We debate what’s important in Davis’ history

By From page A9 | June 08, 2014

* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the week off. This column first ran in 2007.

When people labeled O.J. Simpson’s trial “the trial of the century,” I groaned. What about the Scopes trial, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, or Brown vs. the Board of Education?

I may not study history, but I do know that you can’t label something “historic” or “the most important” just because you lived through it or close to it.

But people do that all the time.

That’s why I was immediately impressed by the small group who gathered last week at Davis’ Hattie Weber Museum to propose and explore “the 10 most important events in the history of Davis.” The first three to speak, John Lofland, the discussion leader, Virginia Isaacs, and Roberta Stevenson began by naming events that were not in their lifetimes.

I found it easy to agree that the opening of the railroad to Davis (1868), the establishment of the University Farm (1906-09), and the incorporation of Davis (1917) were among the big 10.

After that, it got tricky.

How do you define “important event?” Must it happen in a short time? Must it be unusual? Must it have a wide impact?

In the end, we favored events that made Davis unique. Events that affected the whole country — the Depression, World War II, Vietnam — led to changes in Davis, but they didn’t go on our list.

Even with this limit, we quickly came up with more than 10 events, including UC Davis becoming a general campus (1959), the opening of the Hunt-Wesson plant (1961), and the era of progressive government (1970s).

A change I didn’t know about, but that seemed huge to me, was the rerouting of old Highway 40 in 1942. Would Davis have solidified into a town if Route 40, later renamed Interstate 80, had sliced the middle of our downtown?

Also huge, and unknown to me, was the redevelopment of the downtown area where 63 percent of the buildings between B and G and First and Fifth Streets were torn down, moved, or substantially altered to allow for commercial growth, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ted Buehler, a local bicycling researcher and advocate, argued that the establishment of bike lanes in 1967, first in the country, was equally important.

Newsperson that I am, I asked what our biggest crime might have been. This did not lead to the most cheerful part of our discussion, as we considered whose death had been the most painful.

Lofland argued (successfully, in my opinion) for the hate murder of Thong Hy Huynh in 1983 as the most influential, because it led to the establishment of the Human Relations Commission, which still tackles racial issues and operates amid controversy today. But the sweetheart murders (of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, 1980) also evoked a lot of emotion.

I next asked if there was any individual person whose birth (or death) made a huge impact on the town.

This led Lofland to name a person I’d never heard of, an embarrassing failing on my part. William Henry Scott was editor of The Davis Enterprise from 1899 to 1935. He literally named the town of Davis. When “Davisville” didn’t fit into a headline about the creation of the University Farm, Scott simply changed the name (1906).

We also discussed legislation. Do the most important events in Davis include our civil rights ordinance (including gays) in 1986, our smoking ban in 1993, or Measure J, requiring voter approval of construction beyond urban limits in 1999?

Although the number of “important events” had exceeded 10 and was pushing past 20, I was tempted to nominate a few quirky events, since they helped establish our identity and, hopefully, got us to laugh at ourselves.

Toads and snoring, anyone?

In truth, what I think is most special about Davis is that we have an identity at all. Some towns don’t. Many towns are just bumps on the freeway where you can stop for McDonald’s or Starbucks and somewhere on a side street you’ll find an old school.

As America homogenizes, Davis remains unpasteurized. Other towns fight about Walmart — in fact, there’s a national movement — but we fought about Target. We even put it on the ballot. Then we fought about Trader Joe’s.

These are things that won’t go down in history, but they give us a sense of place and a high level of elbow-rubbing, button-pushing community interaction. We’re silly about some things, but we accomplish a lot, too.

Toward the end of our “10 event” discussion, we realized that if you were to ask different interest groups (engineers, farmers, firefighters) about the “10 most important events in Davis,” they might take us down interesting side trails that are also part of our history.

Square tomatoes, anyone?

As a matter of fact, square tomatoes (invented in Davis in the 1950s) aren’t really square, but they do differ genetically from tomatoes that preceded them. That is, they have a distinct identity but they’re not as weird as some people imagine.

Davis, anyone?

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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