Merced County Times Newspaper
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Courthouse Museum joins celebration for Pacheco State Park


Local people know the way to San Jose, or for that matter, the closest ocean beach.

We know the road more traveled: “Take Highway 152 through Pacheco Pass.”

However, many of us may not know the historical significance of this route that connects our valley region with our coastal neighbors. We may have yet to explore the surrounding slopes, experience the wildlife, and met those who are working to preserve and protect the land for all to enjoy.

Well, the discovery continues this Thursday, June 23, at 5 p.m., with the opening of the new exhibit “Celebrating Pacheco State Park’s 25th Anniversary” at the Courthouse Museum in downtown Merced.

“This year’s 25th anniversary of the park was a beautiful opportunity to showcase our human history, our natural history, and the amazing people who have been, and are, stewards and naturalists working together in Merced County,” says Jeanne Knapp, the 64-year-old president of the regional Four Rivers Natural History Association.

Knapp helped create the show, along with Dan Nelson of the Milliken Museum in Los Banos, as an extension of the celebrations and observances for the park earlier this year.

The exhibit begins with cultural history — the Native Americans who forged trails through the pass that became part of a trading corridor. It continues with the early Californios such as Francisco Pacheco who became one of the wealthiest landowners in the state, acquiring more than 150,000 acres through Mexican land grants and family inheritance.

Museum visitors will learn about some of the oldest buildings in Merced County, and about the early toll road Andrew Firebaugh operated that ended up serving the historic Butterfield Stage. And they will discover the story of Paula Fatjo, the great-great-granddaughter of Pacheco, who was a powerful woman, forced to move her beloved home due to construction of the San Luis Reservoir, and determined to protect and share the rest of her family’s land with all Californians.

What makes this history exhibit a little bit different than previous ones, according to Knapp, is that it features the “people, organizations and entities who are currently working in the region, or who have passed through the region and have written about it, or done artwork about it, or collected science about it.”

The nonprofit Four Rivers Natural History Association actually fashioned its first-ever California Naturalist Certification Course around the park anniversary, and invited a variety of natural resource agencies to support the effort to raise environmental literacy.

Says Knapp, “The exhibit highlights our most recent group of naturalists, their capstone projects, and how they are encouraging people to engage.”

The exhibit culminates with a vision of how the state park experience will improve in the near future. Pacheco State Park is unique in all of California because it was created from Paula Fatijo’s estate and receives private funds from the Paula Fatijo Corporation. This includes contracts with wind turbine companies that are planning to expand operations above Pacheco Pass. A new, taller system of energy-generating windmills is expected to bring in a considerable windfall of funding to help further develop the park over the next few years. Plans being discussed include expanding existing trails, a new Visitor’s Center, overnight camping, cabins for rent, and RV parking.

During the exhibit opening this Thursday, historian George Fohner will present a PowerPoint program titled “California’s Crossroad: Pacheco’s Pass to Paula’s Park,” starting at 6 p.m.

Admission to the event is free.

The Merced County Courthouse Museum is located at 21st and N streets in downtown Merced. For more information, please contact the museum at (209) 723-2401. Don’t forget to visit the museum gift shop for one-of-a-kind gifts that highlight local history.

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