Growing up in the 1970s, I borrowed my sense of the Vietnam War from movies like “Apocalypse Now” -- and from the looks of pain that would cross the faces of grown-ups who’d lived through it. World War II? My grandparents no doubt remembered the painful parts, but the version they shared with children was softened by time and sensitivity to our innocence.
Travel back beyond the personal experience of people you know, and you find that history is remarkably hard to grasp. There are history books and historical novels, commemorative statues and holiday celebrations. Still, the further away we get from when a certain chapter happened, the harder it is to feel – viscerally – what it was like to live then. Costume dramas usually tell us more about what we want to remember than about what happened, and the cameras close in on the faces of handsome actors rather than the gadgets, food and social habits that defined the time for those who were there.
Northeast of Sacramento, at the former McClellan Air Force Base, there’s a massive warehouse --160,000 square feet -- that holds a treasure trove of items from California’s earliest recorded history. These items are the kind that tell the stories that make history “come alive,” as the cliche goes. Think of Victorian-era baby carriages and dentists’ chairs, battered metal dairy cans and railroad crossing signs.
The state parks warehouse northeast of Sacramento is vast -- and crowded with an array of objects that gives it the air of a Hollywood back lot.
The warehouse in North Highlands where California’s ancient artifacts are stored is run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Yes. Parks and Recreation. Ever since Marshall Gold Discovery in Coloma became part of the state park system in 1927, the parks department has been the de facto depository for all sorts of objects that were once ubiquitous and have become precious with the passage of time.
Curator Ross McGuire explained: “Over time, collections came in, one at a time. It just grew - to the point where it was pretty unmanageable.”
Not to mention a bit of a mess. Take for instance, one dusty freight wagon that ran from Sacramento to Placerville before the railroads were built, circa 1855 or ’60. Like a lot of historical artifacts, it would up at Sutter’s Fort, which became home to the Stronghold of Pioneer Memories Museum Collection.
Pioneers as far back as the Gold Rush knew they were making history. They set aside all sorts of heirlooms, thinking someday this bric-a-brac would tell the story of how they got here and what they did. The thing is, some of those heirlooms sat outside for decades.
Think about it: In 1875, people would have looked at that wagon as the sturdy contraption from which grandpa got his sundries before rail came to town. In 1915, the wagon might have served as an amusing reminder to Model T drivers of how far technology had traveled in half a century. By the 1950s, it’s an open question whether anybody would have thought about the fact that a disintegrating piece of junk had anything interesting to say about the Gold Rush. Except, of course, to visiting schoolchildren urged to imagine a time before supermarkets.
“The museum profession has learned a great deal,” McGuire said with droll humor. “You don’t just put these out for the sun and rain to beat up and weather.”
These days even the most industrial item is cleaned, strapped into stabilizing contraptions of wood and Plexiglas, and carefully housed in a concrete room with light, temperature and humidity controls. You can’t stop organic materials from decaying, but you can slow the process.
Perhaps nothing tells the story better than the state’s collection of 4,400 Indian baskets, one of the biggest in the world. McGuire said, “There are baskets smaller than a teacup to baskets meant to hold bushels and bushels of acorns.”
Each basket is wrapped individually in a plastic bag. Styrofoam peanuts inside keep the basket from collapsing in on itself. A tag on the bag tells all you need to know about the basket’s provenance and place in the collection.
Some of the collection is on display outside the warehouse, but the bulk of the items are awaiting a new building for the California Indian Heritage Center, a project that’s still in the works. In the meantime, these baskets will sit here, available to be loaned out to parks, museums and historical societies throughout California and, really, the world over.
“If not us, then who?” McGuire asks. “We didn’t seek out the responsibility. It kind of evolved as the park system grew.”
For decades, the parks department’s trove of artifacts has been scattered across the state capital in nine facilities. Now, everything has been gathered under one roof. Bond money paid for this consolidation at McClellan Air Force Base.
A collection of dairy canisters and distilling equipment sits on shelves. They are from a small-scale dairy farm from the late 19th or early 20th century.
You might be tempted to ask how a budget-strapped agency pays for new acquisitions. It doesn’t. Just about all the stuff was donated. The last purchase -- of four Indian baskets -- was made 40 years ago.
McGuire said 150 state parks have some kind of historical display. That might strike you as odd, calling to mind about 50 historic parks, like Hearst Castle and Pio Pico. That said, many parks we think of for their natural beauty also house historical artifacts. Consider Henry Coe State Park, in the hills southeast of San Jose.
“It was a ranch,” McGuire said. “The furnishings of the family are in the house and exhibited there. So we hold materials for almost two-thirds of the entire system, whether they’re designated as a historic park or not.”
If it’s not on display, or if it’s falling apart, a local park sends it to Sacramento for safekeeping. Indeed, you can see the makings of several exhibits in this cavernous space, including railroad ledgers through the years, 19th century mining technology and butter churning along California’s coast.
McGuire shows off several generations of dairy-processing technology dating back to the Gold Rush. Soon after the boom started, McGuire said, San Franciscans were slathering California-produced butter on their toast. At first, the product was churned by hand and came to market via sea from farms along the coast. Later, as the market for butter grew, animals and steam power were used to drive industrial churns.
That story is on display at Wilder Ranch north of Santa Cruz, and there’s a plan for a similar exhibit at Fort Ross north of Bodega Bay. Some of the objects for that exhibit are in this warehouse as they wait for their debut.
And with the new warehouse, there’s more than half a chance these artifacts will survive into the next century, to speak to future generations even further away than we are from California’s formative decades.