Independence, Inyo County, California

History of the Eastern California Museum

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By Charles N. Irwin


By 1928 the fate of Owens Valley had been sealed: the City of Los Angeles had nearly won its water war and a domain, a vast hinterland of sage and agricultural verdure with its coveted wealth of water resources. By this time ranchers and farmers had begun an exodus from their beloved Valley. 1928 was also the eve of the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression. Paiute and Shoshone Indian cultures were fading into the recesses of history, and the frontier and most of its raucous mining camps had transformed into ghostly arrays of shacks and aging hangers-on.

Into this milieu of changing realities and fading memories the Eastern California Museum Association was born. A group of people met in Bishop in the home of W. C, and Louise Parcher and made a compact to preserve and research the remains of past events and places for a future generation. The Parchers, including Frank Parcher (first curator), Bessie T. Best, Douglas Robinson, Charles T. Forbes, William A. Irwin, Jr., Ralph Bell and G. W. Dow initiated a program to rescue the wonders of Inyo from oblivion. The Parchers' influence loomed large in the Association's life in the pre-war years; their dedication to the interests of the Museum Association was unsurpassed.

In the tradition of the great American historical societies the new Association was dedicated to the collection, preservation and interpretation of artifacts, minerals, plants, fossils and other scientific data as well as the preservation and marking of prehistoric and historic sites.

The Association was incorporated in 1930; in the following year these new pioneers acquired humble quarters in the Courthouse to house historic and scientific collections of the fledgling organization. It is to the credit of the founders that they operated on a yearly budget of $500, during the lean years of the Depression and the New Deal. To raise additional funds the Association sponsored musical performances in the Bishop Theatre.

From the beginning the Association fostered a tradition of annual membership dinners, yearly elections of officers, monthly field trips, a museum library and an energetic landmarks program.

Among the picturesque personalities in the Association during the 1930's was Mark Kerr, one of the earliest curators. Kerr collected botanical specimens on behalf of the Museum and participated in a pioneer archaeological survey of Saline Valley. Kerr resigned his post as curator to follow his bent for botanical field work.

During the war and early post war years the Museum was administered by Miss Margrave and Miss Cavitt, County librarians. Miss Margrave collected invaluable local history including news clippings for the Museum's files. Mrs. Lulu Mairs, who served the Museum for twelve or more dedicated years, opened the Museum for patrons on request. Mrs. Mairs shared her unusual personal knowledge of local history with the Museum's many visitors.

EXPANSION (1950-60)

During the 50's the Museum entered a phase of regeneration under the guidance of Ann Sharr, Virginia Fair, Anna Kelly, Curt Phillips, Dr. Douglas Dyer and Ada Bell. The County provided a second room in the Courthouse for Museum purposes, new display cases were built, the collections were organized and their accession records updated. Increased open hours improved the Museum's accessibility to tourists. Significant book accessions were added to the library.

The Washington Hand Press was brought to the Museum and the No.18 Narrow Gauge locomotive was acquired from the Railroad through the efforts of Anna Kelly. The Charcoal Kilns at Cottonwood Creek were deeded to the Museum. The herbarium exhibit, composed of plant specimens, was installed and continues to be a main attraction. The Association hosted one of the annual meetings of the Archaeological Survey Association; ASA members visited archaeological sites under the guidance of Association members.

Elodie Drew entered the scene as secretary. Mrs. Drew has labored for several years as a researcher into the mysteries of Inyo's complicated history and has communicated frequently with enquirers into Inyo's past.


The 1960's was period of accelerated activity.

The monthly field trips encompassed such places as Cerro Gordo, Fish Lake Valley, Saline Valley, Chalfant Loop, Little Lake, Nevada ghost towns and many more. Several field trips were science oriented: the DeDeckers guided excursions which emphasized local botany. The Association members had always tended to be a hardy lot, visiting remote corners of Eastern California and Nevada.

The Association sponsored important archaeological projects such as the Point Typology Workshop administered by guest scientist. Ruth D. Simpson; the Mammoth Creek Cave and Crooked Creek Excavations and other field projects. Rollin and Grace Enfield and Norman Weller. representing the Association, supervised these Association sponsored field projects while Ruth Simpson served as technical advisor. The Enfields envisioned a dynamic and expanding museum, and were instrumental in acquiring Dr. Louis Leakey as speaker at the annual dinner in 1965.

Dramatic acquisitions came to the Association such as the Black Collection comprising hundreds of Paiute-Shoshone baskets. Dr. Douglas Dyer, Mary DeDecker and others persuaded County officials to purchase this significant collection for the Museum.

It was a time of intensive publicity, including Dorothy Cragen's column "Round About the Museum"; membership building, which reached a peak of 1,300; and fund-raising projects such as the Bottle Workshops.

Annual County support allowed only maintenance rather than expansion. As the decade wore on the Association officers pressured the County to accept the Museum and to administer it as a County agency. A vote of Association members showed a 97% backing of County control of the Museum.

The major achievement of the decade was the Association sponsored building project. G. Walter and Maude Dow donated a large sum for purposes of building construction; as a result of their generosity and foresight the desperately needed 40' x 80' cement block structure on Grant Street in Independence was completed on five acres leased from the City of Los Angeles.

A landmark change in direction took place in 1967 when the County accepted the newly constructed museum building as a gift and created the Inyo County Museum Department. The County assumed all fiscal responsibilities for the maintenance of the building as well as the appointment of a County salaried museums director.

The Eastern California Museum Association had been aware of the importance of Narrow Gauge history and had publicized the need to preserve the depot at Laws. Mrs. Lois C. Cleman and Senator Charles Brown rescued Laws from demolition by Southern Pacific. Mrs. Cleman, a long time member of the Eastern California Museum Association, and other Valley residents such as Anna Kelly and Paul Payne made the Laws Museum a reality through acquisitions and loans of Narrow Gauge Americana. The Bishop Museum and Historical Society formed in 1965 has operated the Railroad Museum with annual monies from the County of lnyo and smaller allocations from the City of Bishop. The County owns the fourteen acres, buildings and Narrow Gauge locomotive.

One of the more influential officers during the decade was Dorothy Cragen, who corresponded continuously for the Museum, organized the Bottle Workshops, worked energetically to increase memberships, played a guiding role in preserving and restoring the Commander's House, worked for landmarks recognition and authored a column for the Inyo Independent.

Other influential and colorful personalities associated with the Museum in the post war period were Dr. Horace Albright. Dr. R. Coke Wood and Norman Clyde. Clyde's mountaineering exploits have been unsurpassed in Sierra Nevada History.


A lesser known participant in the development of the Museum was Phil Walker, the first County-appointed director of the Eastern California Museum. Walker moved thousands of artifacts from the County Court House to the new building donated by Mr. and Mrs. Dow. He also designed additional vertical display cases. Walker conceived the idea of a ghost town complex and constructed the first building, the "Assayer's Office".

Henry Raub served as director from 1969-76. He continued the expansion of "Ghost Town" by acquiring several early bat and board buildings from the Department of Water and Power such as the Hanna (Gunn) residence, the Livery Stable, the Brewery Office, the Pete Mair's utility shack, a stock room and privies. Also, the Department of Water and Power historic equipment yard was established.

During his tenure landscaping was developed and fencing installed around much of the Museum's perimeter by the Ecology Corps. Profits from sales items were returned to the County general fund, in keeping with the objective to make the Museum partly self-supporting. The most successful sales item was the recording taped from Helen Gunn's music box discs, an idea originated by Walker. Another landmark event during this period was the first Museum monograph entitled, "Origins and Ethnography of Prehistoric Man in Owens Valley" by Charles Campbell.

Leonard Sluyter's astronomy lectures, Bill Baucum's radiograms and the annual historic fashion review furthered publicity. The reminiscences of early residents were recorded on tape. Raub also chaired the Bicentennial Commission which sponsored several community projects, including the Saga of Inyo County.

Before Raub's retirement a storm of controversy broke over the Eastern California Museum engulfing it in weeks of investigation by the County Grand Jury. The conflict centered around the question of whether or not the Museum required a professionally trained and salaried director and staff or revert to an operation run by volunteers. Also, a minority argued for inclusion of the Museum under the Department of Parks and Recreation. However, the Museum has continued with a professional, salaried staff and retains its integrity and efficiency as a separate entity directly responsible to the County Administrator and the Board of Supervisors.


Since January, 1976 when Charles Irwin was appointed director, the key themes in the Department's life have been the streamlining of the Museum's administration; an upgrading of the exhibit qualities in the main building and Little Pine Village; closer ties with the Paiute-Shoshone community; publicity techniques including four-color process printing and participation in the Tri-County Fair; inventory of the Museum's collections and County records; archaeological site survey; and the beginning of a new fund raising program for building expansion.

The most sensational event of the year was the Bicentennial Variety and Fashion Review sponsored by the Independence Garden Club and hosted by the Museum. The main acquisitions in '76 were the Hilderman Estate and two trail wagons used to haul ore from the Santa Rosa Mine to Keeler (ca.1870).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Brichaga. Irene. Personal communication: Cleman. Lois C. Personal communication.; Correspondence of the Eastern California Museum Association. 1928-44, 1950-67.; Cragen, Dorothy. ECMA newsletter.; DeDecker, Mary. Personal communication.; Drew, Elodie. Personal communication.; Enfield, Rollin. Personal communication.; Handbooks of the ECMA.; Kelly, Anna T. Personal communication.; Raub. Henry. Personal communication.

{*Copied without permission from Saga of Inyo County 1977 by Chapter 183, Southern Inyo American Association of Retired Persons.}

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