Crockett History: Sugar, Sturgeon, Switchboard
Giant wasp nests! Secret societies! Monster fish! California's last telephone switchboard!
A town museum has done its job well when it makes you want to move there just so you don't miss out on their next great thing.
Housed in the old Crockett train station in front of a large sugar plant, the Crockett Historical Museum brims over with neighborhood minutiae, attic heirlooms, and true oddities. (And it's a block away from a robot art museum also open on Saturdays).
Volunteer Nancy Cimarron Rieser greeted us and provided an energetic account of the collection, a pleasing mix of clutter and focus, design and happenstance. Townspeople donate random things to the historical society -- that's usually good, because it means a museum stuffed with a great variety of objects. It can also be bad, because families may return at any moment to check where great granddad's ear trumpet went. That's why you might see four antique push vacuum cleaners, but in different places. Nancy said that trouble starts if you move things around too much.
The town was named in 1883 after a California supreme court judge who'd owned the land, and persuaded his pal, Missouri steamboat captain Tom Edwards, to homestead there. Edwards later bought the land and established the California and Hawaiian (C&H) Sugar company, transforming Crockett. Sugar exhibits show the refinery, product packaging, and photos of old Sugar Festival Parades.
The town's first piano, owned by the Edwards family, is in front of the Largest Sturgeon Ever Caught in San Pablo Bay. Joey Pallota reeled in the 468 lb. monster fish in 1983, and it's been mounted behind glass ever since. The world record is elsewhere, but this fish is huge. Our guide pulled out a fishing rod that seemed totally inadequate to accomplish such a feat.
Beneath the sturgeon display, the town has also preserved the "Largest Wasp Nest Ever Found in a Home." Mrs. Dorothy Selby discovered it in her attic in 1996, had it removed and donated as yet another Crockett superlative. "It made the Guinness Book of World Records at one point," said Nancy.
The magic granules of Hollywood were sprinkled on Crockett in the form of Aldo Ray, a 1950s actor who played tough guys. Born Aldo Da Re, he lived in Crockett after serving as a WWII Navy frogman and briefly attending Berkeley. Before becoming a star, he worked as a constable in Crockett. His glamor photo is in a display along with handcuffs, a blackjack, and a pistol.
"He would come back to town for his movie premieres and other events," said Nancy.
During one visit Aldo was photographed shaking hands with the Crockett Crocodile, the swim team's mascot. That's on a wall. Later, we spotted the crocodile mascot's head up on a shelf, next to a deep sea diver's helmet.
One room in the museum is devoted entirely to John Swett High School graduates -- several decades of portrait photos glued to boards. We learned that the school is the same one that members of the group Green Day attended, and that Duke Ellington once performed in town accompanied by the high school choir.
A donated taxidermy collection hangs in one area, including a deteriorating mount of an unidentified mammal, its ears missing, with a handwritten sign: "What is my name?"
California's last operational mechanical switchboard for telephone calls was unplugged in 1968. But according to a news clipping on top of it, the Crockett switchboard was abuzz on the night of March 9, 1967, when six residents reported seeing UFOs (two of the witnesses were switchboard operators). In bar-rich Crockett, The Independent newspaper headline clarified: "UFOs Buzz Crockett Six Say Soberly"
The most impressive creation in the town museum may also be the least relevant. It's a fantastically detailed, 8 1/2 ft. long model of the National Cathedral in Washington DC, created by John Magielda, an uncle of a Crockett resident. He built it while he was a tuberculosis patient in a sanatorium. With 145 tiny stained glass windows, and 19 months of sick person labor, it was intended as a tribute to Woodrow Wilson (If you look around the back under the archways, you can see Wilson's face in an alcove).
When the 2014 Napa earthquake rippled under the museum, many items were toppled from shelves. Nancy directed us to the "Crockett Bar Exhibit" to show how fickle seismic events can be -- the collection's treasured Ray's Corner Club ashtray got smashed. She noted that every antique liquor bottle was knocked to the floor -- with the exception of a single bottle of non-alcoholic vermouth, which stayed upright. "What do you think that means?" she asked.
The Fraternal Order Alcove at the museum might be easily overlooked -- it's a work in progress -- but there are fascinating items collecting dust among the bowling trophies. A photo of the 1906" Improved Order of Redman of Crockett" shows a bunch of white guys dressed as Indians. Another old photo reveals a procession of horse-drawn wagons in the hills that includes a uniformed musical band and the "Weasel Club."
A charcoal portrait of Oliver North hangs above the alcove door. As far as anyone knows, he's never been to Crockett.