LOCAL HISTORY COLLECTION
VICTOR VALLEY COLLEGE LIBRARY
Article based on an interview with Fran Elgin on December 20, 2017
by Mary DeSantis
High Desert resident Fran Elgin is a petite, soft-spoken, shy, sparkly-eyed librarian who has moved mountains of historical data through willpower, passion, ingenuity, skill, and dedication. Countless years of Elgin’s tireless volunteer work culminated in the creation of a major repository for local historical materials in the library at Victor Valley College (VVC).
The Local History Collection room houses vast amounts of information on Victor Valley and Mojave Desert history, geology and mining, plants, animals, local Native Americans, roads, ranching, land and water use issues, and much more. Materials include books and manuscripts, photographs, oral histories, old newspapers, microfiche film, scrapbooks, and maps.
The collection includes many rare and one-of-a-kind archival materials. “A lot of the information that is in this room is not available anywhere else,” said Elgin. “It’s a hodge-podge of stuff,” she said, referring to a set of about thirty scrapbooks known as the Arlene Kallenberger Collection. Kallenberger made a hobby of gathering newspaper articles, event programs, and other local memorabilia throughout her lifetime in the High Desert. When she died in 2011 at the age of 91, her daughter donated the scrapbooks to the library.
Students, community members, historians, television stations, and museums regularly avail of these valuable resources. As the collection has grown, its reputation in the community has grown. Local libraries, chambers of commerce, the local newspapers, and historians frequently redirect nationwide research queries to the Local History Collection and its knowledgeable curator.
Elgin moved to the High Desert from St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1960s. She taught Kindergarten and Second Grade before earning her Masters in Library Science at San Jose State. Her first job as librarian was at Hesperia Junior High, where she worked for five years before California’s Proposition 13 slashed government funding of libraries and eliminated her job in 1978. Elgin worked in public and school-district libraries in Las Vegas for a while before returning to the High Desert to work as a librarian in Victor Valley College (VVC), where she remained until her retirement several years ago. Since then, Elgin has stayed on as Librarian Emeritus, volunteering one day a week in the Local History Collection room, which exists solely because of her efforts.
“I’ve always been interested in local history,” said Elgin. “My church in St. Louis was the oldest Baptist church west of the Mississippi, and I remember looking up information about it when I was a child. That interested has continued to grow over the years.”
Elgin is the author of Rancho Yucca Loma, a well-researched, beautifully illustrated, scholarly history of the most famous of the Victor Valley guest ranches that flourished in the early to mid-1900s. (Click the button below to order a copy of this book.) .Elgin has graciously chosen to donate all the proceeds from the sale of her book to the Mohahve Historical Society.
The seeds for the Local History Collection were planted in 1963, when Dr. Lawrence Davenport taught a class on local history at VVC. The students who took this class were not all college-aged youngsters, but ranged in age, many of them being old-timers themselves. Davenport tasked his students with conducting interviews of the aging survivors of Victor Valley’s early settlements, in order to record their living history before it was gone. His students fanned out and talked to Native Americans, ranchers, miners, and other settlers who had personally carved livelihoods out of the untamed desert and helped establish a permanent human foothold in the area.
An impactful result of that first Local History class at VVC was the impassioned and singled-minded purpose it stirred within those early students. They were made aware of the crucial need for a continuing effort to preserve our fading oral history for posterity, and together formed the Mohahve Historical Society (MHS), which was dedicated to that purpose. The MHS has been in continuous operation ever since then, independent of the college.
The Local History class was repeated one time, in the 1970s. Taught by Paul Smith, a minister from Victorville, this second Oral History project produced approximately 100 taped interviews with elderly residents – an astonishing accomplishment. What was begun as a class project in 1963 has resulted in the recording of 159 oral histories to date, the most interesting of which were transcribed and published in several hardbound books titled Mohahve, Volumes I thru VI. The series—which Elgin compiled and edited—contains the scrapbook heritage of the Victor Valley, told through oral interviews, biographical sketches, photographs, maps, and more.
Since the early 1980s, in response to numerous requests from faculty, students, and community, the library began collecting local information. As both a VVC librarian and a member of the MHS since the mid-1980s, Elgin was perfectly positioned for working on the Local History archives. She personally transferred a large number of the oral history tape recordings into written records, but not all of the interviews were transcribed and included in the Mohahve series. “We tried to prioritize the importance of the subject matter, and also how well the interview went,” Elgin explained. “Some people went into great detail, and some just gave yes-and-no answers.”
As time went by, the VVC library’s specialized collection grew. In 1988 the MHS asked if their materials could be added to the college library. They had no central storage place of their own, and their materials were not organized or made available to the public. Elgin brought the request before the college administration and lobbied for the establishment of a Local History Collection within the college library. Approval was granted, and finally there was a permanent location capable of housing donated items of local historical interest.
“At that time, we also received a one-time budget from the state, and were able to buy the map cases, desks, tables, tape recorders, fire-proof legal-sized file cabinets, and other things,” enthused Elgin. “Since then, the library buys us supplies, and sometimes we get money from the Friends of the College Library for things we need.”
Elgin then spent many years of painstaking work in organizing, filing, and cataloging thousands of irreplaceable photos, books, manuscripts, oral histories, and maps, to allow convenient access for class assignments and for historical research. She did likewise with the historical society’s materials. The library has continued to acquire important resources. Materials are carefully preserved and protected in archival folders and files. With diligent stewardship, these resources will be available to historians for all time.
Dr. Edward Leo Lyman, former history teacher at VVC and author of History of Victor Valley, said that Elgin “has heroically gathered the most complete collection on the high desert in the VVC Library Special Collections room. She has also been most diligent in making certain that oral interviews have continued to be done, with the transcripts … properly preserved.”
The growing Local History Collection was crowded into Elgin’s small office, and when the new library was being planned in 1995, Elgin lobbied for an entire room of the new building to be dedicated to the burgeoning collection. Once again, approval was granted. Without Elgin’s foresight, dedication, and gifts of persuasion, the Local History Collection would not have received the attention it so desperately needed, or the spacious home it enjoys today.
Elgin and other members of the MHS began canvassing the community for donations of old photos and other memorabilia to round out and fill gaps in the Local History Collection. The Daily Press ran articles about the collection. Teachers at VVC began assigning research projects in the Local History Collection room.
The Oral History project is still ongoing. It has been kept alive in recent years by Elgin, who has herself conducted 25 interviews of the High Desert’s elderly residents, with a view to preserving individual and personal accounts of a time and a way of life that has disappeared forever.
Fifty of the recorded histories still need to be transcribed—a job for volunteers with a passion to continue the work begun in 1963. If you share that love and want to become a part of the legacy, you can call Fran Elgin at 760-961-9343 or VVC Librarian Leslie Huiner at (760) 245-4271, extension 2262. Transcribing the cassette tapes is done via a pedal-operated Dictaphone, which is easy to use. Tapes and equipment may be taken home by volunteers, and the transcriptions can be done at your own pace.
There are many printed and photographic records that need to be sorted, catalogued, and filed; newspaper articles to be cut out, labeled, and filed; duplicate files to be deleted; and there is always a need for labels to be typed up. If you can volunteer any amount of time to help with these tasks, you would be doing a noble service for the community.
A transition from hardcopy files to digital began in April 2019,but is going at a snail's pace due to a shortage of volunteers. None of the irreplaceable collection is available via computer and it could all be lost forever in the event of a catastrophe. All the materials need to be scanned and stored electronically, but more volunteers are needed. If you are interested in helping with this worthy project, please, please volunteer.
The Local History Collection room is open from Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment with Leslie Huiner (760) 245-4271, extension 2262.