What I learned as a tour guide in Elmshaven

by Kara Wibberding | September 20, 2022 |

Ellen G. White’s home is a coveted visit for some. Others have no idea it’s there.

Elmshaven is on Glass Mountain Road in St. Helena, California. It was once the home of Robert Pratt, then Ellen White, then sold and later donated to the Pacific Union Conference.

This is where I get my school volunteer hours by leading tours once a month. With so many different people passing through each day, and so many diverse stories to see as you wander the halls, there’s a lot to learn that never shows up on the tours. There are many things I never expected to learn about both the people and the house.

But here I am, telling them to you.

CM1 students ask the best questions.

Technically, I already knew there was an attic. I had been told that the clock on the pump organ in the living room had been found in the attic.

However, I didn’t know where the attic was until I passed a group with two boys around in fourth or fifth grade. They have been one of my favorite bands to date.

These two boys were asking questions all the time. I liked it. Adults don’t seem to question things as much as children. It is always the under-twenties who ask the most questions. And the more questions they ask, the more I have to explain.

Anyway, these two boys asked me what a side door was in the writing room. I thought it was just a closet. So I went and opened the door. There you go, it wasn’t a closet. It was a staircase leading to the attic of the prophet.

Another example of this is when someone asked if they could see inside the giant Pratt family Bible in the family tree room. I opened the Bible to Revelation and found an artist’s fabulous rendition of everything that happens in Revelation.

So please, when you visit, ask questions.

There is always one person dragging the others for the tour.

In every group that passes through Elmshaven, there always seems to be someone who thought of coming. The rest is right there. Whether there was general consensus or whether a few guns were tweaked is unclear. But without fail, the reliable group leader is there. This person can be identified quickly.

When you visit Elmshaven, you will ring the doorbell and sit on the porch. Then one of the senior tour guides will open the door and ask you to sign the guestbook. (Just do it.) The person who responds first or loudest is the group leader. This person will make the most eye contact and ask the most questions throughout the rest of the visit.

Usually the party leader is my favorite because he’s the easiest to converse with.

Most of the men on the walls have really cool women or girls.

In the upstairs hallway of Elmshaven, you will find two picture frames on the walls containing the pictures of many Adventist pioneers. The only woman whose picture is up there is Ellen White. Guess it would be a little rude not to have the house owner on the wall.

All of these men were very important to the Seventh-day Adventist movement, of course. However, most of their wives were equally or even more involved.

I’m currently working on building my knowledge of each so I can point to a picture and quickly start talking about the man’s wife. But this will take time.

There are also local women who were making big waves at the time, unrelated to the men, like Sarah Peck and Alma McKibben. They should also be on the wall.

There was a terrifying plague of hippies.

I was sitting in the living room one afternoon, as guides usually do, listening to a man speak. This guy was one of Ellen White’s descendants visiting for the weekend.

I had known before that there had been a period when a few people lived in a section of Elmshaven. Visits would still be held, but the dining room and writing room were closed for residents to live in.

What I didn’t know was the reason.

According to him, they had moved in in the 70s because there was a group of hippies sleeping on the porch. Residents of Elmshaven were afraid someone would start a fire or break in.

Yes. They once had to protect Elmshaven from the hippies.

People really like the poster.

Across from Ellen White’s bedroom is a large poster with over 800 names she used for Jesus in her writings, in alphabetical order. Tourists often stop and try to read them all. They will never succeed in the amount of time the rest of their group has patience, but they try.

I’m serious. People really like this poster.

People can get really weird about Ellen White’s descendants.

Two of Ellen White’s great-great-granddaughters currently work in Elmshaven with their husbands.

They are really lovely people. They are just not holy.

How Ellen White is revered or placed on a pedestal sometimes becomes eerily clear when people learn about these women. Of course, they are happy to meet and take pictures with tourists – and they also remind people that the prophetic gift is not a biological factor.

There is a person from time to time who does not quite believe it. I once had a group take pictures of the descendants coming out of their house through one of the windows. I quickly made them go upstairs.

There are always people who know everything.

Being a high school student as a tour guide can go two ways.

I can receive heaps of praise for my skill, or I am discussed and discredited. Both come from low prior expectations, but clearly one is better than the other, and that stokes my ego.

But, unfortunately, there’s always someone who doesn’t take me quite seriously. These are often people who did a few tours about 10 to 30 years ago. They remember things that are supposed to be on the tour and sometimes worry that they will be forgotten. They very kindly point out details or tell me what to say so I have to give parts of the tour out of order. Thanks.

I wondered how someone who was smaller than me could have the audacity to undermine me. But then I remembered that I’m smaller than everyone else and I still manage it.

Ellen White’s Secret Basement

The Elmshaven Cellar was once where the family stored the harvest from the estate’s orchards. Now it’s the staff break room. The basement is constructed with concrete walls and wooden support beams. The floor has been carpeted and the room is equipped with a fridge, microwave and cushioned chairs.

But it is also very cold there. Most of the time, us guides who don’t lead the tours sit in the lounge instead.

There are home movie footage of Willie White’s family.

Elmshaven has a DVD with old footage of the house that Willie White took at a family reunion. One quiet afternoon, one of the guides brought it in and played it on the small TV in the corner of the living room. The images were so pure and sweet. There were children playing in a stream and one of the descendants named one of the babies as his grandmother.

At the end of the film, the family lined up to say goodbye to someone who was driving an old car. I have no idea if or where a general audience can access it.

The information is organized.

I’m sure that’s no surprise. Each museum keeps information. There is an image of Ellen White that we all know well, and the people of Elmshaven work hard to maintain it.

This means that each guide adjusts the way they talk about the ordination certificate in the display case.

That means sometimes photos get deleted because someone pointed out a detail that doesn’t fit Ellen White’s carefully constructed image.

This means that I was told not to say certain details in my visits.

All of this reflects that as a church we do not have a free flow of information. We need to stop tiptoeing around things that might be upsetting and shout the truth from the steeples.


Kara is a sophomore at Pacific Union College Prep. She writes for the school newspaper and sometimes stays up later than she should to write recreationally. Otherwise, she spends the free hours of the day painting her furniture and watching Gilmore Girls.

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