Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Preserving History is Important and Fun

Merced County Library in the Courthouse Park, circa 1920s. The old High School building at 2125 M Street became the 3rd home of the library in 1921. In 1976, the County Library moved to its current location on 2100 O Street and the old library building became vacant. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
Merced County Library in the Courthouse Park, circa 1920s. The old High School building at 2125 M Street became the 3rd home of the library in 1921. In 1976, the County Library moved to its current location on 2100 O Street and the old library building became vacant. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

The Merced County Historical Society will hold its annual membership meeting on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Merced County Board of Supervisors’ Chamber. In addition to the annual report and award ceremony, the meeting presents a wonderful opportunity for our members as well as the general public to meet, network, and learn.

One of the learning opportunities is the PowerPoint presentation by our keynote speaker, Emily Lin. Emily is a founding librarian at UC Merced and now heads the library’s Digital Curation and Scholarship division. Her talk is about a state initiative to help libraries, museums, and archives get their collections digitized and uploaded to the Calisphere and Digital Public Library of America. It is a great tool for researchers, scholars, and you, the general public, to access online collections from wherever you are.

Another learning opportunity is to add our newest publications to your local history library. Yes, several new books will be available for sale at the meeting. 2018 has been a prolific year for the Merced County Historical Society in terms of historical publications. After releasing the 2-volume set “Grazie America! From Italy to Merced County” in July, we added three more in December. The three new books are about the history of the Merced County Library, Merced City Fire Department, and Merced County commemorative medals.

Back in Spring 2010, the Courthouse Museum in collaboration with the Merced County Library developed an exhibit to celebrate the centennial of the county free library system; as a result, an exhibition catalog titled “Many A Page Has Been Turned: 100 Years of Merced County Free Library” was created, but not released until recently.

Although the current library system was started on June 6, 1910, by a joint effort of the County and City of Merced, the earliest attempt has been credited to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union which established a free reading room in Merced in 1881. Then in 1901, a subscription library known as Merced Ladies Library Club was founded by local druggist Nelson Cody and his wife, Anna. The saga of George H. Fancher’s estate distribution in 1905 delayed the creation of a free public library for a period of five years.

This book chronicles not only the difficulties in the founding of the Free Library of Merced, but also the challenging task of finding a permanent home. Also being profiled in the book are the county librarians from Antoinette Humphreys to Jacque Meriam, the branch libraries from Snelling to Gustine, and several groups of Friends of the Library throughout the county.

Working with the Merced City Fire Department was another fun and rewarding experience. In the summer of 2010, our collaboration resulted in the opening of the “Merced City Fire Department History: Old Betsy’s Legacy” exhibit at the Courthouse Museum.

The history of the fire department may be the oldest and the most well documented departmental history in Merced City. When the new town of Merced was established, organizing a volunteer fire company became the top priority of Mercedians. After the initial meetings, the Merced Engine Company No. 1 was formed on November 3, 1873 with Charles Evans as president. The volunteer firefighters responded to their first fire on Christmas Eve that year when an outbuilding in the rear of El Capitan Hotel caught fire. The fire was extinguished by Evans’ Babcock fire extinguisher.

It was not until April of the following year that the fire company purchased its first fire engine from the City of Stockton. This fire engine was named “Old Betsy” by Merced Express publisher, J. A. Norvall, and became the symbol of the Merced City Fire Department decades later. Over the years, more fire engines were added, and the fire company was renamed a couple more times before it became the Merced City Fire Department with paid staff in 1949. Now, “Old Betsy” is part of the permanent exhibit at the Courthouse Museum.

Both “Old Betsy” and the Library Building (old High School Building) on M Street made it into John Hofmann’s book titled “Merced County Anniversary and Commemorative Medals and Related Exonumia.” John is a serious coin and token collector who is active in the Gateway Coin Club. He tells us it was fellow collector and good friend, Terry Woodward of Turlock, who inspired him to write this book.

With the images in color, John has carefully researched and compiled the history of 30 tokens and medals from five communities in Merced County. Atwater’s wooden nickel issued in 1972 commemorates the city as a railroad town established in 1872; Livingston’s wooden nickel issued in 1971 also honors the town’s centennial. Los Banos’ incorporation centennial medal features the official city logo while Merced County’s sesquicentennial medal shows both the Snelling and Merced courthouses.

John then takes the readers into the collection of Gateway Coin Club medals. From 1989 to 2014, the club had an annual program to select the best design as the medal of the year. While the first issued medal pays tribute to Merced’s reputation as the “Gateway to Yosemite” featuring the northern arch on 16th Street, the last selection, but never issued, medal design tells the story of the original El Capitan Hotel which first established Merced as the gateway to Yosemite.

John Hofmann will be available to autograph his book at our annual meeting this Sunday. At the meeting, we will also celebrate the achievements of these organizations and individuals: Gustine Historical Society, Merced Center for the Performing Arts, “Grazie America” Exhibit Committee, Liam Knight, and Donna Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at