Unveiled facts, history at museum

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Stella Hills School’s Rebecca Jones, Daniel Benitez and Alec Jauregut spent serious time sifting through sand for gold nuggets.

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Old River Elementary School fourth-graders Simon Longa and James Taasin tried their hands at building a split rail fence.

If the town had not been named after Col. Thomas Baker, Bakersfield residents might well have had to endure an uncomplimentary nickname instead. According to Kern County Museum docent Dale Hopwood, Spanish settlers once referred to the whole valley as Los Tules, words borrowed from native Americans then reworked to describe the marshy reeds that grew everywhere at the time. Approximately 400 fourth-graders who visited the museum on Oct. 13 for California History Day, learned that piece of local lore and a lot more about Kern County.

It seems being The Tules was a little bit good and a little bit bad. On the one hand everything was swampy, and according to Hopwood, good raw materials for building houses did not thrive in that environment. It was mostly reeds and cottonwood trees, and the trees were not sturdy enough for framing. So, the inventive settlers plastered the branches together with swampy mud for the walls and used reeds to make the roof.

Hopwood's tale of the tule was a good lead in to help the young students step back in time to see how the area's early settlers withstood the challenges. After Hopwood's brief history lesson on “wattle and daub” cabin building, he gave each some small wooden planks and let them try their hand at constructing a first layer foundation.

Museum Education Manager Jackie Brouillette said the museum came up with the idea for California History Day about four years ago.

“It was costing local schools lots of money to travel to the state's historic missions for a day in which they would only receive a brief history of California's early days,” Brouillette said. “The museum figured it could meet the curriculum demands of the students and give them a much more detailed and lengthy history of both our state and county. Before they leave the museum, they will have learned about gold panning, the Yokuts Indians, the role of railroads, how pioneers built their homes, made their meals and the clothes they wore.”

Learning was not just for the children. All of the docents dressed in period costumes, who provided history and insight into the various folk trades and crafts on display, were themselves taught by museum staff. Serving as docents were students in the Archive Academy at East Bakersfield High School and California State University, Bakersfield, English students fulfilling community service requirements for their class.

As some of the children approached the gold panning venue, docents were quizzing them so they would know the importance of that era in California's history.

“What did they call the people that came from all over the country to get here to pan for gold,” a docent asked. The reply came back, “Forty-niners because the gold rush started in 1849.”

After doing a little panning, Stella Hills fourth-grader Rebecca Jones said, “I think it was hard to find gold, and they probably had to have other jobs to earn money, while they were looking for gold. I feel bad for them because they were not getting rich panning for gold.”

Jones was one of the students in teacher Jill Weaver's class that had been studying American history and a unit called “Hurry Freedom,” detailing the struggle of African-Americans who came to California to pan for gold and earn their freedom. One of the other crafts on display was adobe brick molding. Children had a chance to grab some twigs, grass and mud and turn the materials into an adobe brick in a mold provided by the museum.

“We had a picture of an adobe brick in our classroom studies to show how cabins were made, and adobe became a vocabulary word, too,” Weaver said. Without too much hesitation, student Rita Romero spoke up, correctly spelling adobe, “A-d-o-b-e,” she said.

California History Day will return to the museum again next semester on Feb. 25.


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