Santa Clara Valley Lives: Los Altos History Museum belongs to the community

Courtesy of Robin Chapman
The J. Gilbert Smith House is a centerpiece of the Los Altos History Museum.

San Antonio Road once stretched from El Camino Real up past Skyline Boulevard into La Honda, when pioneers used it as a redwood logging road during the 19th century. Before that, it was an Ohlone pathway, traveled by California’s original inhabitants as they moved from San Francisco Bay into the foothills.

Early orchardist J. Gilbert Smith pitched a tent on his land along this road and lived under the California sky as he worked to plant his apricot trees and build his house, beginning in 1901.

“It is humbling and enlightening to learn about all the people who have been on the land before you,” said Elisabeth Ward, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum, which has a prominent place along this historical thoroughfare.

The museum sits behind the Los Altos main library, at 51 S. San Antonio Road, and was founded after Smith and his wife, Margaret, left their historical home and 1.37 acres of land on the edge of the civic center to the people of Los Altos. In 1977, residents formed the association of the Los Altos History Museum to take over responsibility of the J. Gilbert Smith House, and in 1978, they won a Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission Award for Excellence for their work. In 2001, the association opened a modern museum and today, the two facilities – historical house and modern museum – are free and open to the public noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.

“Museums have always been a communal campfire, a focal point for storytelling,” Ward said. “And with modern technology, this goes far beyond a physical building, becoming a means we can use to share tales that connect cultures and generations in an area that stretches from Stevens Creek to Adobe Creek and beyond.”

Steve Yvaska, popular collectibles columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, recently had a holiday suggestion for his readers: “How about honoring a friend with a gift membership in a historical society or a museum?” he wrote. “They do a lot to preserve our communities and depend on you.”

It is not only older people who seek history’s lessons: 1,000 third- and fourth-graders visited the Los Altos History Museum this year to learn about California history. As the museum launches its annual appeal, it is a great time to consider donating to this sparkling jewel of a community resource.

Robin Chapman is a local author and historian who serves on the board of the Los Altos History Museum.


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