By Ralph Lea and Christi Kennedy
Special to the Lodi News-Sentinel
The San Joaquin County Historical Museum, which marked its 40th anniversary this summer , can trace its roots to Lodi and a few memorable personalities.
Beginning in October 1954, a few Lodi people with a burning interest in local history started holding regular meetings. City Librarian Amy Boynton, businessman and city councilman Willard Robinson, Naomi Carey, Gertrude Kettleman and Medora Johnson were the first members of the initial Lodi Historical Society.
The society’s membership grew and its scope of historic interest widened. The group became known as the Northern San Joaquin County Historical Society. Then on March 27, 1961, the organization changed its name to the San Joaquin County Historical Society.
One of the early society members who became influential in the museum was Celia (Adams) Meyers. Born on the family ranch on Bruella Road, Meyers was an educator and interested in local history. In 1958, she and her husband Elwood joined the historical society. By 1965, she was the group’s secretary. Her recollections and writings tell about the museum’s early days.
After William G. Micke died in March 1961, historical society members began thinking of the large oak grove he had donated to the county years earlier. They thought of Micke’s legacy and their desires to have a place for historical objects.
Amy Boynton, president of the society, wrote a letter to county supervisors stating that there were items in the Micke home that should be preserved for a possible museum to pay tribute to Micke. Society members, led by Medora Johnson, must have been active in persuading the supervisors.
Johnson was described as “the driving force” behind the proposed museum and a woman who knew how to promote an idea and get the backing of the community. Her mother operated an Indian museum in Lake County, and Johnson maintained that interest in museums and California Indians. In 1965, she wrote a small book, “Indians of San Joaquin County,” as a study guide for schoolchildren. Johnson, no doubt, worked behind the scenes to convince county supervisors that there needed to be a museum in Micke Grove Park.
On Dec. 21, 1965, supervisors voted to establish a county museum. The San Joaquin County Historical Society was in charge of managing the museum, and the society selected Johnson to serve as director.
On July 28, 1966, supervisors approved an agreement with the historical society. The agreement authorized the society to collect and record items of historical significance. The society was to store the artifacts until the museum could be built, and the county covered insurance and other costs.
The San Joaquin County Historical Museum began by sharing space inside the park maintenance crew’s machine shop in Micke Grove Park. The museum segment of the shop, equivalent to one maintenance bay, was partitioned off to be separate from the lawn mowers and other machinery. They had used shelving, a used desk, a badly scarred banquet table and two used chairs with questionable casters. In this temporary home with no air conditioning, bathroom or running water, the museum got its start.
Johnson and Celia Meyers were the first museum staff. Johnson worked three days a week, and Meyers worked two days. They had portable space heaters in the winter and fans in the summer. To use the bathroom, the women had to drive a car across the park to the ladies restroom.
From these meager beginnings, Johnson envisioned a museum complex with several buildings, each dedicated to a specific theme of the county’s rich history, and grounds with native trees and plants. She worked toward this goal for the rest of her life.
In the small office, the two women catalogued the historical items that society members had been saving for years. Once the museum was established, people donated more historical items. Artifacts were stored in boxes and put on shelves and under worktables. Large items like plows, harvesters, tractors and other farm equipment were stored in the park corporation yard.
Elwood Meyers, Jim Beardsley and Hart Wilson helped collect and restore the farm equipment. They were the first of the museum volunteers who became known as the “tractor guys” or “Monday mechanics.”
In 1971, the first museum building was dedicated in memory of William G. Micke. This building, erected on the grounds of Micke’s tokay grape vineyards, was built to display agricultural equipment. Funding for the building came from the Micke estate. For the first time, the public was able to view some of the museum’s historical exhibits.
The next year, Johnson and her dear friend and Lodi librarian Edna Smith started the museum’s docent council. The volunteers were trained to lead visitors and school classes on tour of the museum’s collection. To this day, the docents conduct educational programs like Valley Days, Pioneer School and lead tours to enhance the public’s enjoyment of the museum.
Despite having only one building and a temporary, crowded office facility some distance away, Johnson confidently applied for accreditation. In February 1973, the American Association of Museums granted accreditation to the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. It was the first agricultural museum west of the Mississippi to get this prestigious seal of approval.
In 1975, the Delta Building was added to the museum complex. One year later, the Claude H. Erickson building was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1976. This building was the main museum exhibit and administration building and made possible by a bequest from Rowena Erickson in honor of her son. With this building’s completion, Johnson finally was able to move out of the park machine shop.
The old Calaveras Schoolhouse was moved onto the grounds in 1977. Work commenced on the Sunshine Trail with the Lodi Soroptimist Club. The Tree & Vine building was erected, and the staff grew with Alice Perry, Frances Welch and Kathy Mettler working at the museum.
On March 9, 1980, Medora Johnson died of cancer. Museum staff and docents continued her work on the county museum. The harness shop, blacksmith shop and a 3,300-piece Floyd Locher tool collection were acquired. The John Hammer Tractor Building was added for tractor displays and a workshop for Monday mechanics volunteers.
In the 1980s, the Calaveras Schoolhouse was restored, and museum docents started the popular Valley Days living history program for elementary schoolchildren. The Erickson building expansion housing the Helen Weber Kennedy Gallery and the Gerald D. Kennedy Reference Library also was completed in this decade.
In 1990, the museum established its Springtime on the Farm as a living history event where visitors can see and participate in pioneer activities. In 1992, the first Festival of Trees event was held as a docent fundraiser during the holidays. Both events continue to be held annually.
The museum continues to develop. In June 2001, the museum acquired the historic Julia Weber home. This year the museum just completed construction of four agricultural equipment exhibit buildings.
The San Joaquin County Historical Society & Museum is supported by private and public sources through donations and by the County of San Joaquin. Over the years the museum has been substantially supported by descendants of Stockton founder Capt. Charles M. Weber through generous donations of money and priceless collections of Weber family memorabilia.
Through lasting support by county residents proud of this region's heritage, the 40-year-old San Joaquin County Historical Museum will continue to be a place where people can learn more about themselves and the community.
Vintage Lodi is a local history column that appears on the first and third Saturday of the month. Article printed by permission of the Lodi News-Sentinel.