the Little Brown Church. Fundraisers, donations and volunteer work slowly brought the building closer to its future as a museum site.
In 2004, the Pacifica Historical Society committed to the restoration of the last Ocean Car Railroad passenger carriage. Car #1409 arrived from Sebastopol and a team of volunteers, under the leadership of Scott Linder, began the hard and dirty work.
In 2006, the society began another long term project. Frank Winston provided an idea a day Historical Society President Kathleen Manning. One of these was a show on local history. Working with Channel 26, the local public television station, and the oldest in the country, the society set to work on creating Footprints of Pacifica.
The first episode aired on May 23. Each episode looked at an aspect of local history. Winston hosted the first several episodes and other members of the historical society worked as crew.
The Pacifica Garden Club donated $500 to the Pacifica Historical Society in November 2007 for the landscaping of the Little Brown Church. In October 2008, the Planning Commission approved plans for the use of the building.
Working with the 101 Doll and Study Club, the historical society co-hosted a “High Tea and Doll Show” in March 2009 to benefit the Little Brown Church. That June, The historical society fundraising committee hosted a rummage sale, with the profits earmarked for the restoration of the Little Brown Church Bell Tower. The same year, work continued on Passenger Car #1409, replacing I-beam ends that had rusted away with time, along with the wood beams to which they were bolted to created the base of the coachwork.
In 2010, the Little Brown Church building turned 100 years old. The PHS held another fundraiser to raise funds for ADA accessibility. The grant committee remained busy seeking funds to make the dream of a community museum that the society has had since its birth, a reality.