Merced County Times Newspaper
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Courthouse Museum displays obscure artifacts, stories behind them

Opens in Merced on Thursday, March 7


If you enjoy looking at artifacts from yesteryear, and wonder what they are, or how they were used, or who once owned them, then you definitely don’t want to miss the new exhibit at the Merced County Courthouse Museum. 

“What’s That For? – The Stories of Obscure Artifacts” will open at the museum on Thursday, March 7, at 5 p.m with a special introduction and discussion. 

Museum staffers say there are so many artifacts in their local collection that have yet to be seen by or known to the public. These include fascinating objects that shed light on local history and how it relates to the broader California story — from the covered wagon days to the dawn of the cell phone era. 

A pair of binoculars from the 1850s.

Museum guests will see, among many items, a pair of binoculars from the 1850s that was brought over from Paris, a 1920s “voltmeter” that was saved from the old Exchequer Dam’s Powerhouse, a 1950s home telephone dialer tool along with a complete switchboard that “operators” used to connect calls, a marvelous, hand-rotated razor blade sharpener for men, and corsets and lingerie women used to wear under their outerwear. 

However, the highlighted opening section of the exhibit features artifacts and stories of the covered wagon days and exploration of California, including a wooden bowl from the Harlan family, who successfully made it through their westward journey in 1846 while the Donner Party met its tragic faith. There’s also a chair donated by a local woman that made the same trip inside a covered wagon 20 years later in 1868. 

At the exhibit opening, there will also be an added bonus for museum visitors. Local author and historian Eugene Hart will discuss his reassessment of the Donner Party tragedy and autograph his book, Salt and Snow. 

The book, which will be sold at the opening day event, challenges the usual beliefs of what led to the Donner Party tragedy and the blame attached to legendary guide Lansford Hastings. Through extensive research, Hart makes his case that the demise of the Donner Party was much of their own doing — and the societal blame directed towards Hastings was unjustified. 

“The name Lansford Hastings came up as this devil of a person — very selfish, cared about no one but himself, and was the demise of the Donner Party,” Hart explained to the Times. “And I thought to myself, ‘How could one person be so reviled. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not.’ So I started doing research, and low and behold, I found that Hastings was not this horrible guy.”

Author Eugene Hart with his book ‘Salt & Snow.’ Hart will be the featured speaker Thursday, March 7, during the opening of the new exhibit at the Courthouse Museum.

Hart’s reassessment of events is enthralling. The Donner Party, he says, found out much too late that overloaded wagons, a build-up of lost time, poor choices, ignorance of geography, and their willingness to risk taking Hastings’ no-so-developed “cutoff,” all put them precariously behind the main emigration of that dreadful winter season. 

About half of the more than 80 members of the Donner Party who migrated to California died when they became trapped in the snowbound Sierra Nevada mountains. The group included more than 40 children. 

Says Hart: “After the hell they went through, and what the rescuers eventually saw, people didn’t want to beat up on them anymore I don’t think they cared what the Donner Party did. They were not going to blame them anymore. But Hastings — ‘How dare you take them on a route that you barely followed through on himself.’  But Hastings did follow through with the group he was directly leading, and not a single person died.”

Hart, a retired history teacher who taught in Merced for 37 years, also has another book featured in the museum’s gift store: “The Guide to the California Gold Rush.” That self-published work has sold more than 10,000 copies. The new book, Salt & Snow, also features a fold-out map in the back showing details of the Donner Party route, the Hastings Cutoff and the Sierra. 

Another local person with an amazing history of a family migration to California in a covered wagon is Susan Vogt Benes, a native of Dos Palos. She donated the old chair that came from Texas to California in a covered wagon in 1868. It belonged to her great, great, great grandfather William Lake Houghton. His initials are carved on the back of the chair, and the legs of the chair were shortened and tapered, seemingly to fit into the wagon for someone to use on the trip.

Susan Vogt Benes stands with the chair that made a trip in a covered wagon from Texas to California in 1868, along with other family history.

The journey also included Houghton’s wife, Lettuce, his daughter-in-law, Nancy Elizabeth Hastings Houghton, and her five children. Nancy’s husband and Houghton’s son, James Daniel Houghton, died in Texas just before the expedition began.

“The elder couple were old when they crossed,” Benes explained to the Times. “Their desire and their willingness to work hard is remarkable. They lost their only child, and they are supposed to help raise his five kids, and here they are with three wagons, and not much else. But the family stayed together and made it to California.”  

Benes still has eight pages of stories from her great grandfather who was 8 years old during the trip. The stories were told to Benes’ grandmother, and they recounted things like seeing the start of the Transcontinental Railroad being built, tough times on the trail, and the harsh social realities of the time. Pictures of the family are on display in the exhibit as well, and they include a family photo with Benes’ great grandfather as an 8-year-old boy in a dress because they didn’t have enough clothes to go around in those days on the trail. 

These are just a few stories behind many of the artifacts on display currently at the Courthouse Museum. The exhibit is organized with themed sections, such as: Business, Medicine, Communication, Measurement, Mining, Home and Commercial. 

For more information about the exhibit, please contact the Museum office at (209) 723-2401.

The museum is located at 21s and N streets. Visiting hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.


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