Living History Project preserves local stories

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One hundred and one year-old Carroll Schmidt remembers a time in Burlingame when fire engines were horse-drawn, the town had dirt roads and William H. Crocker would ride down Floribunda Avenue on a horse and throw toffee candies down to the town’s children.

“It was like a chicken feed,” Schmidt said. “It was really something to see.”

He witnessed Burlingame transform from a small country town to what he now considers a “formal city.” Schmidt, who was born and raised here, attended McKinley Elementary and Burlingame High schools before going on to the College of San Mateo.

Schmidt’s story is just one of almost a dozen told through the Burlingame Public Library’s Living History Project. Librarian Bradley McCulley, who has since become the official City Librarian, began the project in 2011 as a way to preserve the town’s history for future generations.

“Initially it was supposed to be strictly Burlingame residents local history,” McCulley said. “But we kind of broadened the scope because the stories were so powerful.”

McCulley partnered with the Burlingame Historical Society to help him with the project. The society keeps a list of local residents that the members want to interview for historical preservation purposes.

“The role of the historical society has been to identify people who have been in the community long enough to have experienced change,” said Jennifer Pfaff, the Burlingame Historical Society president.

When Schmidt was growing up, he remembers most of the shops being small mom and pop stores.

“You would need to go shopping and the people knew you by name,” he said. “Knew who you were and what you were and would almost automatically take care of what you needed without you even having to ask.”

Another one of the people of high interest was Yevgeny, or Eugene, Zauber. Zauber grew up partially in the Soviet Union and survived the Siege of Leningrad during World War II at age five before escaping to Siberia and then to Kharkov, Ukraine. Him and his mother were the only two members of their family to live through the siege and survived hidden in a relative’s small office in a hospital for two years. His father was drafted into the Red Army and 22 members of his family perished while taking refuge in the German occupied Belarus. In the Soviet Union, Zauber trained as an engineer and worked as one for 22 years after immigrating to America in January of 1977.

“I love [Burlingame],” Zauber said. “It is my favorite small city.”

Here, Zauber volunteers weekly as a gardener at both Burlingame library branches. He has a nursery at his home from where he donates his plants to the library gardens, his favorite being the succulents. Zauber also often gifts his plants to the library staff, especially around the holidays.

“I try to make people happy,” he said. “I am a happy volunteer and retired person.”

Other people interviewed for the project who were part of prominent historical events include Helen Farkas, an Auschwitz survivor, and Les Williams, a Tuskegee airman. Like Schmidt’s story, the project also focuses on local history as well, interviewing Rosalie O’Mahony, a former Burlingame mayor and councilwoman, and Alfred Escoffier, a former Burlingame city librarian.

These stories and more can be found on two interactive screens in the main library and online on the Burlingame Public Library section of the city website. Several podcasts have also been produced for the public, which also can be found on the website.

Though the project has concluded, McCulley and the rest of the library employees still assist the historical society in videotaping its interviews and updating its files. They hope to continue collecting residents’ memories in the future to preserve Burlingame’s history.

Posted on February 12, 2018 .