The walls of the Gustine Museum talk. Through summer, they’re covered with quilts that span more than 125 years and tell stories of the town’s people and the times they lived in.
Docent Pat Snoke, who was the museum’s director for 20 years and knows it like the back of her hand, said, “Our little museum has been transformed completely” by the new exhibit, “A Stitch in Time: Our Favorite Quilts & Needlecraft.”
She’s not exaggerating. The museum is in the old Merced County Justice Court/Jail, which was built in 1911 and used by the city until 1980, when the Police Department moved to a new building. The bars on its windows normally are clearly visible, but the quilts, with light-blocking material backing them, cover the windows and give the museum a warmer, cozy look. Several hung or draped quilts cover other exhibits, for the time being.
On a recent Sunday, 83-year-old Snoke bustled around the museum’s main room to call attention to the great variety of quilts “from our members and friends.” Some are as small as receiving blankets; bigger quilts were made to cover beds.
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A few quilts were made from old flour sacks. If you picture rough, plain fabric, don’t. Flour sacks once were made from printed fabric – florals and other designs – with the intent that they be reused for clothing and quilts. Snoke recalls that when she was a schoolgirl, she had friends who wore dresses made from the sacks.
The contemporary “Teacher Quilt” on one wall was made for Margaret Jensen Moffet when she retired from teaching in the Gustine Unified School District. Created by her fellow teachers, other colleagues and friends, it has 49 panels, each with an original design. It’s a treasured work of art that includes applique, embroidery and ribbon embellishments.
The “Bill of Rights Quilt” was created by Donna Baker Clarke’s fourth- and fifth-graders at Gustine Elementary in 1991-92. As a class project to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, each student designed a panel interpreting one right. As happens, those children now are adults, and several who hadn’t seen the quilt since they created their own little piece of it have brought their own children in to see it, Snoke said.
A couple of the quilts were provided by Snoke herself: one, a framed crazy quilt made by a great-grandmother who came to California in 1853, the other a flower quilt begun by Snoke’s grandmother in 1935 and finished by her mother, who gave it to Snoke in 1975.
“It’s one of our more extraordinary exhibits,” museum director Kim Stadter said of “A Stitch in Time.” Rotating exhibits typically are displayed in just a few cabinets, she said, but this “we were able to bring out onto the walls and windows, and it took on a life of its own. Normally, an exhibit isn’t that big of an undertaking. This is very colorful and makes an impact.”
Of course, “A Stitch in Time” is just icing on the museum’s cake. Since it opened in 1990, the Gustine Museum and those who staff it have been a trove of educational and entertaining historical information.
The permanent collection is a well-rounded look at the city of about 5,500 people, which was incorporated in 1915. Exhibits cover American Indian history, area wildlife, Portuguese American history, agriculture – “the dairy industry is very well featured,” Stadter said – schools, community life and more.
Offering a tour, Snoke points out several highlights:
▪ An exact replica of a mosasaur skull found by Gustine student Allan Bennison along Garzas Creek in 1937. It was the first known evidence of dinosaurs in California, Snoke said.
▪ A board into which are burned dozens of historic ranching brands. When the Spaniards came to Mexico, Snoke said, they brought seven brands with them. Among them was one depicting three crosses, which belonged to the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés. The brand still is in use, registered to a rancher in Gustine, Snoke said.
▪ Taxidermy – a coyote, raccoon, duck, gray fox and more – primarily done by Snoke’s son, Karl Curnow. The California black bear, dubbed “Fierceful,” was a gift from the local gun club.
▪ Milk cans, photos and more representing the dairy industry, including a shot from a long-ago visit by the famous Borden cow, Elsie.
Snoke also pointed out a good selection of books sold at the museum, including a history by her and a few works by Diana Serra Cary, a local author who acted in silent films and was known as Baby Peggy. According to imdb.com, “Silent moppet star Jackie Coogan, immortalized as Charles Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ (1921), had only one screen rival during the early 1920s, and that was none other than Baby Peggy.”
Between 1921 and 1923, she made more than 150 shorts for Century Studios. Still sharp at 96, Cary is “a lovely, gracious lady,” Snoke said.
The museum building itself is a piece of history. Structurally, it’s still very much the old court and jail building. There are the bars on the windows, yes, but also a heavy barred door to the side room, which was the judge’s chambers and through which prisoners were brought in from the outside.
The judge’s chambers have another metal security door leading to holding cells – basically one big cage, with crisscrossed bars even overhead. Touring schoolkids always get a kick out of being led into lockup, Snoke said. “There was an old TV show, ‘Inner Sanctum,’ that always had a door creaking as it slowly opened,” she said. While today’s schoolkids wouldn’t know the series, they love to hear the jail door’s hinges make their same sound, she said, demonstrating.
A schoolteacher for 30 years, Snoke said she really enjoys showing visiting classes through the museum.
Although the Gustine Historical Society has dozens of terrific volunteer docents who enthusiastically give their time, energy and experience to staff the museum, consider yourself especially fortunate if you visit at a time Snoke is working, Stadter said.
“She is an amazing lady,” Stadter said. “You have to understand, Pat is Gustine’s living history. She’s the one who hired me. She was head of the Historical Society. She’s a founding mother of the museum.
“If there’s anything historical you want to know about Gustine, the families, the schools or anything, Pat is the go-to person. ... She loves history and loves doing the research.”
The museum is open Thursdays and Sundays, just three hours each day. Beyond scheduled school groups, attendance is hard to predict, Snoke said. “You could have nobody show on a Thursday or Sunday, or you could have 15 people,” she said.
Added Stadter, “We do, believe it or not, get people just driving by on (State Highway) 33 who see our little sign and stop. It always does surprise me that we get out-of-towners, people just driving from the Valley over to the coast. For us just being stuck there on the road, we do get a good number of people who stop in.”
Deke Farrow: (209) 578-2327
If you go
- What: Gustine Museum
- Where: 397 Fourth St. (State Highway 33), Gustine
- Phone: (209) 854-2344
- Hours: Thursdays and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m.
- Admission: Free, but donations gladly accepted
- Info: Gustine Historical Society and museum website, www.gustinehistoricalsociety.org/Museum.html