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Portals of the Past 

Digging for Napa Valley's untapped roots

click to enlarge BYGONE Bill Hamamoto, whose family was sent to an internment camp in WWII, at the old family home in Carneros. - JESS KNUBIS
  • Jess Knubis
  • BYGONE Bill Hamamoto, whose family was sent to an internment camp in WWII, at the old family home in Carneros.

In the middle of hiking a trail in her home state of Minnesota, Wendy Ward tells me over the phone where her heart really lies. The Preservation Napa Valley founder may have grown up in the Land of 10,000 lakes, but after 13 years in Napa, she feels like a native. "Napa is my home and I love the place," she says.

"It's very special—a unique place with unique problems," she adds. "I saw a lot of things that I didn't understand and that I didn't like, and I began to wonder why things didn't work and how it all happened. I wanted to take care of my community."

Ward is the organizer of "Memory Bank II," a film and photography exhibit opening Aug. 11 at the Napa Valley Museum. Last year, during Preservation Napa Valley's annual barn tour, Ward noticed that people loved listening to the "old timers" and realized there could be ways to breathe life into what she calls their "colorful, rich and untapped stories."

A fan of powerful photography reminiscent of Dorothea Lange's Migrant Woman, Ward chose to document the elders' experiences in black and white. "It's not just the personalities of the individual subjects," states Sally Seymour, one of the photographers featured in "Memory Bank," "but also showing the viewers in their contexts—how they sit in Napa's environment today and how they've participated in Napa's history."

One can practically weave through time and history with the crisp contrasts in the photographs and documentaries. A total of six photographers and one filmmaker worked on the project, and Seymour herself estimates she spent at least 20 hours with each of her subjects. "But it's not like it was 20 hours that I had to spend with them," Seymour says. "They have a rich history and a great understanding about the changes that have happened in Napa. But they're not locked in nostalgia."

She then recounts one of her 80-year-old subjects. "I had a hard time getting on her calendar. I told her, 'You guys are too busy,' and she replied, 'You know, at my age, if I can swing my legs over the bed, I figure it's a good day and I'm going to do something.'"

Ward and her team sought no particular themes or topics. This year, however, the team was pleased to capture a truer cultural heritage of Napa—with Chinese seniors, Japanese immigrants who underwent internment and Latino farmworker pioneers who shaped Napa's agricultural history.

"One of the problems with oral history is that it tends to be a process that is approached with explicit rules with how you do it," Seymour explains. "One of the things that I find exciting is that Wendy has found some perhaps famous or ordinary people who could be our grandparents or neighbors or high school teachers, and pulled together an engaging way to find our county's history."

  • Digging for Napa Valley's untapped roots in 'Memory Bank II' at the Napa Valley Museum

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