Sonoma’s Depot Park Museum takes visitors back in time

Trains haven’t rolled through Sonoma Valley with any consistency for decades, but visitors to Depot Park Museum just might think otherwise.

Located within a replica 100-year-old train depot, the museum’s Rand Room houses model trains, old railroad ties, lights, whistles, photographs, paintings, books, maps and other memorabilia from the bustling railroad era so significant to the valley’s history.

Visitors can sit at a train master’s desk and punch boarding tickets, or ring the heavy bronze bell that once sounded aboard a big steam locomotive.

Founded and operated by the Sonoma Valley Historical Society since 1978, the museum celebrates the rich history of the Valley of the Moon, with a particular emphasis on the 1800s and the heyday of the railroad era that extended into the early 1900s.

It also serves as a research center for local history, with a collection of more than 70,000 historical photographs and countless documents housed at the two-story museum and at two off-site locations.

“We’re the repository for local history. We preserve history,” said Stacey Stern, who succeeded the retiring Sandi Hansen last fall as the museum’s part-time manager.

Just four months into her job, Stern has the daunting task of organizing and streamlining the countless archival materials so they can be accessed through an online database.

The historical society recently received a three-year $135,000 challenge grant. The grant seeks annual matching funds of $15,000 from individual donors and $30,000 from public and private grants through the duration of the grant period. Monies will be used to expand archive services and efforts to share the history of Sonoma Valley.

Stern helps the public with research projects, which might include residents using local history books, genealogical publications and burial records; compiling family histories; or businesses and students searching for historical facts and photos.

She also helps writers and journalists track down information from among the oral and written histories, maps, newspapers, advertisements, original deeds, documents, city records, pamphlets and club minutes that chronicle Sonoma Valley life before and since the city’s incorporation in 1883. Many of the historical documents are signed by some of California’s founding fathers.

More than 6,000 visitors step back in time at the museum every year, from tourists traveling from across the globe to Sonoma Valley natives curious about their hometown history.

“People really like it and they come back,” said Patricia Cullinan, president of the historical society. “They’re usually just stunned.”

Among the artifacts and curiosities on display is a pair of grizzly bear feet taken when Civil War Major Gen. “Fighting” Joe Hooker killed the bear - estimated between 900 and 1,200 pounds - during a knife battle in the hills above Agua Caliente in 1852.

A pistol used during a gunfight between the pioneer Carriger brothers also is housed at the museum. Ironically, rural Carriger Road, named for Nicholas Carriger, is arguably among the most bucolic streets in the valley.

Beyond the popular Rand Room with its train memorabilia, the museum features several permanent displays that showcase Victorian life in the valley. Vignettes highlight a typical kitchen, dining room, parlor and bedroom, complete with antiques donated by local families.

Circa-1897 appliances like a water pump resting on a kitchen sink and a heavy flat iron atop a wood stove suggest day-to-day life wasn’t easy for the pioneer families.

The permanent displays also include those dedicated to the Bear Flag Revolt; the Chinese laborers who worked in the vineyards and as domestic workers; and the one-room schoolhouses where quill pens and inkwells were commonplace.

Stern and volunteer docents also conduct tours for the many school groups taking field trips to the museum. Just outside, children can climb aboard three authentic railroad cars at Depot Park.

The museum is especially appealing to train aficionados of all ages. Last month, the museum hosted its third annual Christmas Train Show, a popular two-weekend event presented by the Sonoma Short Line Modular Group.

Additionally, the historical society typically plans three temporary exhibits per year and coordinates various lecture series with topics relating to Sonoma Valley history.

Former board president Carol Page curated the current exhibit, “A Brush with the Past,” a collection of works by artists who lived or worked in Sonoma from the mid-1800s to the 1970s.

The exhibit includes paintings by prolific landscape artist and adventurer Tilden Daken, who lived in Sonoma from 1906 to 1911. His granddaughter, Bonnie Portnoy, recently presented a lecture about his life and art.

A huge stage curtain from the old Union Hotel on the Sonoma Plaza (now the Bank of America location) extends across the far wall of the museum, with a center medallion painted by Daken. The hotel “was like the community center of the time,” Stern said.

When the museum was built to replicate the original Northwestern Pacific train depot destroyed by fire in 1975, blueprints were extended slightly to accommodate the historic stage curtain.

It features local business advertisements that include the Toscano Hotel announcing “board and lodging $1 per day and upwards” and another from The Dew Drop Inn offering “liquid refreshments of quality.”

Stern and Cullinan say even lifelong Sonoma Valley residents visiting the museum can discover something previously untold about their hometown.

“They love seeing an aspect of Sonoma they don’t see other places,” Cullinan said. “We’re really kind of the caretakers of the history of Sonoma.”

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