By melding community involvement with a passion for local history, she continues to live out that unique family heritage on an almost-daily basis, resulting in her selection by the Tracy Chamber of Commerce as Tracy female citizen of the year.
Koster’s roots in community involvement go back to the time she was growing up in Tracy, when her father, the late W.K. “Ken” Lowes, was an energetic leader in many community projects. He was Tracy’s citizen of the year in 1968.
On her Koster family side, she is the standard bearer for one of Tracy area’s original farming families, one that started farming here in the late 19th century and is still active in agriculture.
Born here on March 1, 1931, the 81-year-old grew up on the family’s farm south of town. Her parents, W. Kendall and Nola Lowes, came here in 1922 when her father was named manager of the Standard Oil Co. (now Chevron) oil pipeline pumping plant at Lyoth (Banta Road, where two rail lines cross.)
While her father was still working for the oil company, the family bought 30 acres on Bird Road.
“We had walnuts, alfalfa, chickens and beans,” Koster said. “My dad did most of the work, and even built his own hay-mowing machine from a frame of an old car.”
At the same time, her father was a longtime trustee of Jefferson School, director of the Tracy Tomato Festival and an active participant in a host of Lions Club projects.
Onalee and her brother, John, grew up on the farm, helping their parents. While still a student at Jefferson School, she was one of the organizers of the Lone Tree Riders, a western riding group of some 20 young people appearing in area parades and horse events.
She graduated from Tracy High School in 1949 and then for three years studied art at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.
After working several years for a ceramics firm in Southern California, she returned to Tracy in the 1950s. She and Clifford Koster were married in 1955.
“A few years after we were married, we moved to the Koster Ranch southeast of town,” she said. “I’ve been there ever since.”
Cliff Koster, a third-generation family member on the land, farmed a variety of crops. He had a special interest in old-time farm machinery, and the Kosters hosted a number of Early Days Gas Engine Shows where he showed off his working early Harris harvester and other vintage farm implements brought to the farm were demonstrated.
Cliff Koster died in 2006, but Onalee and her two sons, Andrew and Bill, continue to be active in farming. A daughter, Diane Koster, also lives on the ranch, which now totals about a thousand acres, mostly in walnuts, almonds, pluots, barley, beans and alfalfa.
Onalee Koster was active with the Farm Bureau and California Women for Agriculture, displaying farm animals and crops for Bay Area children. “Many of the children thought milk came from the store,” she said.
At the same time, she was among a group of people who knew Tracy needed a historical museum. Old photos, artifacts and equipment were offered to the West Side Pioneer Association, but there was no place to collect and display them.
“Back in 1993, we were fortunate that the Boy Scouts no longer used the Boy Scout Hut on Bessie Avenue, and the city bought it for $1,” she said.
The West Side Pioneer Association leased it at a minimum rate and tuned it into a museum. Koster became museum director, organizing West Side Pioneer Association volunteers in displaying artifacts and demonstrating old-time farm chores such as churning butter.
The original museum had limited space, however, and the city agreed to invest $890,000 to turn the city-owned old post office building at 12th and Adams streets, then a recreation center, into a museum.
It was opened in 2003. Koster continued as director and is still on the job.
“I’m here when the museum is open Mondays and Thursdays and often in between,” she said.
Other volunteers who work with her know that means almost every day.
Koster heads a cadre of a dozen volunteers who staff the museum while receiving and cataloguing donations of historical items and developing displays. A buggy from the Koster Ranch is mounted above the museum’s mural.
A major continuing program at the museum is hosting a third-grade class every Monday. Koster usually conducts the students’ tours of the building, explaining the meaning of items on display.
The tours complement the West Side Pioneers’ use of the restored original Lammersville School building in Clyde Bland Park as a third-grade classroom of the 19th century.
“It’s important that students know something of the history of their area and what farming life was like in the 19th century,” she said.
Adults, too, visit the museum. Some are newcomers to the Tracy area; others are members of families that once lived here, Koster reported Tracyites interested in local history filled the museum before Christmas for the annual open house.
“Yes, I spend a lot of time at the museum, but I really enjoy being here and seeing the museum develop and do a better job of educating people about the history of their area,” Koster said.
After 20 years as museum director, her Lowes and Koster roots are still growing interest in Tracy’s historical heritage.
• Contact Sam Matthews at 830-4234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.