.Library Showcases Earliest Known Naturalist

For five decades, Point Santa Cruz’s lighthouse keeper Laura Hecox documented and collected the wonders of the environment

Laura Hecox spent 50 years as Point Santa Cruz’s lighthouse keeper but did much more than ensure ships found their way through the nighttime fog; she amassed and appreciated the natural world around her. Hecox donated 2,000 items from her vast collection of artifacts and specimens—from ancient nautical fossils to original scientific sketches—to the then-new Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History in 1905. 

For Lynn Guenther’s Light of the Bay, a 2022 work of historical fiction based on Hecox’s life, she studied the naturalist’s artifacts to learn more about her untraditional life. Many of those relics, illustrations and scrapbooks are now on display at the Santa Cruz Library’s downtown branch. 

“Once I put the book out, I got a lot of feedback from people who said they’d actually never heard of Laura Hecox,” Guenther says. “Which I found surprising. She’s such an interesting role model for so many reasons. Not just as the lighthouse keeper but also being a self-educated scientist. She did amazing research. She dedicated so much of her life to it.”

To create the exhibit, Guenther reached out to museum staff, who she’d worked with closely during her research for the book, including collections manager Kathleen Aston. 

“Lynn is passionate about sharing her book, but I think she finds the Laura Hecox story very moving,” Aston says. “We all thought it was a good time to propose the display to the library.”

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Guenther appreciates the support from the museum and the library on her book and the exhibit.

“I had a big picture planned,” she says. “Kathleen has assisted me the whole way. It’s really about bringing these collections back to the forefront. The museum has done a great job promoting Laura, and I’m trying to expand on that.”

The exhibit includes artifacts and specimens from the museum’s collection and Hecox’s personal scrapbooks, which the library had already archived.

“A lot of women kept scrapbooks back then,” Guenther explains, “full of locks of hair, poems, tickets to operas. But Laura’s are something else. They are full of newspaper clippings from all over the country. She basically created her own encyclopedias.”

Aston adds, “Those scrapbooks are amazing. They are one of the few windows into her personal life and interests.”

The library’s connection to Hecox goes back to the beginning—the first iteration of the museum opened in the basement of Santa Cruz’s Carnegie Library in 1905.

“This display is a great way to reunite some things from the collection to the scrapbooks, where they were originally displayed,” Aston says. “We thought it was a fun opportunity.”

Guenther hopes the exhibit will inspire people to learn more about local history and appreciate Hecox’s legacy.

“Laura was really at the beginning of the environmental movement,” she says. “She was ahead of her time. She saw the need to preserve and document nature and what was being lost.”

Aston concurs, adding that Hecox accomplished everything without any traditional education. 

“[Hecox] lived in a time where if she’d wanted to become an educated scientist, she likely wouldn’t have had access,” Aston says. “And yet she still made all of these observations because she was excited about the world around her. It goes to show that anyone can be a naturalist; it’s just a matter of attention, curiosity and care.”

The Laura Hecox exhibit will be displayed through Jan. 31 at the Santa Cruz Public Library, 224 Church St., Santa Cruz.  santacruzpl.org

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