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Remembering Maria Herold

The longtime curator of the Montecito History Archive kept careful track of her beloved community

Maria Herold, longtime Montecito resident and curator of the Montecito History Archive, passed away on All Saints Day, Nov. 1. An exquisite light has been extinguished, and the Montecito Association History Committee has lost its most valuable member. I can only hope she knew how much those of us fortunate enough to have worked closely with her, appreciated, loved and admired her.

Montecito history buff Maria Herold died Nov. 1 at age 77. Starting out as a volunteer at the Montecito Association, she eventually became curator of the community's archives — a job for which she was uniquely suited.
Montecito history buff Maria Herold died Nov. 1 at age 77. Starting out as a volunteer at the Montecito Association, she eventually became curator of the community’s archives — a job for which she was uniquely suited. (Elite Henenson / Noozhawk file photo)

Maria — born Aug. 14, 1932, in Zurich, Switzerland — believed in the importance of history, possibly because of her own family’s connection to the early American period of California’s past. Her grandfather left Switzerland in 1873, walked across the Isthmus of Panama, and ended up working in northern Santa Barbara County as foreman on an old Spanish land grant. He returned to Switzerland with his family after 30 years, only to have his son and family return when Maria was 16 years old.

Arriving in Santa Barbara, Maria Moretti spent the summer with the nuns of Marymount studying English before enrolling at the school. After high school graduation, she attended Mount St. Mary’s College in Brentwood and majored in music. In 1953, she married George Herold at the Santa Barbara Mission after he returned from service in Korea. She and George raised six children in Montecito.

Maria was convinced that many community problems could be traced to ignorance of history. Living according to her own beliefs, she acquired a tremendous personal knowledge of Montecito’s history after residing for several decades in the Hedgerow District.

She started volunteering with the Montecito Association History Committee in 1991 when Maria Churchill was curator, and became curator herself about eight years ago. Walking every street, knocking on every door, photographing every barn, adobe, garden and historic house, Maria collected the history of Montecito. Working initially with several volunteers, she acquired family photographs, photos of the grand estates, maps, documents and oral histories. She and her volunteers clipped and filed and added to the collection. Whether humble adobe or renowned estate, Maria found their stories and the stories of their inhabitants fascinating.

A motley crew of professional and amateur historians have trooped through her office over the years. She always found time for whomever walked in, whether they were real estate agents, architects, land-use planners, water board members, developers, historical consultants, local history writers, or individuals seeking information about their homes or families. She helped researchers from all over the United States, often doing the work herself and passing it along. Many books in the collection bear inscriptions thanking Maria for her assistance in their creation.

Others visited Maria to share their recollections about Montecito and their family’s history. Several over the years have donated family photos and documents. She was not shy about picking up the phone and asking if someone was ready to pass along a historic family album. Maria also had a strong interest in the early Spanish families of Montecito and preserved early images, stories and genealogies. Much knowledge about these early families would be lost without her untiring efforts in their preservation.

Maria volunteered many more hours than the advertised eight hours per week, and she loved to share her knowledge. I first met Maria five years ago because I had started writing the history column for the Montecito Journal, and Maria, I was told, was the keeper of Montecito lore. Maria warned me that if I asked a question, she wouldn’t be able to take me directly from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Instead we’d meander through Cuyama and Bakersfield, sojourn in Lake Tahoe and perhaps hop on a flight to New York with a long layover in Denver before reaching our final destination. She wasn’t kidding. She confessed that her children often asked, “Mother, when is this plane going to land!?”

I must admit that I sometimes exclaimed, “Maria, I only get 1,500 words!” I realized, however, that if I stayed aboard for the entire journey, I would end up with a rich tapestry of context and connections that illuminated and elevated the original question and its answer and revealed a deeper understanding of the whole. Her vast personal knowledge and ability to see inter-relationships was extraordinary.

Maria’s contributions extended far beyond the scope of curator of Montecito’s Archive. For many years she volunteered with Meals on Wheels, bringing food and cheer into the homes of those she visited. She also worked at Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. Her contributions to the parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel were varied and vast.

Equally appreciated was the warmth of Maria’s greeting and the genuine delight with which she met every visitor. She could make a dreary day turn brilliant. The values of kindness, generosity and enthusiasm that ruled her life were gifts to those who met her, and her many contributions to the people of Montecito and to the Montecito Archive have enriched and enhanced the entire community in innumerable ways.

Maria Herold’s winning smile, infinite patience, indefatigable willingness to help, and extensive institutional memory will be sorely missed. Montecito has been blessed by her presence.

Click here for a related article, Noozhawk Talks with Maria Herold.

— Hattie Beresford is a writer with the Montecito Journal. This article is published in the Journal’s Nov. 12 edition.

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