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Feeling Its Oats at 37: Historical Society Drawing Crowds

With packed programs, computer archiving and at last a home of its own, the El Cerrito Historical Society is experiencing a surge of volunteer engagement and activism, accompanied by increased audience and impact.

In the early 1970s, Rich Bartke made a practice of leading kids on hikes through the El Cerrito hills. One day he was sitting on Rust Peak with his daughter Lynne and two other girls. They asked him why El Cerrito did not have a museum.

Not one to pass up a civics lesson, he told them they’d need to prepare a proposal to make something like that happen. When they came back to him with an organizational chart, plans to convert a house into a museum and a budget, Bartke felt compelled to do something. In May of 1974 the El Cerrito Historical Society held its first meeting. Bartke became its first president.

More than 37 years later, El Cerrito still doesn’t have a museum, but the Historical Society is arguably more active than it has ever been. Several recent society-sponsored programs, including one about the Chinese orphanage and , have drawn 150 or more attendees.

Members have been speaking up on topics ranging from protecting the city’s creeks to preserving an unusual stone-faced building not far from City Hall. And while the installation of along San Pablo Avenue in May was a city-sponsored project, the society played a
significant role in providing their historical content. There is also talk of a historical preservation ordinance, and the society has a website and a book featuring El Cerrito historical photos in the Images of America series, available from Amazon and other book dealers.

“The first project that put the society in the public eye,” according to an account written by Bartke, was securing a deal with Edward Staniford to write a history of El Cerrito. Two thousand copies of El Cerrito: Historical Evolution were published in 1976 and the book remains an important reference on El Cerrito history. Another early project was compiling a list of the community’s historical sites, though Bartke said that list is sorely in need of revision.

From the early years, the historical society has had occasional speakers on local history and worked on collecting historical photographs, articles and documents, and a few artifacts. It has been involved in getting a few historical plaques put up over the years and typically puts out about four issues of its newsletter, "The Forge," a year. It also distributes a monthly list of announcements by email called "Sparks from the Anvil." (The blacksmith references harken back to pioneer blacksmith William Rust, early resident and namesake of the community of Rust, which was renamed El Cerrito when the city was incorporated in 1917.)

In the past, Bartke said, the society traditionally did things at a slower pace, more likely to work on one project at a time than the multiple endeavors it has going now. He attributes the current renaissance to the group of people presently active in the club.

One of those is Tom Panas, who Bartke said is a tremendous researcher with a phenomenal memory.

“He’s interviewed a ton of people,” said Bartke. “He took it on himself. He  just wanted to see that the history was preserved. “

Panas’ projects have included starting the historical society website in 2005 and compiling content for it, including an extensive list of books, articles and other sources containing information about El Cerrito history. He was also key in the publication of the book featuring El Cerrito historical photos in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series and in collecting historical content for . 

Bartke, who returned to the presidency of the club about 2½ years ago, brings a local political resume few could match. An attorney until his retirement four years ago, he’s been involved in government at the city level and beyond continuously since 1966. He served on the City Council from 1970 to 1978. He’s also served on various city boards, commissions and committees as well as on public bodies that go beyond the city borders, such as the Contra Costa Local Agency Formation Commission and Grand Jury and 29 years on a Bay Area national parks advisory commission.

Where Panas prefers to keep a low public profile, Bartke brings a high level of comfort with the government process and taking an advocacy role when needed, as he and other historical society members have done, for example, over , once home of a Japanese-American florist and said to be the city's last remaining structure of the area's once flourishing Japanese-American nursery community.

Bartke has a particular interest in the city’s creeks and said looking out for them is simply a matter of ensuring that the city follows its own code regarding their preservation.

The society also has on its team Dave Weinstein, a professional writer who oversees the popular series of programs about sites in El Cerrito of historical interest; former planning commissioner Kathleen McKinley; Joann Steck-Bayat, whose many tasks include sending out email updates of club activities; and Barbara Hill, who was a library assistant at UC Berkeley for 23 years.

Another boost to the Historical Society came posthumously from member Sundar Shadi, who died in 2002 and is best known for his . Shadi and his wife Dorothy made a series of donations totaling about $220,000 to El Cerrito for a new City Hall, calling for it to include a history room. In 2010 the city officially named a room on the second floor of City Hall “the Dorothy and Sundar Shadi Historical Room,” which had an official "grand opening" celebration on Aug. 22.

It is in this room, packed with items such as a brick from the , that Steck-Bayat and other volunteers have met weekly for the past nine months to archive the society’s collection. This summer they are taking a break to give Hill and another volunteer time to input information into a computer.

Cataloging all of the society’s scrapbooks, photos, books, maps, and other items is a slow process, said Hill, and it may take a few years before the database becomes fully functional. The society’s current goal is to have a database that would be searchable on the computer in the history room.

It is something that will come in handy with the almost daily questions that come into the historical society. Bartke said recent ones included inquiries about the area’s WPA projects and the history of the Richmond Annex.

Another current project for the society is working with the city to draft a historic preservation ordinance. Bartke said Panas is working on the first step, called a historical context statement, which looks at the history of the community through different aspects such as time periods and neighborhoods. The second step in the process is identifying specific places of interest, and then finally a draft ordinance. The society will also continue to monitor 10848 San Pablo Ave., with the next step being reviewing the draft Environmental Impact Report to ensure the historical significance of the property has been adequately addressed.

And the society continues to collect and preserve historical materials and documents, including its own. Bartke has saved the society's first record, the girls' original plan that sparked the society's formation (copy attached). It shows a floor plan, including the bathroom and drawings of a couple of displays. Also shown are the hours and the price of admission, which would vary depending on the age group, with the top price set at 10 cents. The very young and oldsters — "under 6 and over 45" — could enter free.

The document bears signatures of two people, Bartke's daughter Lynne (Bartke) Dirk and Nina Anderson, who are shown in an attached photo as they looked at the time. Dirk now heads the English department at Hercules Middle-High School and was recently honored as Teacher of the Year by the Hercules Chamber of Commerce. Anderson, who still lives in El Cerrito, is president of Tejada Vineyard in Lake County and project manager for an advertising and marketing agency based in Oakland.

Charles Burress contributed to this report.

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