When Barbara Abbott worked as a docent for Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, she loved to tell personal stories about the world-famous horticulturist.
Burbank's marriage to his first wife, Helen Coleman, was troubled, and for several years in the 1890s they lived on the property in the small Greek revival cottage -- originally a carriage house -- with his mother and his sister.
"The marriage didn't last very long with the four of them in that small house," said Abbott.
She is part of the small army of dedicated volunteers who help keep Burbank's legacy alive through the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Association. The nonprofit group recently took over the site's operation and maintenance, which had been the city's financial responsibility.
Without the city picking up the tab for such things as groundskeeping and roof or fence repairs, volunteer involvement has become even more imperative.
Abbott started as a docent four years ago and is now a member of the association's board of directors. She is part of the board's planning committee and heads its publicity and marketing committee. In short, Abbott is tasked with convincing the local community that Burbank's history is worth preserving.
"You have to have a sense of community. You have to appreciate how your community got to where it is today," Abbott said. "This is really the last place around that we can look at and say it's the way it was 100 years ago."
Abbott hails from the San Fernando Valley. She grew up and went to school in Burbank, which is not named after Luther. She spent 20 years of her adult life in Santa Monica before moving to Santa Rosa in 1995 to be near her son.
Like many Sonoma County newcomers, Abbott took a tour of the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens about a year after moving here. It left a lasting impression, as did Gaye LeBaron's two books, "Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town" and "Santa Rosa: A Twentieth Century Town."
After a few years as a local real estate agent, Abbott showed a client a historic home for sale in 2006. She remembered the tour of Burbank's home she had taken years earlier.
"It sort of piqued my interest because I'm a history buff, and local history has always interested me," she said. She started volunteering as a docent, becoming more and more passionate about the place's history.
"The more you learn, the more you get involved, and it becomes an important part of your life," she said.
Burbank was a prominent and important person in the early 20th century, Abbott said.
"He put Santa Rosa on the map," she said, doing unprecedented work as a horticulturist breeding and cross-breeding plants and flowers.
Abbott identified a number of priorities and projects to get involved with, including identifying and helping recruit more board members, stepping up fundraising and organizing more community events.
She recently took on the task of getting a new sign for the building.
"We have never had a sign in front that tells when the events are," she said. "Somebody has to take on that project. Somebody has to go to the city for the permit, make sure the sign fits within the guidelines of a historic landmark."
Volunteers for docent, gardening and gift-shop positions are now being interviewed. Training begins in March. For more information, call 524-5445.
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