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Hand position hijinks in the Military Room.
Hand position hijinks in the Military Room.

Prehistoric Snail, Earthquake, Town History

Field review by the editors.

Coalinga, California

In the hills edging the western Central Valley, the town of Coalinga evolved from a late 19th century coaling station that became part of the region's oil boom. The R. C. Baker Memorial Museum tells that story and others.

This excellent specimen of a local museum spreads through interconnected rooms in several buildings, and has been informing the citizenry about its history and heritage since 1961. R.C. Baker, who invented an important drill bit in his oil tool machine shop, donated many items in the collection. The museum mixes in ample peculiar items to keep it interesting.

Prehistoric snail.
Prehistoric snail.

For example, our first visit mission is to gaze upon the big Prehistoric Snail and the Earthquake Debris we'd jotted in some old notes. Turns out there's no debris exhibited per se, but there's a fat scrapbook of news clips and photos chronicling the 6.5 earthquake that knocked down part of the town in 1983. The primordial snail, a gray swirly blob, is in a cabinet of rocks and fossils.

Beyond the snail and earthquake, the museum offers an organized hodgepodge of glass display cases and full-size dioramas depicting daily life in Coalinga. Some arrangements convey a particular event or time period. Others are more hit-or-miss, like random donations from the attics of deceased relatives, though there's obvious local allure to seeing the eyeglasses and pen knife of someone's grandparents.

Around the pioneer dinner table.
Around the pioneer dinner table.

We find ourselves scanning antique dolls for creepy faces, or shelves of high school sports memorabilia for ludicrous protective gear once worn by the "Horned Toads." A horse saddle and branding iron exhibit yields a naughty cowboy boot remover. Old business matchbooks, menus, and dinnerware hint at past roadside glory.

Care has been given to staging a series of miniature room scenes created and donated by a local woman, Evelyn Mingus Mead (1910-2003). Her Queen Anne English sitting room, circa 1710-1720, is probably perfect down to the tiniest detail, including microscopic replicas of Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens.

The museum has wisely deployed store mannequins in period clothing to help bring history to life. In the Military Room, among the wartime artifacts, a pair of servicemen dummies have been posed with oddly splayed left hands. Around the corner, past a large metal plaque extolling the virtues of "Americanism," a dummy in a Santa outfit and beard stares out the window. A female glamor mannequin in a gallery of vehicles stands next to a vintage grocery delivery truck. The truck contents are fun to examine -- packaging for Old Dutch Cleanser and Lipton's Tea Bags, but also a bottle of Squirt, dozens of cans of soup and vegetables, and a jar of Miracle Whip. Perhaps it's the museum's doomsday prepper cache....

Americanism and Santa Claus.

You can glean interesting arcana about Coalinga from almost any display. Who was the Grand Marshall in the 1937 Horned Toad Derby? How often did the buildings on "Whiskey Row" burn down? Where was the "Nation's First Municipal Water Demineralizer"?

In Coalinga, of course -- the water was too terrible to drink and had to be trucked in until someone perfected reverse osmosis purification. A large metal plaque, apparently retired from public life, salutes that first demineralizer.

On one end of the museum property stands its restored 1934 Richfield Gas Station. And don't miss the 80. ft. long mural along one outer wall of the museum, painted in 2006 for the town's 100th birthday.

Prehistoric Snail, Earthquake, Town History

R.C. Baker Memorial Museum

297 W. Elm Ave., Coalinga, CA
R.C. Baker Memorial Museum. South side of town, on Hwy 198/Elm Ave., at the northeast corner of 7th St.
Sa 11 am - 5, pm Su 1-5 pm, Tu 3-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Restored 1934 Richfield Gas StationRestored 1934 Richfield Gas Station, Coalinga, CA - < 1 mi.
Horned Toad Pump JackHorned Toad Pump Jack, Coalinga, CA - < 1 mi.
Iron Zoo - Oil Pump ArtIron Zoo - Oil Pump Art, Coalinga, CA - 7 mi.
In the region:
Death Site of Mexican Robin Hood, Coalinga, CA - 8 mi.

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