At the heart of Point Reyes National Seashore headquarters lies an archive room worthy of countless hours of exploration. Collections manager Carola DeRooy has been curating and cultivating its artifacts since her first day working for the seashore 17 years ago; she retired at the end of last month.
The job blended Carola’s passions for history, books and the outdoors. Her love of bygone stories originated as child who sought refuge inside the aisles of her local South Bay library. As a young woman she lived on a working farm near Half Moon Bay, and at the University of California, Berkeley, she landed her dream job as an archivist at the coveted Bancroft Library, all while pursuing her master’s degree in library science.
The history of Sir Francis Drake’s landing on Point Reyes was one of Carola’s three major fields of study at the park, along with native inhabitants and early settlers, and the history of maritime radio. Inside the Red Barn, one particular cabinet contains pieces of porcelain excavated from a nearby Coast Miwok site. Carola explained that Sir Francis Drake first purloined the china from a ship, later trading it to the natives. (The bowl’s fractured edges suggest it was used for digging.) Carola envisioned the layout for the archive room, whose bountiful collection grows every year and is available to researches near and far.
The morning before Thanksgiving, she was nestled in her archives, affable and candid.
Silas: Your Twitter profile photo shows a mosaic of a Roman woman. What does the image mean to you?
Carola: It’s an image from wall graffiti in Pompeii and it’s a woman—some people say it’s Sappho, but I don’t think anyone really knows for sure—holding a book and a pen. To me, she represents a learned woman and someone who likes to write, and I like to write. I love ancient Roman art, I studied art history, and it just resonates with me that way.
Silas: Was art history something you were drawn to as a child?
Carola: Not at all. I was a very late bloomer. I was 40 when I went back to school at Cal to study art history. It was really toward my third career.
Silas: Tell me about career one.
Carola: After high school, I decided not to go to college and I went somewhere to do something that’s very popular now but was horrifying to my parents at the time: I went and lived on a farm. I’m from San Francisco and grew up in an urban environment, and I was always drawn to nature. I met this 80-year-old farmer in Half Moon Bay and got a job as his farm hand. It was an unusual farm, in that nothing had changed there since 1928. There was a wood cook stove and we plowed with a horse, grew our own food and made our own butter and cheese. I learned how to survive and live. It was a really enriching experience for me.
Silas: You went back to the roots. Then what happened?
Carola: I got into the book business; that was really my first career. I started out selling books, but then I started managing stores and getting into the whole book business. Going back to the question of whether I knew what I wanted to do as a child, no, but in retrospect I lived in the library when I was a kid. I had two brothers and to get away from their harassment I used to go to our local library [in Daly City] and stay in there and read books. To me, I’ve always had that love of books and reading about people around the world and learning about cultures.
Okay, here’s my second career claim to fame: in the early 1980s, a friend of mine started building these coffee carts and they were actually the first carts that were ever built for Starbucks, who no one knew then. I wanted to have my own business, and in my bookstores I learned how to run the cafés, and coffee was getting really popular. I lived in Santa Cruz at the time, and I started taking this coffee cart to fairs and festivals. It turns out I had the very first coffee cart in California! (Laughs.)
Then I wanted to become a librarian for an arts college. I went back to school to study art history and then graduated in library science. I did it in four straight years, including summer school, and working at the same time. I got a job on campus at the Bancroft Library and the second week they put me in the archives. I didn’t really know anything about that, and then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh!” The giant lightbulb went off. An archivist is a type of librarian, but it’s different in that you’re working with original collections of people, corporations, groups and other types of historic materials.
Silas: When did you start working for the National Park Service?
Carola: In 2000. I graduated from San Jose State with a graduate degree in library and information science in May, and I started here in August. The cultural resource division of the park had just been established and I was one of the few archivists in the park service. Other parks found out about me and they started asking me to come and help them. At that time, in 2000, Rosie the Riveter Park was established over in Richmond, where I live. I started working part-time for them and I helped to establish their collection of “Rosie stories,” collecting the oral histories of 80-year-olds who had been 20-year-olds in World War II. I split my time between driving here [to Point Reyes] and working there. The park service is wonderful in that we share people and resources because not every park can have all professions.
Silas: What do you get out of your job?
Carola: I always say it’s connecting people to things and to each other. One of my favorite archival moments was when I had spread out this collection of old cabinet card portraits of this ranching family. We were trying to identify all of the different people; some had names on them and some didn’t. The photos were from the Strain family down in Olema Valley. We were working on it all morning, when someone knocked on the door and it was a woman from New York looking for information on her family. I asked who her family was and they said the Strain family. I said, “Come on in! The woman who came in the door knew exactly who everyone was in the photos. I love moments like that, the connections that are made through people coming together through history or information. It enlightens their lives or just has meaning for them.
Silas: What do you think of Carl Sagan’s quote that “You have to know the past to understand the present?”
Carola: I found, in this community, that it’s really easy for information to get lost, and that happens in families. How many people know about their grandparents’ lives? Within one or two generations, so much information can get lost. In this area, it’s been at the forefront of a lot of land issues and important precedent settings, like we had MALT, the first land trust here. People are interested in their history here; we always get really nice turnouts for our events and history talks. Also, working with the [Coast Miwok] and trying to bring all of their history in this area into public knowledge. Because I’ve looked at these things and I know they exist, I want to share them with other people in whatever way I can.
I think also, with electronic media, we have so many more ways to share things. Now the park has its own social media platform and we’re trying to bring little stories or artifacts out of the museum to highlight on social media.
Silas: Every day you could have an old photo with an anecdote, like what Dewey Livingston does with West Marin’s Past.
Carola: Maybe once a week... (Laughs.) It is challenging with our staff shortage. It’s that whole thing: build it and they will come. We’ve worked so hard to make our collections available, but having enough staff to accommodate all the researchers is really challenging for us right now. We are trying to digitize more things for people to access online.
Silas: Tell me about 2003, when you came to the Red Barn. You told me it was just concrete slabs. Were you given an assignment from the higher-ups, or was this remodeling an undertaking of your own?
Carola: This barn was built as a curatorial facility, and I was told the museum collections were going to move here. Dewey worked here for 10 years as a historian and he collected a lot of material in his research for the park about the ranchers, maritime history and various historic structures. I had his files and research, so I had a start for the archives.
When I came here and saw the design they had for the building, I was horrified. First of all, this barn is on the San Andreas fault. This is not the ideal place to keep collections, but it was the one that was chosen. I was able to modify the construction plan a bit, and went about picking out flooring, lighting and installing the kitchen.
Silas: In 2008, you co-wrote with Dewey “The Point Reyes Peninsula.” He said the book was your undertaking.
Carola: I did start the book and I got partway through, and thought it would be a much better book if we did it together. And it turned out to be that. We each wrote about half of it and we picked out photos together.
Silas: Is there a book you’d like to write?
Carola: I’ve had some shorter pieces published in the West Marin Review and I find writing really great once I get into it, but starting is painful. I like writing shorter pieces better, and I think I’ll continue to do that. I like writing about strange historical things that I’ve dug up in my research over time. I don’t know, maybe I’ll do a blog or something along those lines. I love ephemera. The one book that I would like to write is about the experience on the farm with the 80-year-old man when I was 18, because that whole unique experience really shaped my life in a lot of ways. And a lot of funny stuff happened. The greenhorn comes to the farm!
Silas: Those lessons gained in that part of your life, how have they translated here?
Carola: Understanding ranching and knowing what it is to live on a true working ranch. You need to have experiences to relate to people. It made an impression on me about ecology, because I learned from a person who had always been an organic farmer. That was the way of his life: the old way. We made all of our own stuff, and that’s never left me as a really good way to live. I don’t do a lot of it anymore, but in my retirement I intend to get back into it. I’m considering purchasing chickens or volunteering at an organic farm.
Silas: When did you receive your ham radio license?
Carola: You knew about that? When I first got to go to the radio stations, both in Bolinas and out in Point Reyes, I really knew nothing about ship-to-shore radio or Morse Code or anything. But there was a whole collection of archives left in the stations and so I started looking through the stuff, and it was like a different language. I didn’t understand how radio worked and what the stations were all about. It took me a while to get the whole picture straight in my mind and I did that with the help of the Maritime Radio Historical Society. I found out a bunch of the retired radio men who worked there were giving classes in the ham radio club in Point Reyes, to get a license. I decided a two-fold thing: I would learn more about radio language and how it works, and also, I’d get to know these guys. It was important for me to hear their stories. Getting my ham license wasn’t so much to be on the radio, but it was to learn about radio and meet the people.
Silas: What do you think about the popularity of the cypress tree tunnel? People take their wedding photos there and aren’t aware of its historical significance as the property where KPH operated.
Carola: It’s mixed. Whenever I go out there and there are all these people standing in the middle of the road, I go up to the building and they all come over ask if they can use the bathroom. So we have a new bathroom problem out there, which the park is trying to address. But they also ask what is this place, and want to know more about it. Right now, Deborah [Morgan, Carola’s successor] and I are working on putting on a new exhibit in the building. We’re moving toward that education phase for the people out there standing in the driveway!
We’re hoping to recruit volunteers to have the building open more, so people can come in to look at the exhibit and learn more about the history and the radio station. And I’m hoping we can grow the volunteer corps; the interpretation division is really short of people. There really aren’t enough people to fully exploit the opportunities. The lighthouse only being open four days a week—that’s the main place people go! Congress and the administration, no matter which one it is, have been reducing the park service budget for about the last 15 years pretty drastically. I think the public is really starting to see the effect. Most people who come to a park don’t know what goes on behind the scenes; they just experience the park.
Silas: And it’s not just Ryan Zinke who is doing this?
Carola: No, no, it started some time ago. It’s starting to really appear on the public side. We’re depending more and more on volunteers and students to help out.
Silas: Now that you’re retiring, how do you plan to continue to learn?
Carola: We bought a house in New Hampshire—my husband, Mark, is from New England—and I’m setting up an art studio for myself. I just got into the art of [paper] marbling. It started in the 13th century and it was a secret profession until the 1900s, so not a lot of people know how to do it. And you know what, I get to learn a whole new history of the area of New England! I’ve been reading George Washington’s biography and about the Revolutionary War period, because I really know nothing about that history—yet! I’m learning.