THE DOORS OF THE NEW BRICK BUILDING in Stockton’s Victory Park opened at 2:00 PM on June 14, 1931 and the crowd that had gathered outside was admitted. When those same doors finally were closed and locked at 9:00 that evening, nearly 4,000 visitors had taken part in the grand opening of the Louis Terah Haggin Memorial Galleries – San Joaquin Pioneer Historical Museum—known today simply as the Haggin Museum. With core collections centered upon the visual arts and local history, the Haggin has served our region as both an educational and cultural resource for nearly 90 years. This is the first of three articles that chronicle the events, individuals and organizations that contributed to the founding of this institution.
The earliest significant efforts to preserve the history of our region can be traced back to the San Joaquin Society of California Pioneers, organized in 1868. The Society’s 101 charter members pledged themselves “…to collect and preserve information and facts connected with the early settlement of California, especially of the Valley of the San Joaquin…” and “…to form libraries and cabinets…” where such material could be preserved for future generations. Their collections were initially housed in a portion of a building located on the southeast corner of Weber Avenue and El Dorado Street. Then, in 1891, as the Society’s fortunes and number of members had increased, they transferred their collections to a two story brick building they had built on the northwest corner of Weber Avenue and Sutter Street known as the Hall of the Pioneers.
As the years passed, the ranks of the Society were culled and the remaining members sold their building in 1912. A debate then ensued over how best to use the $16,820 from the sale of their Hall. One group favored commissioning a statue commemorating local pioneers while another argued for the building of a museum where their collections could be safely held in perpetuity. Unable to reach a decision, the group’s collections were shuttled from one storage location to another and their funds sat in a local bank gaining interest for the next 19 years.
Another proponent for the creation of a local museum was Henrietta Reynolds. Daughter of a prominent southern San Joaquin County pioneer family, she had been collecting artifacts associated with local history for years. In 1909 she was asked to assemble a display of her collection in a room of the yet to be completed Hotel Stockton as part of a five day City-wide celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Gold Rush. In 1923 she joined other concerned individuals and organizations, including the aging volunteer firefighters of the Exempt Fire Company, to urge the City to include space for a museum in the Civic Auditorium, plans for which were then being developed. Despite being assured by City officials that such a provision would be made, the Civic Auditorium opened in December of 1926 without any space dedicated to a museum. While the support for a local museum had not been extinguished, it had certainly lost some of its momentum.
That all changed following a farmland blaze east of Stockton on July 13, 1927. In addition to destroying 300 acres of wheat and barley, the fire also claimed the freight wagon used by San Joaquin County pioneer John Carsten Grupe to carry supplies from Stockton to the Southern Mines during the Gold Rush. The wagon was a well-known parade favorite in Stockton and its loss proved to be the catalyst that transformed years of wishful thinking into community action.
Over the following days the City’s two daily newspapers, the Stockton Daily Independent and the Stockton Evening Record, ran editorials calling for the building of a museum to safely house and display tangible links with our region’s past. On July 27th, the Stockton Lions Club adopted a resolution calling for the organization of an historical association to be formed for the purpose of “…perpetuating the memories of pioneers of this region…and preserving relics and mementos handed down by those pioneers.” George E. Catts, a former City Mayor and son of a charter member of the old San Joaquin Society of California Pioneers, was chosen to lead the Club’s efforts to form such an organization.
A series of organizational meetings with representatives from a host of the County’s various civic groups were held over the next several months resulting in the formation that autumn of the San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society. Chartered as a non-profit California corporation, the Society’s articles of incorporation set forth the organization’s purposes, which included the establishment and maintenance of a museum for “…documents and articles of historical interest.”
The Society’s Board of Directors held their first meeting on February 21, 1928. The group consisted of 16 women and 15 men and included representatives from Linden, Lockeford, Lodi, Manteca, Ripon, Stockton and Tracy. The following slate of officers was adopted: President – George Catts; Vice- Presidents – Agnes S. Finkbohner, Mamie G. Peyton; Anna A. Israel; Emily M. Dodge, Harry T. Fee, John N. Tone, and W.H. Lorenz; Secretary – Leroy A. Mills; and Treasurer – E.L. Wilhoit. President Catts stressed what he believed should be the Society’s number one priority—the building of a museum as quickly as possible. To that end the Society’s efforts over the next year focused upon acquiring an appropriate location for the museum and raising the necessary funds for its construction.
Various possible sites for the museum were discussed at the group’s May meeting, including Stockton’s Civic Center, Fremont Park, Oak Park and Victory Park. Later that month the Society published a request in the local newspapers for the public’s suggestions regarding the location for the future museum. A form was included that read’ “I believe the San Joaquin County Historical Museum should be built at ___________________.” Unfortunately, the few forms that were filled out and returned came from individuals with properties they hoped to sell.
A membership drive was launched in the spring. Membership categories consisted of three lifetime levels with one-time payments ranging from $2,000 to $250 and four annual levels with dues ranging from $25 to $1 a year. To put this in perspective, adjusted for inflation a dollar in 1928 is the equivalent of about $15 today. By October the drive had brought in only 67 members and had generated less than $400. In November the women members of the Society’s Board held their own fundraising event—a gala card party at the Civic Auditorium. Several hundred women played bridge and whist, viewed historical displays organized by Henrietta Reynolds, listened to a program presented by a trio of musicians from the College of the Pacific and contributed another $250 toward the Society’s building fund.
At the Society’s first Annual Meeting of Members on February 19, 1929, Secretary Mills reported that there were currently 71 members in good standing and cash on hand totaled $694.98. At this rate, it was apparent that the path toward the realization of a local museum was going to be a long and arduous trek. But then, just two months later, the Society received a letter and offer from a couple living in New York City that were to prove transformational.
Part II: Families, Fortunes & Philanthropy
A Stockton native, Tod Ruhstaller has been with the Haggin Museum for nearly 36 years, first as its Curator of History and currently as its CEO. Previously he was a field archaeologist for Far Western Anthropological Research Group. He considers coming to work at the Haggin to be the second best decision he’s ever made; marrying his wife Sandi will always be Number 1.