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Stories from the valley

Exploring Placerville’s Excellent Museums: Hidden Historic Gems

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

As home to Coloma, where James Marshall discovered the shiny nuggets that sparked the Gold Rush, El Dorado County played an important role in making California what it is today. Two museums located in Placerville bring the area’s fascinating history to life.

The El Dorado County Historical Museum, located next to the El Dorado County Fairgrounds at 104 Placerville Drive just off Highway 50, is home to several collections that showcase the county’s rich history. The opening exhibit features the Nisenen or Southern Maidu, Washoe, and Sierra Miwok tribes that first inhabited the land. The next showcases the Gold Rush days.

One of the most famous items on display is an authentic wheelbarrow built by John Studebaker at a small shop in Placerville. Like his brothers, John was a wagon maker by trade. The museum features one of their wagons as well. After his time in California building wheelbarrows for miners, “Wheelbarrow Johnny” returned home and, with his brothers, went on to found the Studebaker automobile company.

Although mining brought many to California, those who settled here transitioned to other professions when the gold played out, becoming loggers, cattle and sheep ranchers, dairymen, fruit growers and vintners, and more. Several exhibits tell more of the story.

A special exhibit, Women of Influence, highlights the contributions made by women of El Dorado County who were ahead of their time. Among those featured are teachers, resort owners, newspaper women, a medical doctor, and a U.S. Air Force nurse, one of only fifteen nurses to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross during WWII.

After touring the county museum, visitors can travel two and half mile east on Highway 50 to downtown Placerville, where the Fountain & Tallman Museum is located at 524 Main Street. Housed in one of Placerville’s oldest buildings, this smaller museum, operated by the El Dorado County Historical Society, focuses on Placerville’s history.

One exhibit pays tribute to the fruit growers who got their start during the town’s early days. Another display features skis worn by legendary mail carrier John “Snowshoe” Thompson, who trekked the snow-covered Sierras during the winters of 1856-1876.

Admission to the El Dorado County Museum is free, although a $2.00 donation is appreciated. For more information and hours, click this link. A visit to the Fountain & Tallman Museum is also free, but it, too, gratefully accepts donations.

While in Placerville, consider dining at one of the many high-quality restaurants located downtown that offer a wide variety of tasty fare. Some of my favorites are Bricks, featuring a great selection of contemporary “fun, comfort foods” in a pub-like setting, Cascada, boasting Mexican favorites and California cuisine, and Totem Coffee, which offers healthful choices in keeping with the season.