Sometimes you just know you’ve found a special place.
That’s how I felt a couple of years ago when I stumbled up on the small but mighty Mariposa Museum & History Center. I’ve been to lots of history museums over the years, but this one finds a distinctive balance between cozy/comfortable and intellectually rigorous. Wander through its meticulously crafted displays, many of them devoted to this charming town’s rich Gold Rush-era underpinnings, and you’ll find it easy to slip into the mindset of, say, a hardscrabble (and very stinky) miner holed up in a tiny cabin with a pig and chickens for winter roommates.
Those pioneers, who set the stage for our much different world to come, are fascinating. I went for a return visit last week and once again fell under its spell.
In that spirit, and with the assistance of some of the museum’s ever-helpful docents, I offer 10 fun things to look for when you visit the museum:
1. 18-pound iron
Are you the kind who grumbles a little about having to take that balled-up dress shirt that looks as if traveled around scrunched up for a couple of months in your trunk and actually iron it? As you glide your smooth, light, nonstick iron across the garment, think of the folks 150 years ago who pressed their clothes with an iron so heavy it should be part of a workout routine.
2. Crossed letters
There was a time when paper and postage were so expensive that people pinching pennies saved money by first writing across a page one way and then turning it to write over those words at a right angle. In a time of instant email and reams of paper on sale for a pittance at Office Depot, it’s interesting to contemplate a world in which paper – and communication – was precious. The museum has a great example of a letter written by Horace Snow to his friend Charlie Fitz back home in Massachusetts.
3. Gold-dust blower
Do you take credit cards? How about gold dust? Back in Gold Rush times, merchants and saloon keepers accepted the dominant currency of the day. You’d pile some dust on this long, narrow metal pan, and the merchant would distribute it with a brush. Then he’d tilt the device up to a level position and blow directly down along the curved surface. The nongold dust particles would be blown off the open end. Just think: no waiting for the credit-card chip reader to do its thing.
4. Jiggs the Mule
Those poor mules. Most of them got hoisted down into mines and never again saw the light of day. But Jiggs made the best of a bad situation. He would chase new miners around snapping his teeth at them, and they didn’t realize he was just playing a game. Jiggs liked to steal miners’ lunches, and he especially enjoyed chewing tobacco. Look for the photos of Jiggs in the mining section.
5. School punishment chart
This is one of the favorites of Mariposa resident Michael Wilson, who’s working as a museum docent this summer. (He’ll be a junior at Mariposa High School in the fall.) Along with the display of an old-fashioned schoolroom, you’ll find a chart from 1848 detailing how many lashes kids could expect for various infractions, including four for boys and girls playing together and one for every 3 feet the offender climbed up a tree. Plus: two lashes for wearing long nails. (Wonder if that’s still in the Mariposa High dress code?)
6. Fire grenade
It looks like a big red light bulb. But this tool from the 1860s is an old-fashioned fire extinguisher. You’d throw one at a fire. When it shattered, the tetrachloride solution inside spilled onto the flames and generated a cloud of gas that doused the fire. One use only, alas.
7. Hair clipper
Before batteries or plug-in clippers, people still managed to cut hair. The complication before electricity: You’d have to continuously pump the device with your hand to make it work. And we aren’t talking about just a light touch. Just like the aforementioned iron, it took a real workout.
8. Cooking basket
Another docent, Myra Foster, shared with me her favorite thing in the museum: one of the beautifully crafted Native American cooking baskets on display. You can look at various Miwuk artifacts (including an extensive display on village life) and marvel at how a basket can be woven so tightly it’s watertight. (Foster says she loves volunteering at the museum: “I grew up and went to school here,” she says. “But until I started working here, I didn’t know any of this history.”)
9. Hair art
From afar it looks pretty. Look at it close up and you’ll likely say, “Ugh.” Victorian Hair Art was popular at the turn of the 20th century with the death of Queen Victoria. A person’s hair was looked at much more sentimentally than we do today.
10. Foreign tourists
Mariposa is a gateway to Yosemite, and the museum gets lots of stopover visitors interested in knowing more about California history. On the day I was there, a family from the Netherlands dawdled over each and every display, soaking up details about what it was like to forge a life without many of what we consider today as necessities. It makes me smile to think of tourists absorbing such knowledge the same way I’ve enjoyed learning about local traditions and customs in foreign lands. I’m sure there are people all over the world still talking about Jiggs the mule.
Mariposa Museum & History Center
- 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily except major holidays
- 5119 Jessie St., Mariposa
- www.mariposamuseum.com, 209-966-2924
- $5, free for under 18