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Stories from the valley

The Sacramento History Museum: A Hidden Historic Gem

Contributed by Keli Gwyn

Having visited Old Sacramento many times during the nearly thirty years we’ve lived in the area, I was surprised to learn about a hidden historic gem tucked away in a corner of that popular destination. The Sacramento History Museum, located just 300 hundred feet west of the California Railroad Museum at 101 I Street, is a reproduction of the City Hall and Waterworks building that occupied the site until it was demolished in 1913 due to damage caused by the vibrations of the nearby trains.

The museum hosts many elementary school children on field trips as well as out-of-town visitors, but I was told relatively few locals have yet to discover this wonderful place. I’m glad I did, thanks to my husband who’s training to be a docent. While Carl attended a class, I set off on my solo exploration.

printing press exhibit at the Sacramento History Museum

As a retired novelist, I was drawn to the print shop near the entrance and gift shop, where I got to meet a docent who’s become a TikTok sensation. “Flat Howard,” as he’s known by his over two million followers, shares short videos about printing history. However, I got Howard all to myself. A wealth of knowledge, he taught me things I never knew, such as how upper and lowercase letters came to be called by those names due to placement of the letters in the typesetters’ uppercase and lowercase trays.

After tearing myself away from the print shop, I moved on to the informative agricultural display. The historic farm equipment, a reproduction of a 1928 kitchen, and a display showcasing the state’s agricultural history from “Acorn to Avocado” are impressive. What captured my attention, as a blogger for the California Rice Commission, were the many bags of rice, one of the Sacramento Valley’s important crops.

maps exhibit at the Sacramento History Museum

More interesting displays awaited me on the museum’s top floor. First to greet me were the historic maps offering evidence of an ever-expanding knowledge of the area. One of the early maps, circa 1650, shows California as an island!

From there, I perused the California in Print exhibit, which features a sampling of the expansive Eleanor McClatchy collection. Like her grandfather before her who served as editor of the Sacramento Bee from 1857 until 1883, Eleanor held the position from 1936 to 1978. Her extensive book collection includes many first editions, dime novels, and more, including a Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed. I stood in awe before the case containing a page of that groundbreaking piece of literary history.

historical objects exhibit at the Sacramento History Museum

I spent the rest of my time touring the other displays that highlight gold rush history and more. There’s so much to see including a governor’s elegant carriage, a unique time capsule in the form of a young girl’s trunk, and a favorite of the schoolchildren who visit—a huge grasshopper from the Panama Canal. I’d love to tell you more, but what would be even better is to visit this magnificent museum yourself. It’s well worth the cost of admission.