By Debbie Teofilo
Special to the Sun
The Kern River Valley Historical Society has been celebrating its 50th anniversary all year long at many special events. As the owner/manager of the Kern Valley Museum, the Historical Society is also celebrating the grand opening of the Annex, a new expansion of its museum.
At its anniversary dinner celebration on Sunday, June 4th, the Masonic Lodge in Kernville was filled to capacity and the champagne flowed freely. Terri Gallion played a Native American flute to open the party, and Out of the Blue got all toes tapping to their music at the close of the evening.
Many of the active members in attendance were recognized for their contributions to the ongoing success of the Museum and were congratulated on the successful completion of the Annex building. Rich Burdge, Historical Society President, and Bruce Vegter, overseer of the Annex construction, were moderators for the event. Members were particularly generous during the live auction by bidding prices much higher than minimums to bolster the fundraising efforts.
Museum Curator Dianna Anderson gave a brief overview of the past 50 years of the Historical Society’s own history. She emphasized that member and community generosity and passion for history are responsible for the crowning achievement of the Historical Society: its renowned Kern Valley Museum. The Museum is one of the most respected rural museums in the state for its treasure trove of artifacts and engaging displays. It is an established stop for organized European tour groups, and is listed as a point of interest on the National Geographic Geotourism website.
The Kern River Valley Historical Society was formed in 1967 to promote interest in the valley’s rich history. It quickly needed space to house and preserve its growing collection of donated artifacts. It opened its first museum in 1975 after entering into a partnership with the Kernville Chamber of Commerce to build and occupy the community building where the Chamber office remains today.
Due to the outpouring of community support and donation of additional artifacts, in 1982 the Historical Society began searching for a larger facility to expand its museum. An attempt was made to restore and adapt the Andrew Brown Ranch flour mill buildings (now part of the Audubon Kern River Preserve) for use as a museum, but the cost became too high. The Historical Society instead purchased a doctor’s office building in Kernville in 1989 where the current Kern Valley Museum now stands. Due to community generosity, the mortgage was paid off within two years, and the Historical Society has been debt-free ever since.
The Museum is known for its creative displays, which began when each exam room in the former doctor’s office was transformed to depict one era of valley history, such as Native Americans and the gold rush. The movie filming industry was set up in the former lab, and the x-ray room became the map room. In 1998, the building was expanded and received its current Western facade.
The outdoor area in the Museum’s “Backyard” now contains full-size exhibits to take visitors back in time to life in the Old West. An original miner’s cabin from the Greenhorn Mountains was purchased from the U.S. Forest Service in 1991. It was later reassembled and furnished with items representing those of the gold rush era. An assay office and blacksmith’s shop were built to display the activities and tools used in those local industries, and a covered wagon was outfitted to show pioneer travel. A original stamp mill from the gold mining days towers above them all.
One lesser-known gem at the Museum is the original “mudwagon” stagecoach in which John Wayne rode while crossing the Kern River in the 1939 movie Stagecoach. An article about that movie scene appeared in the April 2017 issue of True West magazine, so Curator Anderson informed the author that the famous stagecoach is located in the Kern Valley Museum. The knowledge that the stagecoach still existed caused such excitement that her email was published in this month’s June issue of True West Magazine. The author may write a follow-up article.
There are other hidden treasures now being stored or displayed in the new Annex building across the street from the main museum. Local legend Ardis Walker was a relative of the “Shooting Walker Clan” of the Keyesville gold rush days who became an author and poet, Kernville Justice of the Peace, County Supervisor, and conservationist responsible for the establishment of the Golden Trout Wilderness.
All of his books, research papers, art, and historic artifacts were bequeathed to the Historical Society. These items are now housed in the Annex and are being catalogued for research use by scholars worldwide.
Another treasure trove of information being donated to the Historical Society by Marge Powers are the historical research materials of her late husband, Bob Powers. Bob authored an authoritative series of nine books on the history of the Kern River Valley and its pioneer families. As a fifth generation pioneer himself, he was devoted to sharing the valley’s history and strengthening the Museum with his muscle, mind, and heart.
It is fitting that the 2017 grand opening of the new Annex building occurred during the Historical Society’s golden anniversary. The educational and archiving activities conducted there will be an integral part of the next 50 years of service to the community by preserving and sharing the Western history of the Kern River Valley. Academic researchers around the world are anxious to access the documents and memorabilia, so volunteers are urgently needed to enter thousands of books and other written materials into the computer database. Other volunteers are needed to organize and protect documents and photos.
For those interested in assisting with these efforts, Curator Dianna Anderson can be contacted at (760) 379-1123 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information about the Museum and Historical Society memberships can be found at www.kernvalleymuseum.org.
Curator Anderson noted during the anniversary celebration that the enthusiasm and dedication of Historical Society members, volunteers, and the Kern River Valley community is the reason why the Kern Valley Museum is so successful and widely respected. She ended with these challenging words, “Let’s continue making history!”