Chowchilla’s Historical Society & Museum

Every community should have a museum to display photos, documents, and artifacts that bring its past to life. 


Just over a year ago, Chowchilla’s Historical Society made the dream of a museum a reality.  With the support of the Chowchilla Fair’s Board of Directors, a former storage building at the Chowchilla-Madera Fairgrounds was transformed into an interesting history display.

If you live in Chowchilla or the surrounding area, have a family connection to Chowchilla, or are interested in local history in general, you will probably find the museum’s exhibits interesting. 

Growing up with a great aunt and uncle who lived in Chowchilla, and many relatives (including my great-grandparents) buried in the cemetery, we usually visited at least a couple of times a year. 

Despite this, I knew relatively little about the town’s history until my recent visit to the museum.


Most of the earliest towns in our valley were planned out by the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1870s as it built southwards from the transcontinental railroad line at Lathrop.  

Some of these include Merced, Modesto, Fresno, Tulare and Bakersfield.  

A large number of later towns and surrounding farms were created and sold by land companies, many of which guaranteed irrigation water from local rivers for the purchasers of the land.  

Chowchilla and the nearby community of Dairyland were organized on this model, a system sometimes referred to as “colonies” elsewhere in the valley.


The Chowchilla Historical Society has been collecting artifacts, documents, and stories since 1983.  Some of the displays currently in the museum include:

  • A slideshow of historic photos of the town
  • The Chowchilla Pacific Railway – a local route that connected to the Southern Pacific and ran 7miles southwest to Dairyland and about 5 miles beyond with an original plan to connect all the way to the coast
  • Chowchilla schools
  • A 1940s kitchen created with artifacts from local kitchens
  • A recreation of a typical blacksmith shop
  • 1950s vintage dairy equipment, reflecting the role of the dairy industry in Chowchilla’s history and the dramatic changes in technology that have taken place in the last 60 years
  • A road grader that was used to build Robertson Boulevard
  • A 1/7 scale reproduction of the famous Chowchilla arch that greeted visitors until it was destroyed by fire in 1937, but which has since been represented on the town’s welcome signs and the city’s official seal
  • A restored Kleiber logging truck that was used in Sierra Nevada logging and then retrofitted as a water tanker for watering an orchard near Chowchilla


Photo by Adam Blauert

I visited the museum for the first time in January during the second annual open house. 


Due to staffing limitations, the museum only has regular hours during the fair and (May 19-22, 2016) but appointments can be scheduled to tour the museum by contacting Chris Thomas, the museum curator, at (559) 665-1920. 

For more information about the fair, go to

Chris and the other members of the historical society are friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the area’s history.  I enjoyed my visit and learned a lot about the history of the Chowchilla – Dairyland area. 

School groups and other groups are always welcome for tours.  The Chowchilla Historical Society continues to work on adding and improving exhibits and welcomes the participation of more members of the community.  For membership information, contact Chris Thomas at the phone number listed above.

The City of Chowchilla’s website has some interesting historic photos of the town that can be accessed at:

The museum is located close to several other local museums including:

To find the museum, exit Highway 99 at Robertson Boulevard and drive west. 

Turn left on 5th Street.  After the road bends right, look for the fairgrounds on the left.  Turn left by the lighted sign and drive into the fairgrounds. 

The museum will be on your left after you pass a large covered arena.  



MJC’s Great Valley Museum and Planetarium

Photo by Adam Blauert

What’s the best new thing within an hour’s drive of home?  It’s the recently reopened Great Valley Museum and the brand new William R. Luebke Planetarium at Modesto Junior College.  An impressive state-of-the-art museum about local species and habitats, it is housed in the beautiful new Science Community Center at MJC.  Planetarium shows are regularly scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays.  

The original Great Valley Museum closed a couple of years ago in preparation for the move to the Community Science Center.  It reopened in April 2015, reborn with extensive world-class displays of local wildlife and their habitats. 

Although the majority of visitors are Modesto-area elementary students, the museum’s exhibits are designed to be interesting to all ages.  My wife and I learned a lot during our recent visit.

Photo by Adam Blauert

The museum’s displays meticulously recreate local habitats with every major species represented.  You see the animals up close.  They can’t fly or run away, so it’s much easier to observe their features than in the wild.  Informative signs provide the names and interesting facts about them.  Although a few displays are still being completed, the majority are finished. 

The attention to detail is spectacular.  The more you look, the more you notice less-visible species hiding amidst the plant life – just the way it is in nature.  This is a great place to learn about the species before you go out to observe them at one of our local wildlife refuges.

Photo by Adam Blauert

The largest displays depict local wetlands.  The wetlands displays are surrounded by smaller displays of birds and mammals of all sizes including elk, pronghorn, mountain lion, raptors, fish, and extinct species such as grizzly bear, gray wolf, and jaguar.  

There’s a nice collection of Native American artifacts and a display about giant fossil salmon and tortoises excavated at Turlock Lake by CSU Stanislaus.  The museum also offers “Science on a Sphere.”  A system of four projectors displays moving images on a large globe suspended from the ceiling. 

During our visit it was being used to display satellite imagery of historical global weather patterns, including El Nino events from the past few decades.  The museum has an extensive list of educational programs they can project on the sphere.  It’s an outstanding teaching tool for understanding our how our planet functions.

Want to learn more about the elements of the periodic table?  The museum has an interactive periodic table with short video clips about each.  Nearby is a large wall-mounted periodic table with physical examples of almost every element.

The second major feature of the Community Science Center is the planetarium.  The night sky can be projected on the 40-foot dome to teach students about the night sky and our universe.  The regularly scheduled planetarium shows are one-hour scientific programs about features of our universe. 

They are projected across the entire ceiling dome – producing a far more exciting effect than a flat movie theater screen.  Each Friday-Saturday there are usually three programs to choose from – each aimed at a different age range.  We saw Ultimate Universe during our recent visit. 

Photo by Adam Blauert

It was a visually fascinating and up-to-date overview of the universe. 

The staff and volunteers are friendly, welcoming, and informative.  The price is reasonable:   $3/ages 4-12, $5/ages 13-54, $4/age 55 and up, or $15 for a family of up to 6 members.  Planetarium shows are $4/ages 4-12, $6/ages 13-54, and $5/age 55 and up, with discounts for MJC students and staff.  Parking is $2 on weekdays, free on weekends. 

Current hours are Tuesday-Thursday 12-4PM and Friday-Saturday 9AM-4PM. 

For more information go to or call (209) 575-6196.

Photo by Adam Blauert

Group tours and school field trips can be arranged for all ages.  In addition to regular exhibits, and a wide selection of planetarium and Science on a Sphere presentations, there’s a large Discovery Room for hands-on science activities. 

It’s close enough to home for school and club field trips.  The Nature Shop has a large selection of science-themed books and gifts, most of which focus on local wildlife and habitats.

We spent close to 3 hours at the museum and look forward to returning again soon.  In addition to the indoor exhibits and the planetarium, there’s a large water fountain in front of the building with jets that spout water at various angles and heights in computer-programmed patterns. 

We had as much fun watching it as a toddler who happened to be there at the same time.  The programming makes the water seem playful, reminding us of the play we’ve seen demonstrated by animals such as dolphins and dogs.

Photo by Adam Blauert

The Science Community Center also houses a Foucault pendulum, a four-story DNA model, and large scale models of our universe’s planets.  Sculptured mountain lions and tule elk guide the entrances. 

Near the fountain, a two-ton granite sphere floats atop a water jet.  Gradually spinning, you can change its direction with a surprisingly minimal amount of effort. 

The outside of the planetarium is decorated with twelve large etchings on metal plates showing the stars that make up some of the best- known constellations.  The stars are incorporated into images of the figures that the ancients associated with them. 

Photo by Adam Blauert

Designed by MJC art professor Dr. Richard Serros, they depict the interaction of mythology, imagination, and early astronomy.  The stars are represented by LED lights that are lit at night.  You wouldn’t see them shine during a regular visit to the museum, but the museum hosts a “Science Night at the Museum” on the first Friday of every month during the fall and spring semesters (except January). 

During these events, planetarium shows are offered, the museum’s exhibits are open, Science on a Sphere shows will be presented, and the MJC Astronomy Club offers free telescope viewings on the top level of the Science Community Center. 

For more information about “Science Night,” call the museum at (209) 575-6196.  If you go during the fall, winter, or spring, dress warmly so you can enjoy the telescope viewing and the museum’s outdoor exhibits. 

Parking is free during these events.

The Great Valley Museum and Luebke Planetarium are part of the Community Science Center at Modesto Junior College’s West Campus, located at 2201 Blue Gum Avenue in Modesto.  You can see it on the west side of Highway 99 as you drive through Modesto.  To find it, exit Highway 99 at Carpenter Road/Briggsmore Avenue. 

If you’re coming from Merced, turn left across the freeway on Carpenter Road.  If you’re coming from the north, take the same exit, but turn right onto Carpenter.  Either way, you’ll be on Carpenter for less than half a mile.  From Carpenter, turn right on Blue Gum Avenue (right after you pass Collegiate Lane). 

Photo by Adam Blauert

Turn right again in less than a half mile at the 4th Street stoplight.  The parking lots are to the right and you should be able to spot the three-story museum building with its large planetarium dome to the left.

If you’re interested learning more about science, these additional locations are also highly recommended:

  • Wildlife Refuges – the ideal destination to follow a visit to the Great Valley Museum – especially exciting in the winter months when millions of migratory birds spend the winter in our valley.  To combine a refuge visit with your trip to the Great Valley Museum, the closest refuge location is the viewing platform on Beckwith Road, about eight miles west of Modesto.  For directions and more information, go to:  More extensive viewing opportunities are located at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (birds) on Sandy Mush Road and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (birds and tule elk) on Wolfsen Road, north of Los Banos.  For more information about these refuges, go to Merced County Events page about wildlife refuges.
  • Madera Fossil Discovery Center – a great place to learn about extinct creatures that lived in our Valley 800,000 years ago.  For more information go to Fossil Discovery Center.
  • Applegate Zoo – the place to see local wildlife up close – including mountain lion, bear, bobcat, fox, and deer.  There’s also a petting zoo and gift shop.  For more information go to  Merced County Events about Applegate Zoo.

Tuolumne County Museum


Located in the Jail

The Tuolumne County Historical society operates one of the best museums in the southern Mother Lode region.  Located in the old Tuolumne County Jail, the museum’s exhibits are spread throughout the thickly-walled brick cells and the former living quarters of the jailer’s family.  Constructed in 1857 and rebuilt in 1866 after a prisoner set it on fire, the jail was used continuously until 1961.

Visitors today not only get a great museum experience, but also get to tour a historic jail.  If you visit on a cold day, note that the glass in the windows of the cells is not original – when prisoners were housed in the building they had to live with the outside conditions – a far cry from incarcerations today!

Old Jail Cell Window
Old Jail Cell Window

Excellent collection of history

The museum’s excellent collection of old photos and artifacts brings the past to life – mining, logging, railroads, ranching, and rural life.  The exhibits are interpreted by clearly-written signs.  Located in Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne County, the museum displays not only Sonora’s history, but also that of other communities from the Tuolumne foothills to the top of the Sierra Nevada. 

A detailed map located near the museum’s entrance identifies all of the current and former settlements in Tuolumne County.

Museum Exhibits
Museum Exhibits

Historic guns

The historic gun collection is one of the best I’ve seen.  Part of the display is a selection of ammunition in just about every caliber and gauge.  If you’ve ever wondered how all the sizes compare, this is the place to find out.

For those interested in the history of the High Sierra, an exhibit focuses on the history of nearby Sonora Pass (today’s Highway 108) and the pioneers who developed it as a trans-Sierra crossing.

The museum is located at 158 West Bradford Avenue, two blocks from the city center.  Directional signs on Highway 49 make it easy to find. 

The hours are 10-4 Monday through Friday and 10-3:30 on Saturdays.  Helpful volunteers are available to answer questions and show visitors around.

Museum Exterior 1
Museum Exterior 1

Enjoyable reading

The TCHS has published a number of excellent books of local history.  On my recent visit I picked up copies of Sonora Pass Pioneers and When Steam Was King, both of which increased my knowledge about the development of Sonora Pass and railroads in the Sierra foothills.  They’ve also given me many hours of enjoyable reading.  Special events including frequent presentations by local historians and an annual Lamplight Dinner fundraiser are also offered.

In addition to the exhibits, an extensive research library is available for family historians and anyone interested in digging more deeply into the county’s history.  The research library is open on Tuesdays from 9AM to noon.  A donation is requested to help cover the cost of maintaining the collection and the facility.

Just over an hour’s drive from most locations in Merced County, the museum is an easy day trip and can be combined with a visit to Sonora’s downtown, the Moccasin Hatchery Jamestown, Columbia State Historic Park, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, or any of the caverns in nearby Calaveras County.

For more information about the museum or the research library,

please to: or call (209) 532-1317.

Top 5 Local Things to do in Winter in and Around Merced County

Merced County Events-  Top 5 local

Christmas is over and it’s still cold in the Central Valley.  Once the holiday events have passed, the coldest months of the year often seem like a dead time for events and activities unless you’re going to mountains to ski or play in the snow.  Despite that impression, there are actually a lot of great things to enjoy during this time of year within an hour’s drive or less.

1.  Ice skating

For the second year in a row, Fields of Ice in Turlock has brought ice skating to our part of the Central Valley.  Located at 716 N. Daubenberger Road, this open air rink can be enjoyed during the day or under the stars as long as it isn’t raining.  The rink will be open this season through January 19th.  Ice skate rentals are included in the admission price and just about anyone can figure out how to propel themselves on the ice with a little practice – especially if you ever had any experience riding a pair of inline skates (rollerblades).  It’s an especially fun activity with a group of family members or friends.

2.  Performing Arts

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Winter is a great time to enjoy live music or theater.  In addition to performing arts within our own county, the Modesto, Turlock, Fresno, and Sonora areas offer a huge range of live entertainment.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

For a list of performing arts venues and organizations within an hour’s drive, click here. 

3.  Wildlife refuges

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Before large numbers of humans settled in the Central Valley, much of the valley’s floor was a great wetland in the winter months – a permanent home for many species and a winter home for many more.  Large areas that are currently managed as wildlife refuges continue to provide both year-round and seasonal wetland habitat.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

While the refuges are interesting throughout the year, they are especially enjoyable in the winter months when millions of migratory birds arrive. “Birdwatching… really??!??”  I know that’s what some readers are thinking at this point.  Visiting a wildlife refuge in the winter can actually be an unforgettable experience.  If you’ve done it yourself, you know what I’m talking about.

Don’t imagine this as sitting around for hours waiting for a single tiny starling or sparrow to show up.

As you stand on a viewing platform in the crisp evening air and watch great flocks of ducks and geese silhouetted against an orange-red sunset sky, it seems like you’ve stepped into another world – even though you’re only a few miles from civilization.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

Evening is usually the best time to visit. As the day ends, multitudes of ducks and geese return from feeding.  The refuges offer auto tour routes, short hiking trails, and viewing platforms to enjoy the avian show.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos is also home to a large herd of magnificent tule elk.  Although they aren’t always close to the fence of their large enclosure, I’ve been able to spot them every time I’ve visited and sometimes they’ve been very close to the viewing platform.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

No matter when you go, wear warm clothes and bring a camera and/or binoculars. The closest refuge is the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, seven and a half miles west of Highway 59 on Sandy Mush Road.  It offers a five mile auto tour route, three short trails, and viewing platforms. About seven miles north of Los Banos on Wolfsen Road, the San Luis NWR offers two auto tour routes, several short trails, viewing platforms, and a beautiful new visitor center with exhibits about local wildlife.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

If you arrive before evening, you can see both elk and birds in one day and also check out the visitor center (open 8AM to 4:30PM every day except federal holidays). The refuges are open daily from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.

Admission to both refuges is completely free.

4.  Museums

Museums are great places avoid the cold in the winter and to cool off in the summer.  Merced County has a wealth of local museums, and so do the surrounding counties.

Photo by Adam Blauert
Photo by Adam Blauert

The Merced County Historical Society’s exhibits in the beautifully restored 139 year-old courthouse at 21st and N Streets is a great place to start if you’ve never seen it before or if you haven’t been there in a long time.

A new exhibit debuts every few months.  For complete information about current events click here.

The other rooms contain exhibits of the county’s history from the Yokuts people to the present time.

Other museums within the county and an hour’s drive include:

Merced:  Multicultural Arts Center

Los Banos:  Milliken Museum

Atwater:  Bloss House Museum

Castle Air Museum

Livingston:  Livingston Historical Museum

Dos Palos:  Dos Palos Museum

Gustine:  Gustine Museum

Chowchilla-Fairmead:  Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County

Madera:  Madera County Museum

Modesto:  McHenry Mansion

McHenry Museum

The Great Valley Museum

Turlock:  Carnegie Arts Center and Turlock Historical Society Museum

Oakdale:  Oakdale Cowboy Museum

Fresno-Clovis:  Kearny Mansion, Meux Home Museum, the Clovis-Big Dry Creek Museum, the Fresno Art Museum, and the Discovery Center

Mariposa:  California State Mining and Mineral Museum and the Mariposa Museum and History Center

Oakhurst:  Fresno Flats Historical Museum and Park

Raymond:  Raymond Museum

Sonora:  Tuolumne County Museum

La Grange:  La Grange Museum

It’s quite an impressive list.  If you’re wondering where to start, here are five of my favorites:

Castle Air Museum – huge collection of military aircraft, WWII to present

California State Mining and Mineral Museum – mining history and lots of stunning mineral specimens

McHenry Mansion – beautifully restored 1882 Victorian mansion, one of the best preserved in the entire Central Valley

Fresno Flats Historical Museum and Park – extensive collection of restored pioneer buildings and artifacts, lots of space to explore and picnic

Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County – amazing fossils of massive creatures that lived here in the past

Because museums often reduce their hours during the colder months, call to verify before you visit.  Admission to many museums is free of charge, while others require a small per-person fee.

5.  Blossom Tours

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

As winter draws to a close, local orchards put on one of the most impressive displays of blossoms that can be seen anywhere.  Usually beginning in the second half of February, these blossoms can usually be enjoyed by driving (or riding your bike) on rural roads in Merced County.  For more info about blossom tours, click here.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

The University of California’s Cooperative Extension program has compiled several excellent tour routes for different parts of the county.  The maps are available for free on their website: 


Madera County Museum

Yosemite Stagecoach

Madera County Museum

It’s a great time to visit the Madera County Museum---unless it is very hot!

 Why now and not during the summer?  Well, the museum has many things – including one of the best collections of history in the Central Valley – but the one thing it doesn’t have is air conditioning.  In fact, it’s often closed in the summer because of the heat.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Don’t let that be a deterrent

I was blown away by the museum’s extensive collection and the successful way in which it brings to life the history of our valley.  It’s a “new favorite” on my list of local places. 

Although not air conditioned, it is heated, so you can visit in comfort throughout the cooler months.  If you plan to visit around the holidays, call and make sure the museum will be open.  The museum holds special events throughout the year and is specially decorated for Christmas.

 Like the Merced County Historical Society Museum, it is located in county’s old courthouse.  You can find it at 210 W. Yosemite Avenue – only about 30 miles south of Merced.  

 The main floor is divided up into rooms based on important themes in Madera County history.  Although there are some differences between its history and Merced County’s history, there are also many similarities. 

The major exhibits include Native Americans, pioneers, agriculture and ranching, logging, early photography, a reproduction of a turn-of-the-century general store, and the involvement of Madera County citizens in America’s wars. 

Every possible display space has been used to showcase a truly amazing collection of artifacts – including many things I haven’t seen in any other museum. 

Some of my favorites include a full-size reproduction of a logging flume, an excellent collection of Native American basketry, an altar cloth from the temple in Madera’s Chinatown, and an example of a “duster” worn by stagecoach passengers to protect clothing from dusty roads.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Several rooms on the second floor recreate a turn-of-the-century home.  The original courtroom remains much as it was when the building was constructed.  One of the largest rooms contains representations of Madera storefronts and window displays of the past century. 

A restored stagecoach

Once used on the road from Madera County to Yosemite National Park, is one of the highlights.  

 By the time we’d seen the second floor, I was already more than impressed and ready to write a glowing review about it on this website. 

Then we headed down to the basement.  The sign at the top had led me to expect a room or two of tools and machinery. 

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Instead I found that the entire basement was also crammed with exhibits including a meticulously recreated blacksmith shop, a miner’s cabin and mining relics, a display about the granite quarry at Knowles, and an extensive collection of antique household and office technology.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Throughout the museum history is brought to life by a well-chosen collection of historic photos.  Allow at least an hour and a half… better yet, plan for two hours or more.  We stayed until closing time and could have stayed longer. 


The museum is only open from 1 to 4PM on Saturdays and Sundays. 

For more information you can call (559) 673-0291.

Milliken Museum and Los Banos Historic Sites

Photo by adam Blauert

Photo by adam Blauert

Treasure trove of artifacts

With people, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.  The same is true for museums.  Los Banos’ Milliken Museum may look like a 1960’s era elementary school building on the outside, but inside you’ll find a treasure trove of artifacts and history.  

Milliken Museum 4 Miller Buggy   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Milliken Museum 4 Miller Buggy  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Want to see evidence of some of the species that lived here in prehistoric times or artifacts from the Native Americans who first settled our valley? 

Want to know more about Henry Miller who led the development of the Westside’s agriculture and the town of Los Banos?  Interested in seeing photos of destruction in Los Banos caused by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake?  Do you enjoy learning about the technology of home, business, farm, and community life in the past century?  



If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then you’ll probably enjoy a visit to the museum. 

Having not visited in several years, I stopped in a couple of months ago.  The museum has recently reopened following a transfer of the building’s ownership and some necessary repairs that kept it closed through the winter.

Ralph Leroy Milliken

Local farmer, mail carrier, and historian Ralph Leroy Milliken started the museum’s collection in 1954 with documents, artifacts, and oral histories. He served as the museum’s curator until his death in 1970. 

In recognition of his pioneering effort, the museum has renamed for him. 



Today, enthusiastic volunteers staff the museum and carry on the tradition that he began. 

For those who want to learn more about local history, the museum sells several books written by Milliken and other local historians.

Statue of Henry Miller

Allow at least an hour to appreciate the museum’s collection.  While you’re in Los Banos, don’t miss the statue of Henry Miller located at 6th and H Streets.

Henry Miller Statue  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


You can then walk or drive around the area between H Street and Highway 152. 

This is Los Banos’ historic downtown and there are many interesting old buildings to see.  If you’re hungry there are plenty of places to get a bite to eat including the legendary Wool Growers Basque Restaurant, a Westside institution for 120 years. 

Wool Growers Restaurant  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Wool Growers Restaurant PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The name comes from the work of sheepherding done by many of the early Basque settlers of the county.  Hearty multi-course meals are served family-style in a dining room that has hardly changed in 50 years.

It’s the perfect place to end a “history trip.”  Just don’t forget to bring cash as it is the only form of payment accepted at Wool Growers.  If you’re looking for something else to complete your trip, stop by the nearby San Luis National Wildlife Refuge to see tule elk and waterfowl.

Near the refuge entrance you’ll see the Camp San Luis Adobe, the oldest intact building in Merced County. 



Location and for more information

Built in 1848 by Francisco Perez Pacheco, the one-room house is now protected by a metal superstructure. The refuge is located north of Los Banos on Wolfsen Road.

The Milliken Museum is located adjacent to Los Banos County Park along Highway 152 (Pacheco Boulevard) between 7th and 9th Streets in Los Banos. 

The park is also often known as “Pacheco County Park.”  You can park in the parking area on Pacheco Boulevard or behind the museum on Washington Avenue.

For more information, call the museum at (209) 826-5505 or go to

The museum is open 1-4PM Tuesday through Sunday.

Turlock Museums

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert

Museums in the Valley

Although part of Stanislaus County, Turlock is only 25 miles north of Merced – closer than some other towns that are within the county.   Just like Merced, the core of Turlock was laid out by the Southern Pacific Railroad as it built southwards through the Central Valley in the early 1870’s.

The town had a slow start, finally taking off after the Turlock Irrigation District built canals to provide Tuolumne River water for irrigation. Large tracts of land were bought up by land companies and subdivided as “colonies” – the “colonists” could buy the land on credit and pay off part of the loan after each year’s harvest.



History of the Central Valley

I grew interested in the town’s history after reading the following in Garden of the Sun, a history of the Central Valley written by Fresno State Professor Wallace Smith in 1939:   

A pioneer wheat grower in that region asserted that the sand drifted against the stables in such high piles that pathways had to be shoveled before stock could be taken out. 

The board fences used in the early days often broke from the weight of the sand piled against them by the winds surging through the passes in the Coast Range mountains.


Then came the grasshoppers.  They were hatched in April, they appeared in full bib-and-tucker in May, they defoliated the vineyards and orchards in June, and only the bare peach pits, glistening like gnawed bones, were left on the trees in July.  



 In 1904 an indignation meeting was held at Hilmar to protest against the alleged misrepresentations of the advertisements and circulars which had been sent out to prospective colonists....  But eventually the grasshoppers were destroyed by grass fires, night fires, and hopperdozers; water demonstrated the wonderful fertility of the apparently sandy soil; and homes were erected.  (2nd edition, pp. 596-597)

 My great-grandfather settled in Turlock just 10 years after the time described in Smith’s history, so I grew curious about learning more. 

What drew him to Turlock?  What were conditions like in 1914?

 The next time I drove up to Turlock I made a stop at the Turlock Historical Society’s museum

Historic Storefront

Located in a historic storefront at 108 S. Center Street, it is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11AM to 3PM.  Admission is free and friendly volunteers are on hand to answer questions. 

For more information go to:

or call (209) 668-7386.

 The museum has an interesting collection of artifacts and antiques that illustrate the town’s development, life in the previous century, and the many peoples and cultures that came from around the world to settle in this area. 

In addition to what I learned from the displays, I am continuing to learn more as I read a local history that I bought while at the museum:  Streams in a Thirsty Land –  A History of the Turlock Region.

Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock

If you make the trip up to Turlock, make sure you also plan to visit the Carnegie Arts Center  at 250 North Broadway.



 Originally established as one of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic enterprises to spread education, the library was built in 1916. 

Nearly 150 Carnegie libraries were built in California during the early 1900’s.  In 1968 the books were moved to a larger building and the former library was converted into a recreation and arts center.



While being renovated and expanded in 2005 it was gutted by fire.

 Overwhelming community support made possible the restoration of the building and the addition of an 18,000 square foot exhibit, classroom and office space.  Regular art classes are offered for all ages, though the biggest attractions for visitors from outside the county are the frequently-changing world-class art exhibits.  

 Admission is $5/person and the Arts Center is open Wednesday-Sunday from 10AM to 5PM. 

For more information about the Carnegie Arts Center go to

or call (209) 632-5761.

San Juan Bautista



Central Valley and the Merced river

In 1806 a Spanish expedition into the Central Valley identified the Merced River as the most likely site for the first inland mission settlement.  The recommendation was never acted upon because of the hostility of the valley’s Native American tribes.

Although the original inhabitants of California had often been friendly to the Spanish during their first contacts, many tribes became more wary as disease spread, land was lost, and those who came to live at the missions were not allowed to leave. 

Many natives who fled the mission life ended up joining valley and foothill tribes beyond the active control of the Spanish.Although a number of land grants were made in the Valley after Mexico rebelled from Spain in 1821, there was never very much Spanish or Mexican settlement.

In Merced County, the San Luis Gonzaga, Santa Rita, Orestimba, and Panoche grants were the only permanent settlement sites in the 1840’s.



San Juan Bautista, in San Benito County

The closest town and closest mission of any size were located at San Juan Bautista, in modern San Benito County. 

50 miles west of the current town of Los Banos, the mission was close enough to the valley that padres traveled along Los Banos Creek to recruit and/or capture natives to come to the mission. 

“Path of the Padres” hike

The annual “Path of the Padres” hike offered by California State Parks at Los Banos Creek Reservoir gives hikers a chance to retrace part of this route and to learn more about California’s early history. This hike is offered from February through April each year.

Call (209) 826-1197 at the beginning of the year to make reservations.  Or website:

Today, San Juan Bautista is one of the best-preserved remnants of Spanish and Mexican California.  It is a town that time has nearly forgotten, with a current population of less than 2,000.

Historic buildings dating from 1797 to the mid 1800’s surround three sides of the town’s plaza.  The third side is open to the fertile San Juan Valley, with productive farmland stretching to the edge of the mountains. 



San Juan Bautista’s plaza

The only town center in California where all of the buildings date back to the mid-1800’s or before. 

The Plaza Hotel, Castro-Breen Adobe, Plaza Hall and Plaza Stable have been restored to the way they would have been then and are open to the public as part of San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. 


Closed on Mondays and holidays, they are open from 10AM to 4:30PM Tuesday-Sunday.  There are few other places in California where it is so easy to imagine the 1840’s, when California was still a province of newly-independent Mexico. 

It’s a great place to learn about California’s history. 

For more information go to:



Active Church

The mission is still an active church but is open to the public from 9:30AM to 4:30PM seven days a week.  Visitors can see exhibits about mission life and wander through the church and the garden. 

The church is one of the biggest and most impressive among California’s 21 missions.  The thick adobe walls keep it surprisingly cool in the summer.  A statue in front of the church commemorates St. John the Baptist, the church’s patron saint. 

For more information go to:



Special events

One block from the plaza is 3rd Street, the town’s main street.  Lined by a collection of historic structures, including adobes dating back to the 1800’s, the street has many great restaurants and interesting shops. 

The historic core of the town is pedestrian friendly and quiet.  You may see chickens wandering the streets or cats sleeping beneath the pews in the mission church. 

The cats are permanent residents of the mission and help to keep rodents from taking over.

 Despite its size, San Juan Bautista has a busy calendar of annual community events, celebrations, and festivals. 

These include annual arts and crafts festivals, car shows, art studio tours, food, music, and history events.

For a regularly updated schedule of events, go to

Students and children

The state park offers a “living history day” on the first Saturday of each month with costumed docents and events for children. 50 miles west of Los Banos on Highway 156, San Juan Bautista is a great place for a day trip or an easy stop on the way to Monterey Bay.

If you have a student in 4th grade who is studying California history, a trip to San Juan Bautista can bring it to life. 

Nearby Fremont Peak State Park offers a campground, an observatory, and a relatively easy but exciting ½ mile hike to a summit with 360 degree views of the coast, Monterey Bay, and the surrounding mountains, hills, and valleys.

Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills



Gold Rush Towns of the Central Foothills

Gold, silver, and other minerals have been mined throughout California.  Best known of all the mining areas is the “Mother Lode.”  Stretching from El Dorado County south to Mariposa County, the lode is a continuous 120 mile long zone of hard rock gold deposits. 

Today Highway 49 winds through many of the towns that sprung up during the Gold Rush of the 1850’s.

Foothill camps

The foothills between Merced County and Yosemite were a part of the Mother Lode known as the “Southern Mines.”  The line separating them from the “Northern Mines” was drawn along the Mokelumne River, a few miles south of the town of Jackson.

Most mining camps were nothing more than temporary encampments established where a section of a river was panned or sluiced until the gold ran out. 

Permanent towns developed in areas where more extensive operations spent decades tunneling deep into the hills. 

Although most of these towns faded after the mines closed, tourism has brought some of them back to life.  Visitors can explore buildings and artifacts from the 1800’s among shops, restaurants, and lodging facilities.

Below is a guide to some of the most interesting historic towns along the western edge ofYosemite from north to south. 

All of these towns are interesting, but Columbia, Sonora, Groveland, and Mariposa are my top recommendations for Gold Rush towns that have the largest and most interesting historic areas. 

Jamestown’s Rail town is also a must-see destination in the “Southern Mines.”  Coulterville and La Grange small, but still very interesting. 

Largely bypassed by tourism, Hornitos has a mix of interesting ruins mingled with historic homes that are still inhabited.

Any historic town can be a great place to stop and as part of a trip into the Sierra Nevada and many offer lodging, including modern motels, historic hotels, and quaint bed and breakfast accommodations.

Be sure and check each town’s webpage lengths for special events – most of these towns offer a wide variety of celebrations and history-themed festivals throughout the year, especially during Independence Day and Christmas. 

No matter where you visit, please be sure to respect private property and “No Trespassing” signs.

Columbia State Historic Park

 Columbia was known as the “Gem of the Southern Mines” during the Gold Rush and it still sparkles. 

Recognizing how well it had survived the years, the state of California began acquiring and renovating the buildings in 1945.



Today the streets are closed to vehicles and Columbia is just about as close as you can get to stepping back in time. 

The state park includes over 50 historic buildings, many of which house exhibits, restaurants, and shops that sell reproductions of products of the 1800’s. 

Admission is free and the park hosts many special events throughout the year.

Many of these events have activities planned for children of all ages.  The park is always open, but most businesses are only open from 10AM to 5PM.  Lodging is available within historic hotels in the park.

For more information go to,


Stagecoach and horseback rides can be enjoyed on weekends



The historic Fallon House Theatre offers live stage entertainment throughout the year


Not to be outdone by the “Gem of the Southern Mines,” Sonora was known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”  Originally founded by miners from Sonora, Mexico, it is still a thriving town that maintains a lot of historic character in its extensive downtown area – the kind of place where you can spend a lot of time wandering around and enjoying the interesting architecture and shops.

The downtown area has been bypassed by Highway 108.  Watch for exit signs if you enter the town by that route. 

Residential areas around downtown contain picturesque Victorian homes.

The Tuolumne County Museum and History Center is housed in the old jail and presents excellent exhibits of the life in the pioneer days of Tuolumne County

The Sonora Chamber of Commerce operates a daily trolley that connects Sonora with Columbia and Jamestown (May-Labor Day), allowing visitors to stay in one town and enjoy all three without having to drive.

More information is available at

For information about lodging, restaurants, and activities, go to



Rail town 1897 State Historic Park is Jamestown’s greatest attraction – this park preserves the roundhouse and engines of a short line railroad of the 1800’s.  40-minute rides on historic railcars are offered on weekends and Monday holidays throughout the summer.

Jamestown Railtown -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Jamestown Railtown - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The historic business district has many interesting buildings, although many date from a more recent time than the 1800’s.  For information about lodging, food, and events,

go to


Chinese Camp

Far less touristy than all of the other historic towns listed on this page (except Hornitos and Bear Valley), Chinese Camp has largely been bypassed by the modern world. 

Chinese Camp St Xaviers -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Chinese Camp St Xaviers - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Founded by Chinese miners who were banished from other mining camps, a few structures still remain from the 1800’s, including St. Xavier’s Catholic Church.

Big Oak Flat

Smaller than neighboring Groveland, Big Oak Flat has a couple of historic buildings and a monument commemorating the now-vanished oak that gave the town its name.   If you are on your way to Groveland or Yosemite, you might make a quick stop here.


The main highway is also Groveland’s main street, lined with historic buildings. 

The historic business district is smaller than that of Sonora, Mariposa, or Columbia, but still quite picturesque and worth a visit.  The town’s original name was Garrotte because of its reputation for swift justice in the form of hanging.

The remains of a hanging tree can still be seen in the town.  Groveland’s Iron Door Saloon claims to be the oldest bar in California and offers beverages, food, and live entertainment.  Despite the name, families are welcome.

For more information about the town go to

La Grange

 A sleepy town on Highway 132, several interesting historic buildings and a small museum evoke the wilder days of the 1850’s when La Grange was the county seat of Stanislaus County. 



A tiny jail stands next to the museum and visitors can peer through the bars into the single cell.  An iron bridge from the early 1900’s is open to pedestrians for a quiet stroll over the Tuolumne River.




The Northern Mariposa County History Center and the historic Hotel Jeffrey stand at the junction of Highways 49 and 132.  Coulterville is one of the smaller Gold Rush era towns, but is picturesque and well-worth a visit.

“Whistling Billy,” a tiny antique locomotive that once hauled ore from the Mary Harrison Mine, stands in front of the History Center.  

Bear Valley

Once the headquarters of John C. Fremont’s mining empire, a few buildings from the 1800’s still remain in this sleepy hamlet.  Bear Valley is an interesting place to stop between Mariposa and Coulterville.


On a quiet day Hornitos may look like a true ghost town, though it still boasts a number of inhabitants. 



The Hornitos Patrons Club hosts special events throughout the year and a famous candlelight procession to the cemetery on All Souls Day (November 2) draws hundreds of visitors.

Hornitos Ghirardelli Store -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Hornitos Ghirardelli Store - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

More information is available at

The brick shell of the Ghirardelli Building is the remnant of a store owned by the man whose San Francisco chocolate company became known the world over.

Hite’s Cove

A true ghost town, this former settlement is reached by a 4.5 mile trail (9 miles round-trip).  Located along the South Fork of the Merced River, John Hite operated a profitable mine along this bend in the river starting in the early 1860’s.  At the height of operations, several dozen people lived there.

The mine shut down in the late 1800’s and a forest fire burned the structures in 1924, but rock walls and heavy iron machinery remain. 

A few modern mining claims exist in this are and there is privately-owned land along the first ½ mile of the trial, so be sure to observe posted signs.

This is a great hike in the springtime when wildflowers cover the slopes of the canyon near the start of the trail. 

The trail starts at the site of Savage’s Trading Post on Highway 140 between Midpines and El Portal.


 The largest town between Merced and Yosemite on Highway 140, Mariposa’s main street has many historic buildings and interesting stores. 

Once part of John C. Fremont’s empire, many of the streets are named for members of his family.

Mariposa Main Street   PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Mariposa Main Street  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Windows on the World Books has the best selections of books about local history and recreation that can be found.  The historic courthouse, built in 1854 is the oldest still in use in California. 

photo by brad haven

photo by brad haven

Church in Mariposa built in 1864.

Photo by Brad haven

Photo by Brad haven

For more information on Mariposa, go to


Mariposa History Center Stamp Mill -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Mariposa History Center Stamp Mill - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The Mariposa Museum and History Center

For information see website -( The museum has a working stamp mill and offers some of the best displays of Gold Rush history anywhere in the Southern Mines and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum portrays the history of mining in California with extensive collections of minerals and gems


Catheys Valley

Although placer gold was mined here in the early days of the Gold Rush, Catheys Valley developed to supply ranches and farms in the lower foothills. 

Although not a major town in any way, an old schoolhouse and blacksmith shop have been restored and moved to the county park on the eastern edge of town.

Catheys Valley Schoolhouse -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Catheys Valley Schoolhouse - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Visitors can peer through the windows of the school and see what a typical rural school of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s looked like. 

It’s a pleasant place to stop for a picnic on a spring or fall day while on the way to Yosemite.


South of the Mother Lode and originally named Fresno Flats, Oakhurst developed to serve farms, ranches, and the logging industry that developed after the Gold Rush. 

A number of interesting historic buildings from the 1800’s have been relocated to the Fresno Flats Historic Village and Park on Road 427.

The park is open from dawn to dusk and the buildings may be toured from 10AM to 2PM daily. 

For more information call (559) 683-6570 or go to

The Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce offers information about accommodations and events:

Sonora, Mariposa Groveland, Oakhurst, and Columbia have the best selection of food, lodging, gas, and groceries. Jamestown and Coulterville offer all services with less variety.  Big Oak Flat and La Grange have gas, limited supplies, and meals. 

Catheys Valley and Chinese Camp offer gas and limited supplies.

A small store and a historic bar in Hornitos operate with limited hours.  Bed and breakfast accommodations are offered in or around all of the towns. 

For listings, try the following websites

Columbia Chamber of Commerce:

Mariposa CountyTourism Bureau:

Another helpful Mariposa County site:

Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce:

Sonora Chamber of Commerce:

Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce:

Tuolumne CountyVisitors Bureau:

Mariposa County Museums

Photo by adam blauert

Photo by adam blauert


Mariposa County Museums

Mariposa County’s history and natural resources provide a wealth of interesting stories, knowledge, and sights. 

Three excellent museums display some of these treasures to the public.  Located adjacent to Merced County’s eastern boundary, Mariposa County is an easy day or weekend trip.

Museums can be enjoyed any time of year.  They’re a great way to escape the heat of summer or the cold and wet of winter. 

Even on a pleasant spring or fall day, there’s nothing wrong with spending a few hours indoors.  If the weather is really bad, however, call in advance to make sure the museum will be open.

On a very wintry day last year I found the Mariposa Museum and History Center closed.  Many stores in town were also closed and I was informed that this was due to the expectation of worse weather yet to come.

Mariposa Museum and History Center

5119 Jessie Street, Mariposa

Hours of Operation and Admission

  10AM – 4PM daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, $4 adults, children under 18 free. Active duty military personnel and first responders in uniform or with active duty ID are also free.

Exhibits and Collections

  The Mariposa Museum and History Center tells the story of Mariposa County from the Miwok Indians who first inhabited the area to the miners of the California Gold Rush and the ranchers who supplied the mining towns. 

You can also learn about the early Chinese inhabitants of the county, John C. Fremont, Joaquin Murietta, the Yosemite Valley Railroad, and logging.  The museum contains reproductions of early stores and homes and displays of mining technology and methods. 

Various rotating exhibits provide something new for repeat visitors.  Outside the walls of the museum is a large collection of mining and ranching equipment including an operational 5-stamp mill and a monitor used in hydraulic mining. 

In addition, the grounds include historic Mariposa County buildings dating back to the 1850’s:  the Counts House, the office and print shop of the Mariposa Gazette newspaper, a broom making shop, and a reconstruction of a typical blacksmith shop.

Other Facilities and Services 

A picnic area is provided.  The gift shop has an excellent selection of works on local history. 

The museum’s website has a map for those interested in doing a historical walking tour of the town.

Research Opportunities

The museum contains a large collection of county records and historic photos, especially useful for family historians. 

Appointments must be made in advance and a fee of $25/hour is charged. 

Free access to the research library is one of the benefits provided to members of the museum. 

Copies of documents and photos can be made for a small fee.


Group tours and school field trips can be arranged by contacting the museum. 

The 5-stamp mill is often operated for groups. 

Photo by Adam Blauert

Photo by Adam Blauert

Blacksmithing demonstrations and gold panning can be arranged.

Special Events and for more information

Go to

or call (209) 966-2924.

Saint Joseph Church in Mariposa founded in 1857

California State Mining and Mineral Museum

Photo by adam Blauert

Location:  5005 Fairgrounds Road, Mariposa

Hours of Operation:  From October 1 through April 30, the museum is open 10AM – 4PM Thursday through Sunday. 

From May 1 through September 30, the hours change to 10AM – 5PM.  

Admission:  $4 adults, children 12 and under are free.

Exhibits and Collections

  • The Mining and Mineral Museum displays both the mineral variety of California and the state’s mining history.
  • The museum’s collection includes thousands of specimens.
  • Collections are rotated and about 350 specimens are on display at any given time.
  • The 13.8 pound Fricot Nugget – the largest remaining intact mass of crystalline gold from the California Gold Rush –is one of the most popular attractions.
  • Visitors are often surprised to see the museum’s California diamonds.  On the back side of the museum building is a life-size reproduction of a mining tunnel, open for exploration.
  • A “touch table provides children with an opportunity to handle mineral specimens.

Other Facilities and Services

  • Gift shop
  • Tours:  School and group tours can be arranged.

Special Events

 The museum presents a gem and mineral show in April with special exhibits and activities for children. 

Activities for children are also offered on Labor Day Weekend when the Mariposa County Fair is held at the adjacent fairgrounds.

For More Information

Go to

or call (209) 742-7625.

Northern Mariposa County History Center


Location:  Intersection of Highways 132 and 49, Coulterville

Hours of Operation:  10AM – 4PM, Wednesday-Sunday, except major holidays. 

Exhibits and Collections

 Divided from the town of Mariposa by the deep Merced River Canyon, Coulterville has long been the population center of northern Mariposa County. 

Today, Coulterville has its own museum that focuses on the unique history of this part of the county. 

The museum’s displays are housed in two historic buildings that date back to 1856 and 1863.  


Locally known as the “Coulterville Museum,” the Northern Mariposa County History Center displays and interprets a broad range of artifacts and stories. 

Permanent exhibits chronicle the history of Coulterville and local mining and ranching operations. 

Rotating exhibits provide new surprises for repeat visitors. 


One of the most popular attractions is “Whistling Billy,” a small locomotive engine that hauled ore from the Mary Harrison Mine. 

The engine is open to the public and visitors can climb inside the cab for photographs. 

A building behind the museum houses wagons, mining, and farming equipment.

Other Facilities and Services:  The gift shop offers a number of unique books that have been published by the museum.

Research Opportunities

The museum’s archive is open to researchers.  Appointments must be made in advance.

Tours:  Group and school tours can be arranged by contacting the museum.  Tours are often led by docents in period dress. 

A walking tour of the town of Coulterville is also available.

Special Events

 The museum holds community breakfasts in the Old School House (two blocks away) on the 2ndSunday of each month.  

Visitors often chose to show up for the breakfast and then tour the museum.  Adults are $5, children are $3. 

 The museum hosts “Historical Afternoons on the third Saturday of each month in the spring and fall. 

These living oral history presentations are held in the IOOF building (5030 Main Street, two blocks from the museum). 

The cost is $3 per person.

For More Information:  Go to

or call (209) 878-3015.

Castle Air Museum-Atwater



Castle Air Museum

Drawing visitors from across the country, Castle Air Museum is one of Merced County’s treasures.  Located on the site of the former Castle Air Force Base (known as Merced Army Air Field during WWII), the museum a collection of 53 World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam Era aircraft including:

Boeing B-17G Flyingfortress

Boeing B-29 Superfortress

Boeing B-47E Stratojet

Boeing B-52D Stratofortress

Boeing KC-97L Stratofreighter

Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker

Convair RB-36H Peacemaker

Curtiss C-46D Commando

Douglas A-26B Invader

Douglas C-47A Skytrain

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird



For a full list of planes on display, visit the museum’s website:



History come alive

This is a place where history truly comes alive.  Visitors have close-up views of the planes from paved, handicapped-accessible walkways. 

An indoor museum contains many additional Air Force and Army Air Corps artifacts and a B-52 simulator. 

The museum holds annual “open cockpit” days when visitors can view the insides of many of the aircraft.  Group tours can be arranged.  The museum has a gift shop, café, and RV park with full hookups.




Outdoor aircraft display, indoor museum, café, gift shop, and RV park with full hookups.

Special Events

“Open cockpit” days, veterans’ events, Halloween Fright Night, Christmas Plane Lane-see website for details and times.


Group tours can be arranged and school groups are welcome.  The museum has produced a teachers’ guide to the museum with classroom activities.



Hours and Entrance Fees

The museum is open every day of the year except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  Summer Hours (May – October) are 9-5 and Winter Hours (November-April) are 10-4.

Adults:  $10.00 / $12.00 (Open Cockpit Day)

Seniors (60 & up):  $8.00

Youths 6 - 17: $8.00

Children 5 & under (with paid adult): Free

Active Duty Military Personnel (with I.D.): Free

Family Pass: $30.00


5050 Santa Fe Drive, Atwater, California 95301


For more information:  (209) 723-2178


Oakdale Cowboy Museum



Ranching continues today

Ranching has always been a big part of the economy and culture of central California.  Started in the 1700’s when the Spanish drove the first cattle into the state, ranching continues today on thousands of ranches of throughout the state. 

Poorly suited for irrigation and constrained by the state’s limited water resources, California’s dry hills abound with native grasses and provide an ideal range for cattle.  

Because the state is dry so much of the year, ranches tend to be large with each head needing many acres to satisfy its grazing needs.

 “Cowboy Capital of the World.” 

Ranching life in California has generally followed the pattern of ranching life in other western states – with social gatherings centered around ranch work and competitions of skill –  roundups, brandings, county fairs, and especially rodeos.  Starting in the 1950’s, Oakdale began to establish itself as “Cowboy Capital of the World.”  The town has a rich western heritage including not only the big rodeos of the last 60 years, but also a ranching history dating back to the 1850’s.

Oakdale Cowboy Museum

Much of this history is displayed and celebrated at the Oakdale Cowboy Museum.  Located in downtown Oakdale’s old train station, the museum contains interesting collections of rodeo memorabilia, saddles, tack, ranching tools and implements, and historic photographs. 

Permanent exhibits feature local cowboys who won big in the arena and local ranchers whose operations have been handed down from generation to generation since the early days of the county.

Although the museum isn’t especially large, there’s plenty to see and the volunteers on duty are helpful and knowledgeable.  The first room contains permanent exhibits and a small gift shop. 

The museum has published a number of books of local history that are available for purchase.  The second room contains both permanent and temporary exhibits.  The current temporary exhibit features the tools and techniques of saddle-making. 

Other recent temporary exhibits have focused on the bronze cowboy sculptures of Jo Mora and the iconic stone fences and corrals of the local foothills.



The Oakdale Rodeo on the second weekend of April each year and the museum sponsors several special events annually.  Check the museum’s website or call for more information.




The museum is open from 10AM to 2PM Monday through Saturday, except major holidays.  If you are curious to learn more about the ranching and rodeo heritage of Central California, this is a great place to start.

No matter what your level of knowledge and/or experience with western lore, you’ll learn something here.



The cowboy statue in front of the museum is a popular backdrop for photos. 

About an hour’s drive from many towns in Merced County, Oakdale is an easy stop on the way to Sonora, Columbia, or Jamestown.

For more information

go to

or call (209) 847-7049. 

The museum is located at 355 East F Street, in Oakdale, across from the historic H-B Saloon.

Merced County Historical Society Museum

photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

Merced County Historical Society Museum

Merced County’s history comes to life in the museum operated by the Merced County Historical Society.  Housed in the 1875 Italianate-style courthouse, over 8,500 square feet of permanent and rotating exhibits tell of the history and development of the county.

One of the oldest and best-preserved buildings in the region, the old courthouse was designed by the state capitol architect Albert A. Bennett.

It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.


The museum’s displays cover the history of the county from ancient times to the present day including:

  • Yokut Indian artifacts
  • Displays of early ranching and farming, including a blacksmith shop
  • Artifacts from Merced’s Chinatown
  • A display of Merced County schools and a turn-of-the century classroom
  • “Old Betsy” – Merced’s first fire engine, built in 1859
  • The restored 1875 courtroom
  • Displays of home life in the later 1800’s through early 1900’s

Hours and Admission

The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1-4.  Admission is free and knowledgeable docents are available to provide tours.  The building is wheelchair accessible.


 21st and N Streets, Merced

Gift Shop

The gift shop sells a wide variety of books about local history, along with gifts and souvenirs.


The Merced County Historical Society hosts a wide range of history-themed events throughout the year.  Check the website for a current schedule.


The museum holds a large collection of county records.  Appointments to access the collection can be made by contacting the museum’s office.

Contact Information

 (209) 723-2401/

McHenry Mansion and Museum

Photo by Adam Blauert

Photo by Adam Blauert

Mansions in the valley built by the same brothers in law

On the corner of M Street and West North Bear Creek Drive in Merced stands the Hooper House Bear Creek Inn (  This large colonial style home was constructed in 1936 to replace the Huffman Mansion, which burned in 1933.

Hooper house

Hooper house

Merced’s Huffman Mansion was a near twin of Modesto’s McHenry Mansion.  The homes were built by brothers-in-law Charles Huffman and Robert McHenry in 1883. 

Both men prospered from the development of the Central Valley and its irrigation systems.  Charles Huffman acquired land for the Southern Pacific Railroad’s route through the Central Valley and selected the townsite of Merced. 

Huffman and McHenry’s 10,000 square foot mansions were the largest and most extravagant homes in the area.

McHenry Dining Room - photo by adam blauert

McHenry Dining Room - photo by adam blauert

Gallo Foundation

Although Huffman’s house burned, McHenry’s house was saved from demolition by the Gallo Foundation and donated to the City of Modesto in the 1970’s. 

It was completely restored and was opened to the public in 1983.  It remained open until December of 2011 when it was nearly lost in a fire.  A vigilant neighbor and Modesto’s firefighters saved it from total destruction. 

Over the past year a second meticulous restoration has removed the signs of damage – much of which was caused by the house’s fire sprinklers.  Furniture and art have been cleaned and restored.  Wallpaper has been replaced with detailed reproductions of the original patterns.  

The mansion is open for tours while the final repairs are being made.  When I visited in December, one of the few things remaining was the replacement of the carpeting. 

The floor coverings are currently being reproduced by the British factory that made the original ones purchased by Robert McHenry.

 The McHenry Mansion is the best-preserved and largest Victorian mansion in Central California that is open to the public (outside of the Bay Area). 

Free Admission

Admission is free and you can join a tour Sunday through Friday between 12:30 and 4PM.  Tours last at least an hour and are led by docents who are experts about the time period recreated in the mansion (1883-1906). 

McHenry Museum  photo by adam blauert

McHenry Museum  photo by adam blauert

On our recent tour I learned several new things about life and technology in the Victorian Era, despite having previously toured a number of other homes from the same time period.  I was impressed by the success of the restoration. 

The interior of the house is close to sparkling like it did on the day it was completed.  When the carpet is installed (planned for spring 2013) the effect will be complete.

 The mansion is located at the corner of 15th and I Streets in Modesto. 

Tours start at the Visitor Center and Gift Store – two doors down from the mansion at 924 15th Street.  A ten-minute video shown prior to tours does a great job of introducing the time period and telling the story of the McHenry family. 

It is illustrated with an extensive collection of historic images.  If you’re looking for unique gifts or special Christmas ornaments, the Gift Store has a nice selection. 



All proceeds go to the McHenry Mansion Foundation and its work to maintain this special house. 

For more information

To learn more about the mansion, the McHenry family and the early years of Modesto, pick up a copy of Colleen Stanley Bare’s The McHenry Mansion: Modesto’s Heritage.  Bare has also written an excellent book about the Huffman family of Merced and their mansion:  Pioneer Genius: Charles Henry Huffman.  

For more information go to or call (209) 652-7190. 

The mansion is decorated for Christmas every year and the garden may be rented for parties, receptions, and weddings.  

A regularly-updated event calendar may be found at:

Located nearby at 1402 I Street is the McHenry Museum.  A vast collection of Stanislaus County historical exhibits and photographs are housed in a former library building that was built for the City of Modesto by the McHenry family in 1912. 

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 12 to 4PM.  Due to the size of the museum’s collection and the length of the tours offered at the McHenry Museum, it is difficult to visit both the mansion and the museum on the same day.  It is best to plan two separate trips. 

For more information about the museum, go to

or call (209) 577-5235.

Other historic homes within an hour’s drive of Merced that offer tours include:

Livingston Historical Museum

photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

Livingston Historical Museum Foundation 

On the northern edge of Merced County, the town of Livingston boasts an interesting historical museum. 

It’s a great place to stop on a Sunday afternoon when it is staffed by members of the Livingston Historical Museum Foundation from 2 to 4 PM.  

Museum at Christmas -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Museum at Christmas - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Located on the corner of Main and C Streets in downtown Livingston, the museum’s collections are housed in a brick building that once served as the town’s city hall and courthouse. 

 David Livingstone

The town was named for Dr. David Livingstone, a British explorer of Africa who was an international celebrity in the late 1800’s.  An error on the town’s Post Office application resulted in the difference in spelling between his name and the town’s.  

 Although the town’s original streets were laid out when the railroad arrived in the 1870’s, real growth began when irrigation water became available in the early 1900’s. 

Like its neighbors Turlock, Hilmar, and Atwater, much of the settlement was accomplished through the colony system.  Land speculators bought large tracts of land and then subdivided them and sold the subdivisions to farmers on credit.

 These colony subdivisions were often marketed to specific ethnic groups through cultural networks and home-language periodicals.  Best-known of these colonies was Yamato, settled by Japanese-Americans. 

The museum has an excellent collection of photographs and artifacts from these early settlers.  Their first years in the area were challenging, but hard work and determination ultimately led to success.  

 Internment camps

During WWII, prejudice and war hysteria led to the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps throughout the western states.  The museum has many examples of art created by the internees in the camps after they were forced to leave their homes. 

One of the inspiring stories to come out of this sad time in our history is that of how the land and property of Livingston’s Japanese-American farmers was protected by a corporation formed by these farmers and placed under the control of a European-American lawyer. 

Unlike most other Japanese-Americans, these farmers got most of their property back after they were released. 

Wakami, Japan

You can learn more about this story at the museum.  Fittingly, Livingston’s sister city is Wakami, Japan.  The museum displays a collection of gifts from Wakami.

 For more information about Japanese-American internment, you can also visit the Merced Assembly Center Memorial at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

4,669 Japanese-Americans from areas surrounding Merced and Livingston were held at the Merced Fairgrounds for five months before spending the remainder of the war at Amache, Colorado. 

The story of the internment is told by plaques bearing the names of the internees, historical displays, and a sculpture. 

This simple, highly effective sculpture depicts a young internee seated on a pile of suitcases awaiting an unknown and frightening future.

little-girl-japanese -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

little-girl-japanese - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

 Livingston has drawn people from around the globe.  In addition to Japan, many of its residents and their ancestors have come from the Azores Islands, the Philippines, Mexico, and most recently, India. 

The museum displays cultural artifacts from all of these groups.  

Museum and Stoplight -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Museum and Stoplight - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

The famous stoplight

In front of the museum you can see the famous Livingston stoplight– the last remaining stoplight on the 275-mile stretch of Highway 99 south of Sacramento and the site of many accidents until community leaders finally convinced the state to rebuild the road as a modern freeway in 1997.

 Photograph collection

As a teacher, I was especially interested in the collection of photographs of the original Livingston High School.  Built in 1924, it was one of the first high schools in the county. 

The photos depict how much education has changed since that time.  Although Livingston is still a small town, it has seen a lot of change in the last 100 years.  The Livingston Historical Museum does an excellent job of showing just how much change has occurred. 

Raymond Museum

photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

From 1886 until the completion of the Yosemite Valley Railroad in 1907, the closest you could get to Yosemite by rail was the town of Raymond in the foothills of Madera County.  Far more comfortable than stagecoach, many visitors chose to take the train to Raymond in order to shorten their stagecoach ride.  When President Teddy Roosevelt visited the park in 1905 to meet and camp with conservationist John Muir, this is the way he traveled.  

Miller House and Caboose -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Miller House and Caboose - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Although the tracks are gone and most people have never heard of Raymond, the town still survives in the hills between Eastman and Hensley Lakes.  Since 2008, it has boasted a great museum.



The Charles Miller House

The museum is located in the town’s first building – the Charles Miller House – built in 1886.  What’s interesting about it is that it contains both the history of the town and a lot of information and photos of early travel to Yosemite. 

The house is furnished to look the way it would have looked in the 1880’s – furnishings interspersed with extensive displays of historic photos and artifacts.  

Wagon and Buggy -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


The nearby quarry at Knowles has provided “Sierra White” granite for many of the state’s greatest public buildings including the Los Angeles City Hall, the Campanile at UC Berkeley, and many of the civic buildings constructed in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. 

The museum has a room devoted to Knowles and its quarry.  Outside is a huge granite saw – the oldest in California.



 If you have kids, they will enjoy the fully-restored Southern Pacific caboose in front of the museum.  The interior is exactly the way it would have been when it was operational.  It was recently brought back to this condition by dedicated local volunteers.

Inside the Caboose -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Inside the Caboose - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

In addition to the Charles Miller House and the caboose, there’s a fully-restored carriage house with a wagon, a buggy, harnesses, tack, ranch equipment, and historic photos.

Knowles Quarry Exhibit -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Knowles Quarry Exhibit - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

How to find

To find Raymond, head south from Merced on Highway 99 and exit at Robertson Boulevard in Chowchilla.  Drive east over the freeway and follow signs to Raymond:  East on Road 26, South (right) on Road 29, East (left) on Road 603, Left (north) on Road 600. 

When you arrive in Raymond, the museum will be on your right.  Look for the red caboose and you won’t miss it.



The address is 31956 Road 600 (also known as Raymond Road) – slightly less than an hour’s drive from Merced.  It is open Sundays from noon to 4PM and by appointment. 

Schools welcome

School and homeschool groups are welcome and there are tables where you can enjoy a picnic or sandwiches from the town’s general store.  The Frontier Inn also offers food.

Inside the Miller House
Inside the Miller House

A good museum or historic site only has the opportunity to become a great one when there’s someone who knows all about it and has a passion to explain it to everyone who comes to visit.  

Raymond area cattle ranchers Lynn and Wayne Northrop have poured thousands of hours into making this museum a fun place to learn about history and I really enjoyed meeting Lynn on my recent visit.  She knows just about everything there is to know about Raymond, its history, and its many connections with Yosemite and her enthusiasm about it is contagious.

Although hot in summer, Raymond is an enjoyable place to visit in the fall, winter, or spring – especially during wildflower season (late March through May). 

  For more information about special events

go to:

Raymond General Store -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Raymond General Store - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Raymond’s general store/bar has the unofficial status of a living museum.  It hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1914.  The left side of the building is occupied by the bar, while the right side is occupied by the store.  The store offers sandwiches, and the Frontier Inn Tavern on Front Street (visible from the main road) also offers food. 

Another place you can enjoy a good meal and historic photos at the same time is the Hills Pride Inn in nearby Knowles. 



To visit Knowles, continue through Raymond on Road 600 and turn right on Road 415.  Turn right again on Knolwes Road (Road 606). 

After you pass the Hills Pride Inn on the right, look for the quarry on the left and the granite St. Anne’s Chapel on the right.  This beautiful structure was originally built as the Knowles School in 1920, abandoned in 1942, and restored as a church in 1961-1962.

Yosemtie Transportation Artifacts -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Yosemtie Transportation Artifacts - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

If you find Raymond’s transportation history interesting, you can find one of the stagecoaches that ran the Raymond to Yosemite route in the Madera County Museum. 

For more information about the Raymond Museum, go to:

You can also contact the museum’s curator, Lynn Northrop, at

or by calling (559) 689-1886.

Meux Home Museum

photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

The Meux Home 

Most nearby counties – Mariposa, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, San Benito, Madera – and our own, have museums of county history.  Surprisingly, Fresno County doesn’t. 

The Fresno Historical Society has a long-term goal of developing one at Kearney Park, but it may not happen for many years to come.

That said, Fresno does have two meticulously preserved and restored mansions – the Meux Home and the Kearney Mansion.  The city of Fresno was laid out by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1872, but not incorporated until 1885. 

The Meux Home was built in 1888-89, just after the incorporation.  At that point the town had about 10,000 residents. 



Dr. Meux

The Meux Home is one of the oldest surviving structures in the town.  Built for Dr. Meux and his wife Molly, it was occupied by the Meux family from 1889 to 1970.  Dr. Meux was a surgeon in the Confederate Army from 1861 to 1865.  The Meux family moved to California in 1887 because of Molly’s poor health.

Although Molly continued to suffer poor health and eventually became both deaf and blind, the climate of Fresno was an improvement for her and she survived until 1922.  Her daughter Anne lived in the house until her death in 1970.  Anne’s occupation of the home insured its preservation with few changes.  After her death, the house sat vacant for a couple of years but was eventually restored to its original splendor.

When you visit

Visitors can enjoy that splendor on docent-led tours offered on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from noon to 3:30PM.  Tours are conducted by well-informed docents in period costume.  Visitors learn about the Meux family, the Victorian era, and the early history of Fresno.  Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for teens 13-17, $3 for children 5-12, and free for children under 5.  The home is also available for rent for weddings and other special occasions.

 Special Events

The Meux Home Museum offers a number of special events and displays throughout the year.

  • February:  Flapper’s Valentine Party
  • Spring:  Lampshade Guild Display
  • Mother’s Day Tea
  • September-October:  Fall Festivities (more information to follow on the Meux Home’s website)

Information about Tours

Tours include ten ornate rooms on both the first and second floors.  Special exhibits and displays change seasonally.  The first floor is accessible to all visitors regardless of mobility via a wheelchair lift.  The Meux Home is located at 1007 R Street in Fresno (corner of R and Tulare), between the 99 and 41 freeways. 

For more information, go to or call (559) 233-2331.  Free parking is located next to the Meux Home.

 I really enjoyed my tour of the Meux Home.  I’d always had trouble picturing Fresno’s Victorian period, but the house brought it to life for me.  One of the biggest surprises was that the home was considered a middle class residence in the time it was built. 

Today its ornateness and size make it seem like a home built for a family further up the economic scale. 

Learning about the past

Visiting historic sites like the Meux Home is a great way to learn about the past.  Sometimes these places challenge our expectations and assumptions about other ages.

While in the area, there are a number of other historic landmarks to see.  Although many of Fresno’s oldest homes have been lost to time and progress, there are a number of interesting structures in the vicinity. 

For historic driving and walking tours, go to  

St. John's Exterior -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

St. John's Exterior - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

St. John’s Cathedral

A block northwest of the home at R and Mariposa Streets is Fresno’s St. John’s Cathedral.  Dedicated in 1903, the brick cathedral was carefully restored between 1997 and 2002. 

The structure was seismically retrofitted, a new slate roof was installed, and the artwork and stained glass windows were meticulously restored by an art conservator and restorer who had previously worked on six of the California missions and San Jose’s cathedral. 

St. John's Interior -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

St. John's Interior - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

If there isn’t  a service in progress, you can take a quiet and respectful look inside the cathedral after you tour the Meux Home Museum. 

For more information go to

Fresno’s iconic American Romanesque water tower, built in 1894, is also nearby.  Located at 2444 Fresno Street, it serves today as a galley for local artists. 

It is open 10AM-4PM Monday-Saturday, except federal holidays. 

Fresno Water Tower  -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Fresno Water Tower  - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

For more information

It offers information about Fresno-area activities and recreation.  There’s also an Art Hop reception on the first Thursday of each month from 5 to 8PM. 

For more information go to

or call (559) 477-6231.

Other historic homes within an hour’s drive of Merced that offer tours include:


Dos Palos Museum

photo by adam blauert

photo by adam blauert

History in the valley

Although the Merced County Historical Society Museum displays history of the entire county in Merced’s old courthouse building, it is augmented by history museums in other communities throughout the county. 

Each town has its own story to tell and Atwater, Dos Palos, Gustine, Livingston, and Los Banos all have organized museums to tell these stories.   

Dos Palos’ Jail House Museum is located in the town’s old jail building at 2020 Almont Street.  South of Highway 152, East of I-5, and west of Highway 99, Dos Palos is “off the beaten track” for most residents of Merced County.

Museum Interior -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


Founded in the 1890’s as a colony development named Colony Center, the name was officially changed to Dos Palos in 1906 – a place name that dates back to the first land grants issued in the area when California was still a part of Mexico.   

Dos Palos built one of the first high schools in Merced County (1907) and incorporated in 1935. 

Today it has a population of about 5,000 people.

Dos Palos’ museum is one of the newest in the county

Like other small museums, it offers unique artifacts and glimpses into history that you won’t see in larger museums that tend to generalize history into broad trends and focus on the best-known and most influential historical characters. 

The museum has an especially interesting collection of photos Some of the most interesting images I saw during my recent visit include:

  • Basketball games inside the old gymnasium (no longer standing) at the original Dos Palos High School
  • Steamboats on the San Joaquin River in the early 1900’s
  • Downtown Dos Palos after the 1911 fire
  • Barrels of wine confiscated in a Prohibition-era raid being dumped into the Dos Palos sewer 
  • Comparison shots of downtown Dos Palos before and after the installation of streetlights.  Nighttime was dark in a small town without them!
  • Ice skating on a frozen canal in 1913
Veterans Memorial -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Veterans Memorial - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Directions and cost

The museum is open from 9AM to 12 noon on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month.  To find the museum, exit south Highway 33 from Highway 152. 

Follow 33 to Almond Avenue and turn left.  Look for the old jail on the left after you pass California Street.  For more information about the museum you can call (209) 392-3064. 

Admission is free. 

Dos Palos also has a veterans memorial located in front of Bernhard Marks Elementary School at 1717 Valeria Street.

© Copyright 2013 Adam Blauert

Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County



Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County

From Antiques Roadshow to American Pickers and Pawn Stars, popular TV shows have long featured treasures found in unlikely places.  Just a few miles south of the Merced County line, a new museum displays treasures found in a dump.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert


Situated along Highway 99 between Chowchilla and Madera, the small community of Fairmead is now home to the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County.  The excitement started in 1993 when sanitation workers at the Fairmead Landfill discovered part of a mammoth tusk. 

Experts were called in and the discoveries have continued.  Scientists have dated the Farimead fossils to the Middle Pleistocene age – roughly 500,000 to 780,000 years ago.  Surprisingly, the fossils were only twelve feet below the surface!

Many of the most interesting results of the excavations have been on display since the museum opened last fall.  On weekdays visitors can watch fossils being removed from the dirt and examined in the on-site lab.

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert

Although especially good for children

Visitors can learn a lot about the natural history of our region.  The Central Valley was underwater during the age of the dinosaurs, so the Fairmead fossils provide a glimpse into a later period when Pleistocene horses, Columbian mammoths, sabre-toothed cats, short-faced bears, dire wolves, camels, and several species of sloths roamed the area that we now call home. 

Thousands of specimens representing 39 species have been discovered

Fresno State paleontologists oversee the continuing excavations.

Start your visit with the short well-produced video introduction to the museum.  It provides a good overview of the site’s significance.  You can tour the exhibits on your own but we definitely felt that we learned far more by taking a guided tour.  Many displays feature items that can be touched and examined up close. 

The weight of some of the fossils may be a surprise to some.  Many are not completely fossilized and weigh more than might be expected.  On some days children can participate in mock fossil digs in an outdoor area adjoining the museum.  Call ahead to find out when these mock digs are offered. 

The Fossil Discover Center is a great outing during the inclement weather of the colder months. 

To get there, take Highway 99 south to exit 164 (Avenue 21 ½.)  Turn left (west) and you will see the Center at the intersection of Avenue 21 ½ and Road 19 ½. 

Photo By Adam Blauert
Photo By Adam Blauert


Admission Prices and Hours

For more information go to

or call(559) 665-7107.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 8.15.11 PM
Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 8.15.11 PM

  Tours for groups or schools can be arranged.

Kearney Park and Mansion



M. Theodore Kearney

During the mid-1800’s, the majority of people who visited the San Joaquin Valley couldn’t see the agricultural potential that would be unleashed through irrigation. 

M. Theodore Kearney was one of the few who did and although his name may not be a household one, he played a major role in making the valley what it is today.  The most visible legacies of his life are Fresno’s Kearney Mansion and Kearney Park.

Kearney started in 1875 by promoting and managing colony development systems in Fresno County.  Land was subdivided and sold with irrigation and fencing provided, making grape and fruit growing both possible and affordable for middle class families.  




In 1883 he began his biggest project – the Fruit Vale Estate.  Kearney purchased 6,800 acres west of Fresno with the intention of making it the greatest agricultural colony yet established in the area. 

Simply raising the investment capital to undertake the massive project – especially the irrigation system – required a three year trip to New York and Europe.

Work began as soon as he returned.  Kearney selected 240 acres on the southern edge of his property for a park and grand estate that would serve as his headquarters. 

He commissioned well-known landscape artist Rudolph Ulrich to design “Chateau Fresno Park” in what was then a barren plain.  Within a few years the barrenness had been transformed into what was probably the best collection of trees, vines, shrubs, and roses in the United States. 

Chateau Chenonceaux

In the center of it all, Kearney planned to build a five-story mansion based on the Chateau Chenonceaux in Tours, France.  This ambitious plan was the culmination of the remarkable social and economic climb of a man who kept his working-class Irish immigrant background a closely-guarded secret in a time when it was not “respectable” to be Irish. 

The chateau would be a place where Kearney could proudly entertain his European investors and friends.



Kearney’s death in 1906 kept the chateau from being constructed.  Kearney had been living in a large home on the property that was ultimately intended to be the Superintendent’s Lodge, a home for the ranch manager. 


Kearney willed his property to the University of California and the Lodge, now known as the Kearney Mansion, was used by the University until 1962.  At that point the Fresno Historical Society began to transform it into a museum.

The home has now been a museum for over 50 years.  Several restoration projects during that time period have returned it to its original appearance. 

Over 70% of the furnishings and décor are original

The others have been matched from old photographs.  Constructed in a French Renaissance style out of local materials, the mansion’s two-foot thick outer walls are actually plaster-covered adobe bricks.  



Hour-long tours of the Kearney Mansion are offered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 1, 2, and 3PM.  Tour guides are knowledgeable and you will learn a lot about the history and development of our valley during your visit.  While in the “mansion” you can see images of what Kearney’s planned chateau would have looked like. 

If you’re interested in learning more you can pick up a copy of M. Theo Kearney: Prince of Fresno in the gift shop.  Eventually the Fresno Historical Society plans to create a larger museum at the site to tell the story of the San Joaquin Valley and its people.

Admission to the mansion is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, students with ID, and youths 13-17, and $3 for children 3-12.  Children under 3 are free.  Special Christmas tours are offered in December.  

For more information

or call (559) 441-0862.  

Kearney Park Picnic -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Kearney Park Picnic - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

An additional $5 is charged by the County of Fresno to enter the park.  The park is open during daylight hours.  In addition to the mansion, the park offers:

  • Shaded picnic tables and reservable group picnic shelters
  • Playgrounds
  • Soccer fields
  • Softball diamonds
  • Horseshoe pits

Annual Kearney Park events include

For more information about Kearney Park, go to

Kearny Park Tree-Lined Boulevard -  PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT

Kearny Park Tree-Lined Boulevard - PHOTO BY ADAM BLAUERT


To get to Kearney Park from Merced County, head south on Highway 99, exiting at Grantland.  Follow Grantland south for 7 miles until it ends at Kearney Boulevard. 

Turn left and watch for the park entrance on the right.  The palm and eucalyptus trees around the park were planted by Kearney.  They line Kearney Boulevard all the way into downtown Fresno where Kearney ends at Fresno Street.

Other historic home museums within an hour’s drive of Merced County include


Rehart, Schyler and William K. Patterson.  M. Theo Kearney: Prince of Fresno.  Fresno:  Dumont, 1988.