Among many shared traditions of our Merced community during this holiday season is the annual Christmas Open House at the Courthouse Museum on Dec. 4. In addition to the exceptional Christmas tree exhibit, delicious courthouse eggnog, and angelic Christmas carols, there are the tales of historic downtown Merced one will learn about by touring our display in the Mercantile Room.
This room gives one a hint of what it was like in a general store. The large wheeled object in the corner is a coffee grinder from the Olcese and Garibaldi store. Next to it, a pair of doors are from the Central Hotel. The Bedesen and Banks sign is from a local butcher shop. The wooden case with a variety of dry goods dates from the Gold Rush days. It would fit in the back of a wagon and a merchant could load it up in San Francisco, take it up to the gold fields and open the door to his store.
Doing business in the early days was about community pride as 17th Street (Main Street) was occupied mostly by family-owned businesses. In the olden days, the business district was where people met and talked. Life was simpler and needs were limited. Banks, hotels, restaurants, stores, meat markets, saloons, blacksmith shops and livery stables were the main businesses that made downtown Merced prosperous.
Unfortunately, the simple pleasure of meeting and greeting while shopping has pretty much been replaced by the gratification of getting those discounted items on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.
This Saturday, let’s return to the old-time shopping by strolling down Main Street and patronizing our small businesses.
While shopping downtown, you will pass by many wonderful old buildings that are rich in history but not imposing in appearance. Playhouse Merced, for example, occupies the former site of Hartman’s Department Store. Solomon Hartman and his brother Maurice opened a dry goods store in Merced in 1888, which quickly became the largest dry goods store in Merced in that era. Located on Main Street next to the Olcese and Garibaldi Building, originally it was called Casa Blanca and later became known as Hartman’s Department Store.
The Murray-Vincent Co., dealers in hardware, farming implements and plumbing, once stood on the southeast corner of Main and K streets which is now the home of King’s Asian Cuisine. The company was organized in 1907 by A. H. Murray and M. M. Vincent. Murray, a Merced County native, had operated a plumbing shop since 1902 and Vincent had engaged in blacksmithing since 1895 before forming their partnership. As one of the leading hardware and implement companies in Merced, they ran their business at this location well into the 1930s.
One of the oldest buildings in downtown Merced houses Gottschalks Music Center just across the street from the former Murray-Vincent Hardware Building. Built as a blacksmith and carriage shop around 1886, this two-story building is one of the most well-preserved brick buildings in Merced. Proprietor Elgin Lewis contracted Merced builder Louis Wegner for his building and this proved to be a smart choice as the building has withstood fires, floods and earthquakes for the last 130 years. The upper floor was built to hold the wagons and functioned as the paint shop while the ground floor was the blacksmith shop. Lewis sold his business to A.H. Scofield in the 1890s.
In addition to being a commercial establishment, interestingly enough, the Lewis Building has always been a center of cultural activities. As indicated in the 1898 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, the second floor of the building was no longer a paint shop, but labeled as Merced Band Hall. In the early 20th century, it was first used as Barton Opera House and later as a dance hall. The Lewis Building became the home of a music store in the late 1950s when Record Rendezvous opened its doors.
More than a century later, who would have thought that a blacksmith shop is now a music center, a hardware store is now a restaurant and a dry goods store is now a community theater. The names and kinds of businesses have changed, but the heart of Main Street operation remains the same – locally owned.
Remember to go small and shop local. That includes shopping at the Courthouse Museum gift shop where many local history books and one-of-kind holiday gifts await you.
Please join us Sunday, Dec. 4, for our 32nd annual Christmas Open House at the Courthouse Museum. At 1 p.m., live entertainment will begin with Central Presbyterian Church Handbell Choir followed by Caitlin’s Suzuki Violin Studio, Women’s Holiday Chorus, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic School Christmas Choir and the Cruikshank Middle School Jazz Band. It will end with a Christmas Sing-Along led by Maxwell Norton. The event is free to the public. For more information, please contact the museum at 209-723-2401.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.