Interview: Retired Historical Museum Curator Harry Wassmann
When Harry Wassmann was growing up in Benicia, tulle reeds grew where Rancho Benicia now stands. He borrowed books from the library, which was in the state capitol building along with other city offices. The building’s second floor had a stage and dance floor, and Harry once saw a sword exhibition there.
His first job was carrying coal into the telephone company office on East G Street “to keep the girls warm as they asked, ‘Number, please.’ ” He graduated from Benicia High School in 1939, when the school occupied the current City Hall.
Now 93, Harry saw the town adjust as thousands came to work at the Benicia Arsenal during World War II and again as people left when the Arsenal closed in 1964.
“The Benicia Arsenal was prominent in my lifetime,” he says. He initiated the move to resume annual Memorial Day services at the local military cemetery after the Arsenal closed.
He considers the Southampton area of town to be “not that old” and doesn’t regret the changes he’s seen over the years.
“We love Benicia just as much as ever,” he says, a warm smile on his face.
“There’s something about this town—the people are friendly,” adds his wife, Diane.
The couple live in the house where Harry was born in 1919 and where they raised their two children. He retired in 1985 from Travis Air Force Base after 37 years as a transportation specialist.
Harry is passionate about researching and preserving local history, and he and Diane are frequently resources for Benicia history publications. Harry has devoted the past 40 years to the Benicia Historical Society and Benicia Historical Museum. He helped found both organizations and retired as museum curator in 2006.
“The museum has taken up a lot of time over the years, and happily so,” he says. “Before that, Benicia Historical Society occupied my time, and it’s all been a pleasure.”
Why did you work so much to establish a museum here? Because no one seemed to know the Benicia story. Benicia participated strongly in the early days of the state, but we did not have somewhere that told our story. …
So many dedicated people who cared and knew about Benicia’s past worked on this. I told the Council back then that with each day that passes, we’re losing our historic heritage—artifacts and papers that tell about Benicia’s role. The artifacts were getting scattered. They weren’t in one place. So people would drive into Benicia and they’d have to go to City Hall and ask where the prisoners of war were taken during World War II. Where’s the capitol? Where was the shipyard?
We needed a central place to exhibit our artifacts and tell the story, and that’s why we worked to get a museum.
So where were POWS kept during World War II? The buildings are gone now, except for the hospital, which they used as a chapel. It’s now offices in the Industrial Park.
The Italian POWs were allowed to go downtown because they were jovial—well, not all of them were allowed to go. In general, the Germans were not allowed to go.
Most people don’t know we had Italian and German POWs here during the war. One day a man came to Benicia and he went to City Hall and asked if they could tell him where the POWs were kept. They didn’t know what he was talking about and told him there were no POWs here during the war. But he kept insisting, so they finally called me. He’d been an Italian prisoner here. We got together and we showed him where the camp had been. He admitted that they had a good time here. … His son, who worked for Chevron, ended up living here for a time and he and his wife were museum volunteers.
When did you become interested in local history? I’ve always been interested in history. I’ve always gathered things I found that I thought were interesting and of historical value. We have a basement full of some of these things.
What do you remember about Benicia during the Depression? I know there were a lot of people without jobs, but it didn’t affect our family. My mother, brother and I didn’t suffer thanks to my father (a butcher). My mother had a track on people who did need help and she’d take them clothing.
We did have a WPA (Works Progress Administration) camp here. Camp Benicia was out by Lake Herman. There were all-male barracks out there. They’re gone now. They didn’t do any art projects here, but they may have cut down thistles or done some road work locally.
What did you and your friends do for fun when you were growing up? We had all kinds of things to do, like One Foot Off the Gutter and Kick the Wicket. Some of the fellas went duck hunting. They had their own boats and they’d go out.
We went swimming in the bay, at the end of West G Street. There was a nice arrangement there with bath houses and a somewhat sandy beach.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? I used to think I’d like to be a farmer. My grandmother had turkeys and I had chickens. When I graduated from eighth grade, I wanted chicks and I got them.
But that’s not an easy life and I’m glad I never got into it. I did like gardening and growing things.
What projects are you working on now? I’m clearing out the basement, which includes so many papers that I’ve got to share with the museum. All kinds of papers—rough drafts and final products, photographs, newspaper clippings. I still visit the museum and help when I’m called.
What are your hopes for the museum in the future? I think it’s progressing very well as it is. Elizabeth d’Huart (executive director of the museum) is doing a good job—we need that kind of expertise.
I appreciate what they’re doing now, I really do. I hope they carry on as they are doing now.