by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
Off of Jensen Avenue in Sanger, a sprightly structure of yellow and brown is tucked in between the Sanger Branch Library, the Sanger Police Department, and the Sanger Chamber of Commerce buildings. The Sanger Depot Museum is a treasure of historical preservation for the people of the San Joaquin Valley, with exhibits covering prehistoric animals, Native American basketry, Victorian life and commerce, and the families that were part of Sanger’s growth.
The museum’s building is a restored and renovated Southern Pacific depot that used to stand by the tracks near Academy and Seventh, handling grain, lumber, and passengers. Before you enter the museum, you can see a number of reminders of the past: the bell from Granville School, the iron gate from the Sanger Jail, an early nailing machine invented in Sanger, and a reproduction of a section of the log flume that made Sanger a lumber giant from the 1890’s to the 1920’s.
The Main Room
Inside the museum, cheerful volunteers welcome you to a row of mini-storefronts that recreate the Brehler Block of Sanger’s early downtown, including a bank, a bakery, a post office, a general store, and the Sanger Herald newspaper offices. There are yearbooks and mementoes from Sanger High, a gift shop. Volunteers are happy to help you find answers to your questions. A gift shop has publications and mementos to help you remember your visit and help support the museum.
The Pioneer Room
The Pioneer Room celebrates some of the early families (I found a picture of my grandmother-in-law with her family), and houses some rotating exhibits. There is a case filled with vintage model trains, and a display of some of the prehistoric remains found at the Fairmead Landfill.
Why is there a display of bones from a dump between Madera and Chowchilla in a museum in Sanger? According to Bob Bosserman, who coordinates museum tours, a Sanger High student had a relative working with the University of California teams excavating the finds. The UC team needed to find a place to store the bones because there was not enough space at the landfill site. The Sanger girl suggested the Depot Museum as a repository, which is why it now houses skulls of a saber-tooth cat and a North American lion, a mammoth bone, and other finds from the landfill.
The Baggage Room/The Flume Room
The area that was the baggage room of the depot holds another set of displays. According to James Walton, president of the Sanger Historical Society, a replica of a Victorian house that once stood on I street in Sanger was built by Harold Philips, Kenneth Berryhill, and Pete Rusconi, volunteers who had already built the Brehler Block storefronts.
The other major exhibit in the baggage room is a diorama of the 62-mile-long log flume that ran from Millwood in the mountains to east of the railroad tracks in Sanger at 11th Street. The flume carried the logs on a watery cushion to the lumber company in the valley. The miniature buildings and waterways were the product of more than a year of work by model maker Joan Aller of Fresno, with the help of an artist to paint the backgrounds, and the mountain-making of Dan Aller, Joan’s father. Dan made molds for dental work, so he was used to working with plaster-of-Paris. Walton says, “We did pay her, but I honestly believe, based on the hours she put in, we were paying her about 50 cents an hour.”
The Indian Room
At the other end of the building is my favorite room, the Indian Room, which houses the Brehler Collection of Native American basketry. Oscar A. Brehler, a Michigan-born pharmacist, purchased a drug store at 7th and N Street in Sanger in 1905, and helped organize the town’s Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce, and the Sanger Community Hospital. Members of Yokut tribal groups from Squaw Valley and Wonder Valley sometimes came into his drug store.
Brehler once said, “I had no idea of starting a basket collection when the Indians began coming into my store. I bought the baskets because I felt sorry for them. They needed the money, and all they had to sell were those baskets.”
Brehler’s basket collection grew to more than 200 pieces, and was displayed at San Francisco’s 1915 exposition. Following Oscar’s death in 1966, the basketry went to his wife, then to relatives who were to make them available to the public. Some baskets went to the Fresno Junior Museum (now the Fresno Discovery Center), but the remaining artifacts set in motion the events that would create the Sanger Depot Museum.
The Brehler Collection display of Native American basketry at the Sanger Depot Museum contains a variety of types and designs. Some are of twined construction, while others are coiled. There are cradleboard baskets, large storage baskets, and bottleneck baskets, which are also known as rattlesnake baskets and “showoff” baskets. The flat-shouldered top of these baskets required painstaking work, which is why they are among the most prized examples of Native American basketry. Some of them are even decorated with quail topknots, the spray of feathers at the top of the bird’s head.
One area shows examples of the materials used in Yokut basket making, including willow branches for the coiled core, grasses for the stitching, redbud bark for reddish accents, and bracken fern roots to create black tones. The walls around the display cases are decorated with pictures of Yokuts of the early 20th century, including one of the most accomplished basket weavers, Minnie Hancock.
The contents of the Sanger Depot Museum are a delight to the eye and mind, but the story of the museum’s creation is as interesting as its exhibits.
One section of the Brehler Collection went into storage, with E. L. (Ted) Barr paying monthly fees until he could show proof of adequate housing and display, and that there was a non-profit corporation to care for the collection. Ted Barr’s nephew, John Olson, started the formation of the Sanger Historical Society in 1974, with the help of the Sanger Kiwanis Club.
So, how did the Brehler Collection and the Historical Society wind up in a Southern Pacific depot a half-mile from its original site?
The Tanney brothers heard that the depot, the oldest building in Sanger, was for sale, and they decided to buy it and turn it into a restaurant. The railroad told the brothers, “You bought the building, you get it off our land,” according to Bosserman. The desire to start a restaurant waned when they found that they only had 30 days to move the building. The Tanneys offered the depot to Olson, and the Historical Society agreed to do the relocating.
There was one more hurdle: where would they put it? In the middle of the Sanger Civic Center, once a part of the old Harding School, was an empty area, the perfect size for a train depot. On December 7, 1977, that spot was filled by a future museum. Once the building was in place, the fundraising, restoration, and renovation began. A door-to-door effort that raised $8,000 was planned by a public relations firm that cost $6,000. A plaque commemorates 105 “Patrons of the Museum” who contributed $1,000 or more, and rooms were underwritten by local donors.
To develop the Native American basketry display, Craig Bates, employed at Yosemite National Park, was given free reign. The Historical Society paid for his time, travel, meals, lodging, and assistant. Walton says, “All of this cost a considerable amount of money, but we feel the money was well spent, as we are constantly complimented for this display.”
Finally, in 1983, the Sanger Historical Society signed the papers that put the Brehler baskets in their hands, and the Sanger Depot Museum opened to the public in the fall of 1983.
It’s a sweet little jewel of a museum, and it does change. Exhibits come and go. For several years, the Christmas season was highlighted by the Rotary Christmas Tree in the entrance area, decorated with ornaments sent from Rotary Clubs around the United States and across the globe. The tree was retired two years ago, due to wear on the ornaments.
Come to the Sanger Depot Museum, a place where you can step into the past, appreciate the present, and contemplate your own future.
The Sanger Depot Museum is at 1770 7th Street in Sanger, south of Jensen and east of Hoag. It is open Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $1.00 for adults, and $.25 for children. To arrange tours, contact Bob Bosserman at (559) 875-2848.