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Our Mission: History inspires imagination, stimulates thought and transforms society.

The Los Altos History Museum preserves and shares our local history to enrich our community and to shape a more informed future.


Educational Curriculum Tours

Each year, all Los Altos third-graders and fourth-graders attending Los Altos School District public schools and private schools are invited to participate in three-hour morning theme days held at the Los Altos History Museum. The curriculum for both field trips is especially designed to be age-appropriate for elementary school children and carefully aligned to the California History Social Studies Standards. Lessons are taught by credentialed teachers and history museum-trained docents.

31st Annual Margaret Thompson Historical Essay Contest

2015 Theme: Inventors and Risk-Takers Help Make Our Community a Better Place

The Los Altos History Museum’s current exhibit, Silicon Valley: The Lure and the Legends, explores the transition of the Valley of Heart’s Delight from orchards to oscillators and reveals the inventors and risk-takers behind the changes in our community. Risk-takers are people who take a chance and have perseverance. They often try many times before they are successful. Visitors who enter the exhibit will “meet” several dozen local legends from Hewlett-Packard, Adobe, Intel, Google, Apple, and many more. These inventors and risk-takers have had an impact on each of our lives both domestically and globally. While the focus of the exhibit is on the local people behind these technological advances, many other inventors and risk-takers in our community are exploring ideas in art, medicine, music, science, engineering, math, ecology, and communications. For example, risk-takers have developed inventions to address hunger, poverty, and health issues in developing countries. Some examples of these innovations are water purification systems and solar-powered ovens.

Writing Prompt:
Consider yourself an inventor and risk-taker. What could you design that would make your community and/or the world a better place? Within your essay, describe your invention, tell how it should be used, and how it will make a difference for others. Complete your essay by describing a day that your invention was actually used. Think about developing an organized flow of ideas. As you write, use interesting vocabulary and creative ideas.

For the complete essay prompt, click here.

For general instructions for teachers and principals, click here.

Third Grade: Local History

child's letter 1Grade three students learn about their community from Ohlone times to the train station in 1932 as they rotate through three interesting teaching stations.

At Station 1, the museum's permanent exhibit, Crown of the Peninsula, examines how the land of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills has been used over thousands of years from Ohlone times to the era of Silicon Valley businesses. The station's train display models the town's streets and buildings at they looked in the 1930s. Much to the delight of the children, Los Altos founder Paul Shoup’s Southern Pacific Railroad train rumbles through the little town on its way to Vasona Junction (Los Gatos).

At Station 2, students view vibrant paintings of old Los Altos; the 1900-1940 works of Los Altan Annie Knapp Fitz are colorful renderings of a struggling railroad town and the rigors of farm life in days past. Annie considered herself a "primitive painter,” and children love creating their own versions of the tank house, harvesting apricots, or painting a happy face on Nellie, the family cow, as they each try their hand at creating a personal "masterpiece.”

At Station 3, the children tour J. Gilbert Smith's 1905 Craftsman home. A museum since 1977, the Smith house now replicates a 1930s style farmhouse and rekindles memories of simpler times. As students exit the house, they have a much greater appreciation of the time-saving devices brought about by modern technology, although all admit that ice cream tasted much better when hand-churned.

Fourth Grade: California History - the 1950s

child's letter 2“Set” in 1953, a classroom DVD introduces fourth graders to a soldier who has just returned from the Korean War. The soldier weaves the story of California's growth during and after World War II, and generally prepares the pupils for their California “Recent” History field trip to the museum.

The morning field trip takes students to Hillview School, the Los Altos History Museum, and the Los Altos City Council chambers – all located in our Civic Center.

Experiences include:
• "Take Me to the Movies: The L.A. Story" - oils spurts from the ground as Los Angeles moves from fruit packing, to aviation, to Hollywood. Students laugh with Abbott and Costello, draw their 6-guns with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, and fight villains with Clark Gable.
• "People Movers" - California is on the move in the 1950s with big cars, new homes, and freeways. Big decisions have to be made by inexperienced city councilmen, and the children help determine what technologies have been saved from the past.
• "Cal Aggies" - traces the development of agriculture and farm equipment over the decades. Children cut (and eat) apricots at our outdoor drying shed and learn about farm labor leaders including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
• "1953 City Council Meeting" - the City Council meets in formal session to debate Ordinance #33. There's nothing like a dog ordinance to get the good people of Los Altos up-in-arms, and the students take on all the roles of the actual folks in 1953 who influenced this important civic decision.


• All Los Altos School District 3rd and 4th graders are invited to add a historic curriculum tour to their schedule. The third grade programs are supported by a generous grant from a local family foundation. Please contact your school principal or the museum for information on the annual spring tours.
• School groups from outside the area are welcome to schedule a Special Tour through our regular docent program for groups of 10 or more. Please note that these are not the same as the curriculum tours described above, but are the tours our experienced museum docents offer to guests visiting the museum’s permanent exhibit, Crown of the Peninsula. Please call the museum at 650/948-9427 x14 to set up a tour; please allow a month’s notice, and we do ask for a donation to cover costs, especially if you tour outside our normal open hours (Thurs.-Sunday, noon-4pm).

Margaret Thompson Historical Essay Contest

Every year, Los Altos students are invited to enter the historical essay contest pioneered in 1984 by then-Historical Commissioner Margaret Thompson. Entries on the topic selected for that year are due in early March. Winners in each grade level will receive a small cash prize, and will be recognized at an ice cream social held at the museum prior to a City Council meeting, where they will receive a commendation from the City of Los Altos. In addition, the school with the most winners receives the Margaret Thompson 25th Anniversary trophy to display in the school's library. Teachers encouraging their students to enter may also receive a special thank you gift. Open to all 3rd-6th graders who live in Los Altos – public, private and home-schooled.

A past essay contest winner shares how it changed her life:

“I remember being really excited about the topic for the annual Margaret Thompson historical essay contest in the fourth grade. We were instructed to write about a family legacy. I knew immediately that I wanted to write about my great-great-grandmother, who organized aid for Mexican immigrants working on the railroad in Wichita, Kansas. The essay topic helped me learn the importance of history on a personal level, which I later took with me to other history classes.

“I was completely surprised when I won first place for my essay. I'd never won anything before, ever. Looking back, it seems like a small deal, but that win boosted my nine-year-old self's confidence tremendously. My academics improved greatly during the course of my fourth grade experience, and education has been a priority in my life since then.

“History is an important but overlooked subject, and Ms. Thompson's essay contest gives Los Altos students the opportunity to think critically about the importance of history in their lives and communities. I never had the privilege of (meeting) Ms. Thompson, but I have still been affected by her…legacy.”

- Jill W., Loyola School alumna (later at Stanford), Spring 2009