When Elaine Doss began a writing program at Nicasio School in which students interviewed members of their community, she had no idea that years later, after retiring from the school, she would find in those stories a perfect chronicle of life in her town. Ms. Doss, who later became the founding president of the local historical society, recently published a book, “Nicasio’s Oldtimers, Newcomers and Remarkable Guests,” a collection of interviews conducted and written by Nicasio’s third, fourth and fifth graders between 1994 and 2012.
The book includes black-and-white photographs of the students, interviewees and historical moments, and a cover photo taken by Art Rogers at Nicasio’s 2012 sesquicentennial celebration. The stories were first published in the classroom newspaper, Nicasio News.
“Giving the students an audience of parents, family and friends helped them change their attitudes about writing,” Ms. Doss said.
A typical lesson involved an introduction about who would be coming to visit the class and a mini lesson on writing. The students would come up with their questions and Ms. Doss would write them on the board, letting the children lead both the interview and the preparation for it. From the back of the room, she listened and took notes, and was continually impressed with how inquisitive and funny the students could be when faced with an individual with a remarkable background or occupation.
Through the lessons, Ms. Doss also wanted to show her students the diversity of careers they could pursue; she brought in a Muppet puppeteer, poets, a Boeing factory manager, ranch wives, a pet psychic, a Holocaust survivor and local postmasters, to name a few. “The old-timers were the only ones who were hesitant to come and speak,” Ms. Doss said. “They would say, ‘Who cares to hear about me?’ But once we got them there, you couldn’t get them to stop. This little classroom society meant a lot, especially to them, most of whom are gone now.”
One remarkable old-timer was Clarence Rogers, who was born in San Rafael in 1909 and grew up on a dairy ranch in Nicasio. He visited the classroom at the age of 87 to share stories of the open country and commuting by horseback.
Another remarkable interviewee, Troy Alders, the art director at Lucasfilm, sent his son to Nicasio School. He helped perfect the design of the book and has his own spread in the newcomer section. John Francis is in the remarkable guest section: He traversed the United States and South America on foot after witnessing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay.
Almost all the interviews conducted over 18 years, were included in the book. Students in Ms. Doss’s classes eventually spread out all over the world, and the book provides a nostalgic window into their childhoods.
Gracie Kolb was a student in the early 2000s who now lives in Petaluma. Flipping through the book last week, she came across a photograph of herself being painted by one of the artist interviewees. “That’s me!” she exclaimed, and went on: “That was such a good education. [Ms. Doss] wanted us to have a good understanding of our town. When I got to high school, I didn’t realize that kids didn’t get that education. I thought everyone had that experience. We were allowed to explore the boundlessness of our creativity.”
The book is a testament to the uniqueness of the tiny town and the people who live there, Ms. Kolb said. “The fact that I still remember, and it was so long ago, there’s pride in it,” she said. “These aren’t the kinds of stories you’re going to find anywhere else. These stories are giving a public voice to people who never would have been given it.”
“Nicasio’s Oldtimers, Newcomers and Remarkable Guests” is available for $30 at Rancho Nicasio, at the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company and on the Nicasio Historical Society’s website, www.nicasio.net/nhs. Copies will also be available at a book debut party on Saturday, Dec. 4 at 3 p.m. at the Nicasio Druids Hall.