Standing beside a fully functional “steam donkey” – a fire-powered machine once used to lug logs in the early 1900s – the Central Sierra Historical Society and Museum’s executive director, Lisa Crain, fondly recalls her favorite little-kid compliment.
“This is better than the fair!” a fourth-grader once told her while watching a forester chop down a dead sugar pine tree at Shaver Lake.
The educational tree-felling show is just one example of what the museum prides itself as being: “A museum without walls.”
All these people get to see something that’s pretty unique.
The museum celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and opened for the season last weekend. Entrance is free, but donations are accepted.
While it includes a more traditional “museum” – a pretty pine building with a sunny, spacious interior filled with exhibits largely focused on the region’s logging history – its prize jewels include free tours of Shaver Lake on a wooden boat, the Osprey II, and interactive treasures sprinkled throughout the museum’s 20-acre property, leased to the society for $1 a year by a major employer to the region, Southern California Edison power company.
Some of the gems: A train caboose from a now-gone railroad, the steam donkey, and a working hydroelectric powerhouse. Crain says the Central Sierra Historical Society and Museum is the only museum in the world with a working powerhouse.
“Exclamation point!” she adds with a smile during a tour last week. “It’s pretty exciting – and in this remote location.”
Being able to share the powerhouse is also kind of “sentimental” for Crain. Southern California Edison has employed a number of her family members, including her grandfather, and she likes being connected to this lineage.
There’s really no reason people would ever see something like this if they are not involved in hydrology, so for us to be able to experience this, I find it fascinating.
She hopes the powerhouse gives people a greater appreciation for everyday comforts.
“It’s so second nature: you turn on a light, you don’t really have to think about it. So to think that there is a large system that went into place to make you comfortable – it’s a system you pay for – but this hydroelectric project shaped Southern California.”
Shaver Lake’s hydroelectric power and timber also shaped the central San Joaquin Valley. Robert Knapp, one of the volunteer captains of the Osprey II, reflects on this legacy while leading a historical tour of the lake.
I think it’s really important to know the history of where you live.
“We hope that when people leave,” Knapp says, “they take a heightened appreciation for our area and the natural resources.”
And looking out at a forest filled with dead trees, he adds: “Another thing people need to recognize: how fragile all this beauty is.”
A new exhibit in the museum explains how bark beetles are contributing to a massive tree die-off in the Sierra Nevada.
There’s happier, simpler exhibits, too.
Crain’s 3-year-old daughter, Elodie, is content with sitting on a horse saddle and doing crafts.
“She’s happy coloring butterfly pages,” Crain says, “and it’s adorable.”
The museum wants to add several new exhibits, including a replica of a logger’s home, what were sometimes built attached to the side of a log flume, which once transported timber from Shaver Lake to Clovis; and a mining exhibit. Yearly memberships and donations support these projects.
The museum also recently received a $10,000 grant from the Central Valley Regional Foundation to create an app that will provide people with self-guided tours of the property.
“I think if you live in Fresno, Tulare, the Central Valley, you should know about the history of the mountains nearby – just as people up here should know about the things going on in the Valley,” Crain says. “I think being able to make those connections, it makes you more open to people you meet – what stories do they have to share? I just think it gives you a better sense of the world you live in.”
Central Sierra Historical Society and Museum
The museum, at 42642 Tollhouse Road in Shaver Lake, is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday through Sunday, until Memorial Day weekend, when it will open during the same time, seven days a week. Some exhibits, like the powerhouse and steam donkey, are only operated certain days, and boat tours are offered a couple times a month. There are also guest speakers, music performances and school tours. Check the museum’s calendar online at www.sierrahistorical.org for the schedule. More information about exhibits, memberships and volunteering is also available by calling 559-841-4478 or 559-841-4479, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.