With artifacts, historic buildings, exhibits and lectures, the Kern County Museum continues to tell the story of the county, but 75 years after it first opened, the museum has some history of its own too.
Founded in 1941, the museum set out with a mission to “collect, preserve, research and represent the history and culture of Kern County for the education and enjoyment of the public.” While some things have changed at the museum, serving that mission has not. Beth Pandol, vice chair of the Kern County Museum Foundation board of directors, summed up why the museum has lasted so long.
“The Kern County Museum is the historic center of the county,” Pandol said. “Over the years, it’s grown and changed, but it’s always been part of the Kern County community. It’s a place to showcase all the things that built Kern County.”
On May 19, 1941, the Kern Historical Society asked the Kern County Board of Supervisors to create a museum, which they approved with a vote that day, though full operations didn’t get underway until 1945 because of limited resources during World War II. The Chamber of Commerce building, which remains part of the museum today, had been a drop-off place for historic materials since 1929, said Lori Wear, curator of collections.
Back then, the land surrounding the building was the old fairgrounds. As government agencies and the fair moved from the location on Chester Avenue in the early ’50s, the Kern County Museum began to take the form residents know today.
The museum’s first executive director was Frank Latta, a teacher and historian who held the position until 1955. He wrote several books on local history, Wear said, including one on the Yokuts. Latta also had a large personal collection of local items, mostly Native and Chinese artifacts, that were kept at the museum.
One collection, a series of ledgers written in Chinese from the 1870s, was donated to a museum in Santa Cruz after his death but were ultimately returned to the museum after they were translated and discovered to be Kern County records. The documents might be the earliest Chinese ledgers in North America, Wear said.
“He did a lot of work early on, preserving all kinds of local history,” Wear said of Latta. “The nice thing about being in existence for 75 years is we have an amazing collection of early stuff that’s really hard to come by now without spending a fortune.”
At the time, exhibits were housed in the former Chamber of Commerce building, where museum offices and special events are currently. Later this year, the building will once again hold exhibits as the museum’s new orientation center. The gift shop will become a space for changing exhibits, Wear said.
Though his time at the museum ended more than 60 years ago, many schoolchildren to this day have enjoyed Latta’s legacy. The Native American Life program that Latta started has become a staple of both the museum and of local students’ education. The museum also acquired its first building, the Barnes Log Cabin, in 1948.
However, the majority of the buildings that make up Pioneer Village were transported there under Richard Bailey, who took over the director position in 1955 through 1981.
“He was fantastic about getting volunteers and donations to create the Pioneer Village we know today,” Wear said. “He was a really forward-thinking guy.”
Another executive director who helped make the museum what it is today is Carola Enriquez, who held the position from 1981 to 2009, following interim director and local historian Chris Brewer. Although the museum was accredited under Bailey, when the time for its reaccreditation came, standards had changed and Enriquez had her work cut out for her, completely overhauling the system used to number and record artifacts.
“We had to really get (moving) fast on some changes because the museum was just not at professional levels,” Enriquez said of her first challenges as executive director. “Accreditation was looming and I thought, ’This place is accredited?’”
After a huge effort led by Enriquez, and a grant she got to help those efforts, the museum was accredited again. Obtaining several grants for the museum might be how Enriquez’s legacy is best summed up. One helped the museum finally get uniform signage, a long project for Enriquez’s time at the museum that she was proud to see completed before volunteering to take an early retirement in 2009 to help the museum’s budget.
Fewer buildings were moved into Pioneer Village during Enriquez’s time. With limited space and resources, she said, she wanted to take only buildings that weren’t safe or cared for where they were. But both the Fellows Hotel and the Lopez-Hill house were added to the museum’s collection during her time, in 1989 and 2008, respectively. Wear, who worked at the museum when the Lopez-Hill house was moved, said the first new building in nearly 20 years took about five hours to travel from Rosedale Highway to Chester Avenue. Power lines and the solid metal beams that hold traffic lights had to be moved to make way for the house.
“In a lot of ways it was a lot easier to move buildings then,” Wear said of the ’50s and ’60s. When the Lopez-Hill house moved, “it was such an air of excitement. I rode in the truck following the procession, partly to make sure it went OK and partly just for fun. It was really something to see. The community turned out; people were taking pictures. It was a really happy and exciting atmosphere. People wanted to be part of it.”
Though most people tend to think of Pioneer Village when they consider the museum, a more unseen but just as important aspect of it lies out of sight: a massive collection of artifacts. Many people, in and out of the county, have used the artifacts and resources for a number of projects. Just last summer, Wear helped a student from New York University with a project on 19th century clothing. The student marveled at the collection, Wear said, more vast than she had expected.
“It’s exciting to be able to help researchers and historians with these collections,” Wear said. “It’s the whole point of preserving these things.”
Wear said the museum has been contacted by Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Dan Rather and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to help with pieces they were working on. The museum also gave photos to CBS for a package on Merle Haggard when he was one of the Kennedy Center honorees in 2010.
“The president saw those photos from our collection, Paul McCartney saw those photos, Oprah Winfrey saw those photos,” Wear said, mentioning those last two as other honorees that year. “I don’t think people really understand the importance of the collection that’s here.”
With all the artifacts the museum currently has, it should have even more. A fire in the mid-1980s destroyed about two-thirds of one of the original fairground buildings, Wear said; the remaining third is now the shop building. The cause of the fire was a Molatov cocktail thrown by somebody who was never caught, said Enriquez. Old washers and dryers, household appliances, hand tools and furniture were destroyed.
“The fire was unbelievably awful,” Enriquez remembered. “I lived near Garces, as did my assistant director, and the two of us parked at FoodMaxx and ran (to the museum). A couple of men on staff managed to get in and talked to firefighters about moving the vehicle collection away.”
Preserving the collection, maintaining the buildings and keeping the museum operating is a big job, and one that takes a lot of money.
“The main difference is, when the museum was founded, the Historical Society went to the Board of Supervisors and said, ‘We want to have a museum and we want you to pay for it,’” Enriquez said. “As money started to dry up, the museum had to reach out to improve its income stream.”
Getting the museum more money on its own started with grants. Eventually, more and more events held at the museum also began to help add revenue. The museum, which started as a county entity — and is still owned by the county — is now run by a nonprofit board. Though its mission continues to be the preservation of historical items, it does seem as if in the past couple decades there has been a newer focus on events.
“I would never guess in my wildest dreams how many people get their first experience from weddings (held at the museum),” Enriquez said. “I never would have believed how important it is to get people into the museum for whatever reason. Anything you can do to get more people in (is worth it).”
Getting people in, and running the museum overall, now falls to new executive director Zoot Valasco, hired this month to replace Roger Perez, who held the position from 2012 until March of this year. For the future, adhering to that original mission is the plan, Wear said. Finding new ways to do so, while engaging the community, is the key.