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American River Messenger

Looking Forward to the Past

Oct 06, 2023 04:45PM ● By Tamara Warta

The Fair Oaks History Center is maintained by the Fair Oaks Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Lee Harlan

FAIR OAKS, CA (MPG) - Tucked away in Fair Oaks Village, next door to the popular Sunflower Drive In, is the Fair Oaks History Center. Maintained by the Fair Oaks Historical Society, the unassuming building is filled with treasures of Fair Oaks’ past, and it is definitely worth a visit to explore.

 “We don’t have anyone paid – we’re all volunteers, and we are always looking for more volunteers,” said Carolyn Spotts, the current Vice President of the historical society. “We have such rich history here. Fair Oaks was founded in 1895 by settlers that came from Chicago.”

 The Village itself has long been iconic to both locals and visitors, with its charming strip of shops and restaurants residing alongside beautiful, tree-lined homes. The area feels like a comforting sanctuary, which is sheltered away from the bustling Sunrise Ave bordering its limits.

 The Fair Oaks Historical Society itself was founded in 1975, with many of its first founders and members descendants of early settlers to the region.

 "Our 50th anniversary is coming up in 2025,” noted Spotts.

 When you walk into the museum, there’s a good chance you’ll meet Chris Hightower, the History Center Operations Manager who is friendly upon first introduction, but lights up a wattage further when discussing the history of Fair Oaks – a town he’s resided in himself since he was a child in the 1960s.

 “The orange industry died out in 1932 when we had the freeze. The large productions that we used to have weren’t there anymore,” he describes while sharing about one of the earlier functions of Fair Oaks. He and Spott continued, “The fruit used to be carried over the river to the railroad station and taken on to Sacramento, Modesto, etc. Some of the original orchards are still standing.”

 The museum packs in so much history, one could likely drop in for a chat with a docent and walk back out the door viewing Fair Oaks in a completely different way.

 One of the first to establish the museum was Jim Pearce, who is spoken of fondly by the current leadership, as he served as the first major historian and archivist of the society. Today’s leadership not only loves to share about the days gone by, but also hold a distinct passion to see the historical society continue on after they’re gone. 

 “What we’re trying to do right now is to grow the membership. We’re really trying to drive awareness to get more people involved. A lot of our members are aging out and so we’re trying to get the younger generation involved,” said Spotts.

Claudia Thorn, a former president of the society added, “We are trying to bring in young blood. We’ve got Meraki High School, whose coordinator has a couple students who would like to come work here and do research for us. We are hoping to excite some history majors over at Sac State to come work as docents.”

A docent would come in and work with Hightower, learn about the artifacts they have in the museum, learn about the history of Fair Oaks and share with others when they come in. Volunteers are also needed to clean the museum and to help run events. The society’s budget is approximately $10,000 per year, and they hold gatherings to raise both funds and awareness of the group.

The Fair Oaks Historical Society’s Soup Night is its big annual fundraiser – this will be their 17th year come February. Held at Faith Lutheran Church, five different restaurants donated the soups last year, although in older days the members made them. They sell around 200 tickets, and the next Soup Night is happening February 9th.

Other events include Welcome Hour, which is held at the museum on the 1st Saturday of each month. October’s theme is the history of Del Campo High School, and November will be all about vintage utensils and tools from the earliest days of Fair Oaks.

Members of the society also enjoy events like ice cream socials and quarterly meeting potlucks. The group meets in January, April, July, and October for a two-hour meeting that includes social time and a guest speaker.

When asked what it is about Fair Oaks that capture them, their answers were filled with a fine combination of love and nostalgia for the Village.

“The first time we came to Fair Oaks, there [wa]s a sense of community,” said Thorn, who is from Long Island, NY, “People would wave to you, total strangers.”

Sports added, “Just driving through the Village is what got us hooked. You feel like you’re home.”

“People who have moved away say the same thing,” Hightower said, “They remember this.”

If you wish to get involved with the Fair Oaks Historical Society, give them a call at (916) 844-7103. The museum is located at 10340 Fair Oaks Blvd, and is open to visitors Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10am-2pm. 

 Some leaders of the Fair Oaks History Center and Historical Society (L to R) Chris Hightower, Jennifer Coulter, Claudia Thorn, and Carolyn Spotts. Photo by Tamara Warta