Carol Jensen’s vocation is businesswoman; she’s the owner of Carol Jensen and Associates. For the past three decades she has served as the interim financial officer for small businesses in transition, either starting-up or winding down. She handles the company’s finances and cares for whatever Chapter 11 or other financial crises they may be facing.
However, Carol’s avocation is that of citizen historian. She has had a strong connection with the past beginning at childhood when her parents instilled in her a growing awareness of her place in the ongoing narratives of our region and of the whole state. Carol went on to get a degree in History from UC Santa Barbara and has written a number of books documenting the history of interesting places from Brentwood to Lake Tahoe. She is a member of the Contra Costa County Historic Landmark Advisory Committee to the Board of Supervisors.
Carol’s latest book is on the City of Oakley, which had been started as a writing project by two school teachers — Cindy Tumin and Sandra Kelly. They arrived at a point where they realized they would never have enough material for the book. Carol said that she encouraged them to finish the project but they were done with it. It was a busy time in Carol’s life. She had recently completed her Lake Tahoe Through Time book for Fonthill Media and was on her way to Denmark in her role as a Fulbright Scholar and Small Business and Entrepreneurship Specialist. She stopped off in England to meet with the publisher of Fonthill Media, who had a series of local history books called “America Through Time.” The publisher asked Carol to accept the position of Fonthill acquisition editor for the west coast.
She tried to enlist Cindy to take up the Oakley book again. “You do it, Carol,” she said. Carol finally took up the project. She took Cindy’s material, together with material she had accumulated over years of research into the area’s history, investigated historical archives, and finished the contract in six months. Her research and investigation uncovered some fascinating facts about the city. She used more than 100 images detailing important people, places, and events illustrating the history of the place during the 121 years since Randolph Marsh (no relative of John Marsh) and a Vermont Native, Alden Norcross, acquired, surveyed, and registered the township of Oakley in 1898. A few images provide some background to the Miwok Indians who had inhabited the place for centuries before any Europeans.
“Much of my research efforts were focused on assembling and sorting images that provide the graphic-based history that I was writing,” Carol said. Many of the materials she collects for her books are “ephemera” — objects originally intended for casual and temporary purposes, such as party favors, playbills, menus, posters, envelopes, letters, and postcards. She spent countless hours sorting through the extensive Ephemera Collection of Early California Business at San Francisco’s California Historical Society. Carol said that she also became a familiar attendee at regional fairs sponsored by collectors who had created various sub-cultures around their particular area of interest. The fairs often have tables, kiosks, and even rooms overflowing with ephemerals or objects associated with a Western theme, mining equipment, windmills, or the early gas industry.
“When I would attend them searching for ancient keepsakes or ephemerals,” Carol said. “Some vendors would see me, knew what I was looking for, and anticipate my inquiry by saying, ‘Yes Carol.’ Or ‘No Carol.’”
Carol said that an amazing thing about the City of Oakley is that it isn’t unique. Each successive epoch was characterized by immigrants who moved in, settled down, and became threads in the city’s rich social tapestry. The city’s history reflects a national immigration trend beginning with the gold hungry 49ers and Chinese who had been part of the railroad and Delta development projects. At the turn of the 20th century immigrant waves from Portugal, Italy, and Spain flowed into the growing town.
Carol said that Oakley had earned the distinction of becoming The Last Frontier because 20 years ago it became the last city in California to incorporate. It will probably be the last one because land grabs have moved city limits to the point they share boundaries. When you drive south from Oakley to Brentwood or east to Antioch there is no clear point at which you pass from one municipality into the other.
Suburbs began to spring up after WWII and Oakley development began to boom in the 1970s. The city now has 42,000 residents, which makes it much larger than Martinez, the county seat. People were moving off the farms. Economic geography shifted; the distinction between rural and city morphed into city and suburb.
Carol said that Oakley especially typified the 2008 mortgage meltdown when residential areas around the nation and in California cities like Stockton, San Bernardino, and Merced were left to die. The Brookings Institute wrote an analysis of the collapse that moved Oakley into the spotlight.
“Everyone imagines Detroit to be the epitome of the downturn,” Carol said. “But the Brookings report illustrated the downturn with a picture of suburban Oakley showing U-Haul vans sitting in the driveways of empty homes as residents were leaving the shadow of Mount Diablo.”
A principle of California real estate values is that “Everything that goes down must come up.” Carol said that investors and speculators purchased the foreclosed properties, sometimes at 20 cents on the dollar, and often rented the homes out to Section 8 tenants. Ten years later those homes are now selling for far more than they were worth before the collapse.
CAROL’S PATHWAY TO THIS POINT
During her youth, Carol had connections with the past. “My parents had me late in life, so by my teens I was being raised by senior citizens who possessed world views and vocabularies that were archaic and wonderful,” she said. “My grandparents had immigrated from Denmark before WWI. They were part of the great European migration to America of European farmers, carpenters, and tradesmen.” Carol’s parents and grandparents witnessed the evolution of transportation from motor cars to moon landings and the evolution of ladies’ styles from corsets to miniskirts.
Weather permitting, every weekend her father would take the family in his Chrysler for a day trip of discovery that, Carol said, was always more expedition than Sunday drive. She and her best friend Diana would sit in the back seat with comic books while her dad chauffeured them to places of interest, and especially to sites where they viewed remnants of a past that was gone.
Carol remembers one unforgettable year when the family spent those magical Sundays traveling the length of the Gold Country, down Highway 49 from Auburn to Yosemite. They spent another year exploring some of the 21 dams and 700 miles of canals, pipelines, and tunnels that the U.S. Army Core of Engineers were creating as part of the California State Water Project. Carol saw the immense Orville Dam while it was under construction. They visited every Spanish mission that lay within a day’s drive of their Brentwood home including the historic mission at San Juan Bautista. Her parents’ lives sometimes overlapped objects of historical interest on display. Carol said, “They would look at a butter churn, for example, and say, ‘We had one like this at the ranch.’”
Carol said that her parents were sometimes baffled by her ignorance. She would ask, “What is that?” about an old appliance and they would respond with some exasperation. For example, “Don’t you know what a butter mold is? What’s the matter with you?” They obviously had difficulty imagining anyone being unfamiliar with tools and utensils that had played such important roles in their young lives.
Carol especially remembers driving into Yosemite one Sunday in order to witness the historic Glacier Point Fire Fall. “It was my first time in the park,” Carol recalled, “While driving in, Dad kept pointing out features such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and the Three Sisters as though he imagined everyone should know their names and couldn’t understand why we didn’t.”
Carol attended all 13 years of her public education in Brentwood, beginning with kindergarten at Brentwood Elementary and graduating from Liberty Union High in 1969. Even though Liberty was the only high school in the area at the time and was serving an area that stretched from Knightsen to Byron, Carol said that there were only 287 students in her senior class.
Carol said that she took basic courses during her freshman year at U.C. Santa Barbara. “I earned good grades in History,” she said, “so I declared that as a major, focusing on Antebellum American History and Western Expansion through the Civil War.” Carol said that she studied with some marvelous educators. “We didn’t go to college to get a job,” she said. “We went to gain an education. We saved career and professional choices for graduate school.”
After graduating in the class of ’74, Carol went on to earn an MBA from the UCLA Graduate School of Management. She had to earn her way through school, so she got a position as Assistant Registrar at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. She took all the history courses she could and said that she was delighted to discover that the study of history at that level dealt with more than stories about kings and battles.
“We learned about the development of culture and art over time,” Carol said. “We found answers to central questions such as ‘Why did people come here? How did they dress, eat, and live?’” Carol said that she came to realize that the Sunday drives of her childhood had been journeys into the rich history of our region as much as sight-seeing visits to the area’s natural beauty.
“I was there at a window the next day when Nixon climbed into the helicopter for the last time and flew off.”
While earning a second BA in Art History, Carol spent three years working at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. After graduating, she moved to Washington, D.C. and joined a summer program as an intern in the Registrar’s office at the Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts. Carol said that the Nixon White House frequently borrowed works of art from the collection to hang in the White House. When Nixon was leaving, Carol’s job was to visit every room in the White House, upstairs and downstairs, confirming every work of art on loan from the collection.
Carol bumped into history herself. “I was actually in the tunnel below the White House when Gerald Ford came through on his way to have the famous discussion with the outgoing president,” she said. “I was there at a window the next day when Nixon climbed into the helicopter for the last time and flew off.” She worked on her master’s thesis while spending six months as the first intern at the Getty Museum Villa in Malibu.
Carol’s life was enriched by her ongoing engagement with California history. Carol would be the first to admit that the dozen or so books she has written about the history of our Northern California region itself, hardly scratch the surface of the inexhaustible reality. Much of her passion and research continues to focus on the Byron Hot Springs. Carol will never stop searching for those hidden gems of information waiting to be discovered about the fascinating place that made Byron a destination for the rich and famous.