Monthly Archives: April 2018

By Gary Stein

Graduate school is a marathon. There are numerous “markers” along the way, certain mementos of the necessary hills to climb in order to reach the finish line, PhD in hand. There is finishing coursework, becoming a TA, passing your qualifying exams, honing in on a Prospectus for your dissertation, and finally, completing the dissertation – in many respects the final lap and main event and group relay all rolled into one.

I am currently in my 2nd year, so I am almost done with coursework and am in the midst of my 2nd semester as a TA. I also came to USC with an MA in History, so I have been holding the baton for some time now and am working on crafting a dissertation topic. In this post, I hope to articulate some of the ideas brewing in my head at this moment (though as many grad students know, one week can bring an entirely different set of ideas, hopes, doubts, dreams…than the one before it). I will share some of my experiences that have led me to this point and have (for the most part!) enhanced this long and winding process.


“River cabin,” built by former communard at Salmon Creek Farm in Albion, Mendocino County, CA. Photo taken by author.

“Building a Communal Environment: Back-to-the-Land in Mendocino,” my Master’s Thesis, analyzed the 1960s-70s back-to-the-land movement in Northern California, particularly in the coastal rural towns of Mendocino County. A key intervention of the thesis was highlighting the contributions of back-to-the-landers to the modern environmental movement and their role in heightening the ecological consciousness of mainstream society. It argued that back-to-the-landers, like those in Mendocino, did not merely “drop out” and live communally for a short, insignificant period of time. They remained politically and socially active and committed to ecological principles and working cooperatively within a group. I looked at back-to-the-land communes that lasted for over 20 years, contributed to the proliferation of food co-ops, the availability of organic foods, and the fight against agribusiness and corporate agriculture. These migrants helped shape the culture that endures in the North Coast region. They built their own unique dwellings using as little of the earth’s space and resources as possible and succeeded in legalizing their structures. They fought to save local forests from clearcutting, over harvesting, and the spraying and injecting of herbicides, and they continue to fight for these and other environmental initiatives today.

Their main objective of moving to the country was effecting change through lived experience, making the personal political. The idea proved central to the activism of the 1960s and is an important component of modern environmentalism, in addition to the more familiar legislative and institutional gains. This work led me to think about different conceptions of the environmentalist ethic and how different modes of living causes, or becomes, conscious efforts to preserve and/or improve the landscape. I am interested in analyzing who gets to be included in those decisions as well as the groups that have historically been excluded or disregarded.


Poster for “hike-in” protesting Disney’s proposed development of Mineral King. Courtesy of USC Special Collections, collection no. 0037, Mineral King Development Records.

I continue to be fascinated by people’s relationship with, and perceptions of, nature. I have previously written about the Civilian Conservation Corps, post-WWII suburbanization, and the development of natural and historic preservation in the 20th century. In our Western History seminar with Professor Bill Deverell, I wrote about the formation of the Pacific Crest Trail, a “wilderness way” connecting the borders of Mexico and Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. I then looked at the fight over Mineral King, a proposed ski resort by Walt Disney in Sequoia National Forest in the mid-1960s. The Forest Service had traditionally adhered to Gifford Pinchot’s “wise use” model, prioritizing timber and other commodity resources. But I argue that this began to shift in the 1930s, in part due to the work of the CCC and the formation of the PCT, which opened up numerous national and state parks and forests and contributed to greater wilderness preservation efforts and a growing appreciation for outdoor recreation. This pushed the Forest Service to value non-commodity resources such as outdoor recreation. But it also led the Service to utilize the “wise use” model for recreational development, such as Disney’s plans for the massive ski resort. The proposal was protested by the Sierra Club and young environmentalists who incorporated the values and grassroots activism of the movements of the 1960s to their fight to save Mineral King. The proposal was eventually defeated and Mineral King became part of Sequoia National Park, under the supervision of the Park Service.


CCC enrollees receiving a lesson in the use of the saw. Reforestation camp, unidentified location, 1933. Courtesy of USC Special Collections, collection no. 7000.2, Hearst Corporation Los Angeles Examiner photographs, negatives, and clippings.

As I consider and prioritize larger questions within my own work, some or all of this could become central to my dissertation, or I could end up going in another direction. That, in part, is the process of graduate school. It can be exciting, enlightening, frustrating, and daunting. But I have gained a lot from the entire experience, and though I still have a long way to go, I can sense the final lap on the horizon. I am grateful to have worked in Western Environmental history, examining how people are shaped by their environment as much as they shape the world around them. And as a native of Queens, NY, I am thrilled to continue learning about the culture and environment of the American West and its integral place in American history.

Gary Stein received his undergraduate degree in history from Queens College, a City University of New York (CUNY) and his Master’s in History from Claremont Graduate University. His Master’s Thesis received the Center for Communal Studies Graduate Paper Prize in 2017. Stein joined USC’s Ph.D. program in 2016. 


Photo of Governor-elect Jerry Brown at his Los Angeles campaign headquarters in 1974 is courtesy of
UCLA Library’s Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

By Miriam Pawel

On April 7, 1895, the Los Angeles Herald ran a story to celebrate Otto von Bismarck’s eightieth birthday, noting that “a world shouted as he crossed this rarely touched milestone of time.”

On April 7, 2018, another long-standing ruler, master politician, and statesman of Prussian ancestry marks the same milestone: Edmund G. Brown Jr. turns eighty. Eighty is no longer quite as noteworthy as in Bismarck’s day, of course, and even Jerry Brown cannot match the Prussian leader’s reign of almost three decades.

But Brown has certainly left his mark on California, breaking records along the way: The youngest California governor in modern times when he first took office in 1975; the oldest ever when he returned as governor in 2011; the longest-tenured governor in state history; and the only governor elected four times. Between Jerry and his father, Pat, the Browns will have ruled California for 24 out of the past 60 years.

Bismarck was in good company, the Herald noted in its birthday tribute, offering a round-up of other octogenarians: Pope Leo still wrote Latin sonnets, William Gladstone wrote essays, and Verdi had just received acclaim for Falstaff. Brown will leave office at the end of this year. Given his classical education and eclectic interests, there’s no telling what he might compose in his next act.

Author of the 2014 book “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” Miriam Pawel is an author, journalist, and independent scholar. She is currently working on a book about four generations of the Brown family in California.

California Flood Mazurka Sheet Music

Sheet music that shows effects of 1861-1862 flood courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

Congratulations to William J. Cowan who just received the USC Russell Endowed Fellowship and the USC Graduate School Summer Research Grant. Cowan is working on his Ph.D. in the USC History department and we asked him to share a few words about his research and this honor:

These funds will be used to continue my dissertation research about the Pacific Slope Superstorms’ of 1861-62. I will be exploring several archives in Oregon, notably the Special Collections in Eugene and the holdings of the the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. During that trip I will also be visiting several historic sites, including the “lost” towns of Canemah and Champoeg–both of which were destroyed in the Pacific Slope superstorms of 1861-62. I will also use this opportunity to venture to the Bay Area to visit the California Historical Society’s archival collections and to pay a return visit to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. These collections include key eye-witness accounts of the devastating winter of 62 and its aftermath.

I am humbled and grateful to be a recipient of the 2018-19 USC Russell Endowed Fellowship and the USC Graduate School Summer Research Grant. It’s an honor to represent the Department of History and the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. I applaud this year’s nominees and congratulate my fellow Graduate School awardees. Many thanks to our department’s Directors of Graduate Studies, Steve Ross and Richard Fox for supporting my nomination, our Academic Advisor Melissa Borek Calderon for directing the submission process, and to Bill Deverell and Peter Mancall for their continued counsel and their confidence in me and my work.

You can follow Will Cowan’s research on Twitter at @williejcowan or contact him at

By William Deverell

One cannot help but think of Kathy Fiscus upon hearing of today’s miraculous outcome in Griffith Park.  Thirteen year old Jesse Hernandez, who fell 25 feet into the city’s sewer system, was rescued in the early hours of Monday.  A rescue worker pulled up a manhole cover atop the maze of pipes, and there he was, safe in a pocket of air he’d found in the pipes underneath the park.

From the Los Angeles Times, this 1949 image features the San Marino scene of efforts to rescue Kathy Fiscus.

From the Los Angeles Times, this 1949 image features the San Marino scene of efforts to rescue Kathy Fiscus.

It was Easter time, 1949, that three year old Kathy Fiscus fell into an abandoned well out back of her family’s home in San Marino. A feverish rescue attempt failed to bring about the wished-for outcome.  After about forty-eight hours, the body of the little girl was discovered in the well shaft, ninety feet below the surface of the earth.

By G.W. Feldshue, Special Features, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

“We don’t really know what we’ve found with this one,” says dig site’s top scientist.


LOS ANGELES.  Scientists at the La Brea Tar Pits have announced the discovery of an odd fossil that has them scratching their heads.  The bone in question, some kind of giant lizard-like jawbone, surfaced in one of the museum’s ongoing excavations adjacent to Wilshire Boulevard in late 2017, but scientists kept the discovery quiet until they had time to study the surprising find.  What they have learned is peculiar and mysterious.

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of snakes and lizards have, over the millennia, become trapped in our asphalt seeps,” says Assistant Curator and excavation site director, Dr. Emily Lindsey.  “But we have never seen a bone like this.  It is the biggest squamate bone that I have ever seen.  But we don’t really know what we’ve found with this one.”

Tar Pits excavators discovered the fossil in the asphalt-saturated sediments.  Thinking at first that it belonged to a young horse or camel, they were bewildered to flip it over and find teeth unlike any known in mammals.

Once the new find had been completely prepared – a process that, Lindsey says, took several months – the peculiarities of the bone became clearer.  “I have never seen anything like it in my career,” Lindsey says. “It looks like a kind of lizard, given the shape of the jawbone and the teeth.”

Asked to describe the bone, which the La Brea Tar Pits Museum (formerly the Page Museum) would not allow us to photograph, Lindsey hesitated.  “Imagine if a house or garden lizard got stuck in the tar and left behind its bones.  The jaw looks like what would belong to that lizard.  Except that it is huge.  The size is similar to a human mandible, but we know that there weren’t ever some strange ‘lizard people’ inhabiting subterranean Southern California.”