Curator Bill Watson stood in the living room of the Thunderbird Lodge on Friday, gesturing to a set of glass plate photographs from the early 20th century.
The plates, meticulously placed into an old rosewood box, revealed an array of Lake Tahoe landscapes from about 1918 to 1920. Watson has had them in his possession ever since a South Lake Tahoe woman gave him the box for safekeeping.
Upon delivery, the woman recalled how her father had passed the photos down to her, and how she used a light board to view the plates as a child.
“She had grandchildren, but she didn’t believe they were interested (in the photos),” said Watson, also chief executive for the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. “And some day this is going to make an incredible art exhibition of never-before-seen views of Lake Tahoe.”
Over the years, the preservation society has received hundreds of old artifacts giving glimpses into Lake Tahoe’s history.
Many times that has meant caring for family photo albums, slides and videos taken by past generations. At other times it has meant safeguarding an old map of Skunk Harbor or preserving some CalNeva lighters from the 1940s — whatever gives people a better idea of life at the basin during a different time.
After an item is dropped off at the society, the artifact is scanned and catalogued with the intention that everything will eventually be accessed online.
Ultimately, the point of the entire undertaking is simple: to save Lake Tahoe’s history.
Jesse Siess, guest curator for the preservation society, stood in front of a table full of donated artifacts Friday.
“What’s great about people donating to Thunderbird and to the historical society is I take it, I scan it, I catalogue it, and then it lives in the public trust for eternity,” Siess said. “It’s not hidden in a drawer or forgotten to disintegrate. We take care of it, we digitize it, so researchers hundreds of years from now will have access to stories that might otherwise be lost.”
Families have been donating their old stuff to the society for a number reasons, Watson said. He equates one of them to a change in family dynamics — or that the older generation believes their descendants don’t care as much for family history as they do.
“They’re afraid their children or descendants will simply monetize the family treasures when they’re gone,” he said.
One of the artifacts Watson had in front of him Friday was a roll of film from the 1930s. It was a home video from Brockway, showing a family grow older over the course of several decades.
The film might not have much monetary value, but it is valuable in a historical sense, Watson said.
“There’s a wonderful time capsule there of a multi-generational family experience at Lake Tahoe,” he said.
Despite already having a plethora of donated artifacts, the preservation society is continuing to expand its collection. Lake Tahoe, northern Nevada and Northern California artifacts, photographs and documents may be contributed to the organization.
For more information on giving to the society, visit www.thunderbirdtahoe.org.