Mendo Arts…Living Treasures

by Katy Tahja, January 5, 2011

“Living Treasures” are those elders in a community recognized as having special knowledge, learned over a lifetime, that they share with others. These folks usually aren’t rich or college educated but they possess a mental encyclopedia that would put a computer to shame. In Mendocino County we have two “Living Treasures” in the persons of Robert & Lila Lee in Ukiah.

In the conduct of their everyday lives most folks don’t start out with the idea of becoming “Living Treasures”. Conducting their day-to-day lives and raising families they use their free time to follow deep personal interests. In the case of the Lee’s it was collecting local history.

It seems the more the Lee’s collected tidbits of history and photographs over the years the more people turned to them with questions. The couple became the persons who could provide answers. Soon people all over the county and state were recognizing their work. Survive long enough, freely share your knowledge, and recognition follows as “Living Treasures.”

Lila Lee has deep roots in Mendocino County with family in the area for 160 years. Her mother Elizabeth Conrad Rose was born in Anderson Valley and in the Anderson Valley Museum visitors can see quilts made by Lila’s grandmother Mary Jane Rose. Made circa 1875 these quilts have backings made from flattened feed sacks with the stamped imprint “J.Bros-Ukiah” from a grain mill there.

Additional roots in the county came from Lila’s father Arthur Romer, who arrived in 1902 to raise pears and grow hay. Arthur Romer and Elizabeth Rose married in 1916 and had three daughters, including Lila.

In 1941 Lila graduated from Ukiah High School and immediately moved into World War II support work at places like the Rationing Board. Many jobs followed and after the Korean War she met Robert Lee. They married in 1955, adopted two children, and grandchildren have followed over the years.

Robert Lee had been raised by his grandparents in the Sacramento Valley and was a jack-of-all-trades. He worked as a logger, mechanic, truck driver, heavy equipment operator and a bottling line supervisor at Parducci Winery. He always found time to sit with an old-timer that had a good story to tell and developed his own love of local history.

Mendocino County formed a Historical Society in the late 1950’s and the Lee’s joined it.. There was a lot of debate among local historians about where the repository for artifacts should be. Sites included the home of artist Grace Carpenter Hudson, where Lila was part of the Sun House Guild that was preserving it, or the lovely home of retired Judge Held on Perkins St. It was decided to build a new structure in Willits for a museum, but what was to be done with the donated Held home? Lila suggested it become a library. Artifacts could go to the new museum in Willits and written records, newspapers and photographs could come to the Library, and Lila volunteered to run it.

For the next 35 years, while working part-time as a bookkeeper and raising a family, Lila brought order and organization to the donations to the Library. With no formal training she became a respected authority on local history and was recognized by the California Historical Society with an award for her long service, along with being voted “citizen of the Year” by the Ukiah Chamber of Commerce in 1994.

Meanwhile Robert Lee, seeing the need to have someone knowledgeable in reproducing historic photographs, had Ukiah photographer Don Crawford help him set up a dark room and teach him photography skills. The copied and collected photos until had had over 10,000 images neatly organized and his collection draws researchers from all over the country. My own book, “Early Mendocino Coast” could never have been completed without the help of this collection and the book is dedicated to the Lee’s.

After decades of supporting and volunteering with the Mendocino County Historical Society the Lee’s found an uncomfortable relationship developing. The Society’s Board of Directors wanted to computerize resources and photographs. Lila and Robert were long beyond the time in life where they wanted to start learning new technical skills. With bitter feelings they left the Historical Society and found new institutions that appreciated the encyclopedic mental knowledge of Mendocino County history.

The Anderson Valley Historical Society has a volunteer drive Lila Lee over frequently to docent in the Little Red Schoolhouse Museum, where display cases feature many items from her Rose family history. Lila also volunteers with the Grace Carpenter Hudson museum in Ukiah where she and the museum’s director quite often “just talk” about some point of County history needing clarification.

With prior arrangement, Robert Lee’s extensive collection can be inspected by researchers looking for a particular image. Access to these photos is not for casual browsers but if the research you’re doing absolutely needs a photo of 118,000 railroad ties stacked near the Navarro River in 1926 waiting for railroads to come buy them, Robert Lee has it.

Robert and Lila Lee are “Living Treasures” for Mendocino County. Their encyclopedic knowledge of local history and its photographic images delight historians, authors and researchers. Simple people with avid interests make interesting neighbors in the Ukiah Valley.

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