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Depot Park Museum open for exploring Sonoma’s past

Annual Holiday Model Train Exhibit

The Depot Park Museum is currently hosting the annual Holiday Model Train Exhibit, a scale model railroad display stretching down the center of the exhibition hall. It was created by Sonoma Short Line Railroad Club, in conjunction with the Sonoma Valley Historical Society.

The exhibit is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday both this weekend and next, Dec. 8-10 and Dec. 15-16, from noon to 4 p.m.

After the Holiday Train Exhibit, the Depot Park Museum will be open on Saturday and Sunday only until spring. It’s located in Depot Park, 270 1st St. W., telephone 938-1762. Admission is free, donations gladly accepted.

Membership in the Sonoma Valley Historical Society begins at $15 for docents and students, up to benefactor level. For more information, visit depotparkmuseum.org.

After being closed for 10 months, the Depot Park Museum has once again opened its doors to visitors – local and otherwise – who are interested in learning more about the history of Sonoma.

There’s a lot to learn, even for locals, in the newly-remodeled space, which has dropped some exhibits, created others, but still tells “the history of Sonoma from early Native Americans through the Bear Flaggers,” according to Patricia Cullinan, of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society.

Cullinan’s been the director of the 80-year-old Sonoma Valley Historical Society since 2015, though she’s a landscape designer and general engineering contractor by trade. While she said, “I don’t do much project management anymore,” she’s perhaps being modest: engineering the Depot Museum though its first significant remodel in 30 years clearly takes skills, not only in organization but people management.

The museum’s official reopening was last month, on Nov. 5, but Cullinan describes that as a “soft launch,” with her eye on another opening event after the first of the year. The November event included illustrator Barbara White Perry’s new book launch and a talk with Kathleen Hill on her times with MFK Fisher at the renowned food writer’s Glen Ellen home. Though the soft launch was well-attended, the presentations may have overshadowed the improvements made to the 38-year-old museum.

As its architecture makes obvious, the Depot Park Museum was originally a train depot – a pair of tracks and immobile train cars sit on its north side, living evidence of the location’s railroad history. (There’s also the Depot Hotel across First Street West, among other structures that led the historical society in 2016 to apply to the National Park Service to list the site as a potential historic district.)

For the next two weeks, that railroad heritage will be brought to life with the annual Holiday Model Train Exhibit, put together by Sonoma Short Line, a group of model railroaders who have constructed a 35-foot train line right through the middle of the museum, on its newly rebuilt floor.

The Depot was damaged by fire in 1975, which led the Historical Society to lobby for funds from the City of Sonoma and the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission to rebuild it for use as a museum. The rebuilt depot – wider by a foot, to accommodate a large decorated stage curtain from the National Hotel that once stood on the Plaza and now spans the entire west wall of the museum’s interior.

Visitors to today’s Depot Park Museum will find that several features have disappeared: a large exhibit of Victorian-era bedroom and parlor, with life-size manikins, didn’t seem to say much about Sonoma, said Cullinan. Gone too are the tattered – some might say decomposing – grizzly bear boots apocryphally said to have been worn by legendary Sonoma resident Gen. Joseph Hooker at a White House reception.

And while the “Bear Flaggers” still get their due, the revitalized exhibits focus more on the other people and influences on the Sonoma Valley’s past, from the Native American people who lived here, through the early missionaries and their Mexican agricultural influences to Gen. Vallejo’s era.

These include a man now known only as Viviano who in the first half of 19th century planted vineyards in the approximate area used by Agustin Haraszthy half a century later. He is one of many lesser-known early Sonomans whose stories are told for the first time at the museum with descriptive signage and exhibits, where possible.

Annual Holiday Model Train Exhibit

The Depot Park Museum is currently hosting the annual Holiday Model Train Exhibit, a scale model railroad display stretching down the center of the exhibition hall. It was created by Sonoma Short Line Railroad Club, in conjunction with the Sonoma Valley Historical Society.

The exhibit is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday both this weekend and next, Dec. 8-10 and Dec. 15-16, from noon to 4 p.m.

After the Holiday Train Exhibit, the Depot Park Museum will be open on Saturday and Sunday only until spring. It’s located in Depot Park, 270 1st St. W., telephone 938-1762. Admission is free, donations gladly accepted.

Membership in the Sonoma Valley Historical Society begins at $15 for docents and students, up to benefactor level. For more information, visit depotparkmuseum.org.

However, it was undoubtedly Mariano Vallejo who had much to do with reshaping the Valley, not only by shaping a Mexican bulwark against Russian influences but also because of the tens of thousands of cattle he grazed in the Valley, which had an environmental impact that’s hard to understate.

“We were the northern frontier,” said Cullinan of the position of Sonoma Valley in the state’s history, “and that has social, ecological and cultural implications.”

A larger-than-life size bust of Vallejo still occupies an honored pedestal, flawed by the broken nose-tip suffered during the 2014 Napa Earthquake. Repairing it is one of the many if-we-only-had-the-money upgrades and improvements Cullinan and the Historic Society would love to make.

But the Bear Flag Social Club has nothing to fear in the renovation of the museum’s exhibits.

There’s plenty on the Bear Flaggers, including a 7-foot-high chronicle of the events of June and July 1846, and personal memorabilia from many of the original revolting Sonomans, such as Patrick McChristian’s service medals and Robert Semple’s dentistry kit.

In fact it was Semple that attracted local dentist Peter Meyerhof to early Sonoma history, and the Sonoma Valley Historical Society.

“I read many years ago that there was a dentist, Robert Semple, who participated in the Bear Flag Revolt,” said Meyerhof. “As I pursued research into this individual, it became apparent that his contributions to California history far outweighed his contributions to dentistry, and this became an ongoing investigation into all the aspects of his interesting life.”

Meyerhof worked closely with Cullinan in developing the museum’s new exhibits and writing the informative descriptions. “We brought out artifacts from the museum archives with relevant signage in order to allow visitors to really understand what they are looking at.”

The role of Chinese residents, shopkeepers and workers is also noted in the exhibit that greets visitors upon entrance. And to the right, the old train depot ticket office has its own historic displays, including the novel Swiss Cylinder Music Box, dating from 1860, which still functions to spin its melodic enchantment.

“There is certainly much more to tell in this story of Sonoma, but it is an important start,” said Meyerhof, “and we are dedicated to revealing a continuously more comprehensive history as Sonoma deserves.”

Yet raising the funds to tell these stories – from memberships, donations and volunteers – remains an ongoing priority. “People don’t see the service we provide to the community – we’re not feeding hungry kids, but we are educating,” said Cullinan.

And keeping history alive for Sonoma’s visitors, and locals.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.