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Return to the Days of the Pioneers at El Monte Museum

November 01, 1986|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

Early settlers called the town the end of the Santa Fe Trail. After long weeks of following a wagon trace from Independence, Mo., which had become the rendezvous point for travelers moving westward to California, the rich, river-fed valley, which now cradles the town of El Monte, seemed an ideal place to unhitch the teams and end the journey.

Sunday, as it does the first Sunday of each month, the El Monte Museum of History and Art at 3150 N. Taylor Ave. will display artifacts dating back to the pioneers who decided to found a community here in 1851.

This is no dimly lit storehouse of relics from the past. Indeed, the visitor will discover within its brightly illuminated halls one of the most innovative and fascinating museums in California. Here, by means of visual displays, the interiors of a community's homes and business establishments have been re-created to appear as they were in a bygone era.

A Vintage Piano

There is a barber shop, and one can envision a leading citizen dozing in its chair, his face shrouded in lather or hot towels as the proprietor strops his razor on a leather belt. Or one can peer into a parlor where a vintage piano awaits a player's nimble fingers on the keys.

Our make-believe family acquires newer inventions as the years pass: a wind-up Victrola with a built-in record cabinet widely used during the early 1920s, and there is one of the earliest radios marketed during the same period.

One pauses to examine the merchandise offered in a general store from the period of the 1850s to '80s. The local merchant stocked a variety of goods--everything from cookies to calico.

Further along the hall is a replica of a local grade school at the turn of the century. The pupils sit silent and attentive behind their desks--a teacher's joy, but don't call them dummies. They're manikins.

There's more--a dress shop with costumes from 1870 to 1900, rooms of a Victorian house re-created with authentic furniture, and a children's area that features books, dolls, skates, cars, an elaborate dollhouse and the toys that evoked shouts of surprise on Christmas morning from 50 years to a century ago.

Dedication of Woman

The museum, which is maintained by the city of El Monte, is a testimonial to the dedication of its director, Lillian Wiggins. The widow of Edwin N. Wiggins (who served in the El Monte police department for 33 years and became chief in 1933) began gathering artifacts for a museum 27 years ago--beginning with those inherited from her husband's family.

Edwin Wiggins' grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Wiggins, had been a member of that party of settlers who arrived in the San Gabriel Valley in 1851. They had covered the long trail from Lexington, Ky., and Lexington was the name they bestowed on their new town site.

The Mexicans had called it the Monte--meaning wooded spot, but the Americans would not re-adopt the old name until after the Civil War in 1866.

Improved transportation came to El Monte in 1858 with the inauguration of the first Butterfield stagecoach line across the continent from St. Louis, Mo., to California. Waterman L. Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald, was a passenger on the first stage. As it passed through El Monte en route to Los Angeles, he described it as "a beautiful little town which is ranged along the road for nearly five miles, and is composed of a series of neat-looking houses built of wood and considerable cultivated land."

Place for Walnuts

In later years this would be called "The Garden of Los Angeles County," where a variety of crops was grown. Most prominent were hundreds of acres of English walnuts.

During the Civil War, El Monte became a gathering place for Confederate sympathizers since many families from Southern states had settled here. Although California elected to support the Union during the four-year conflict, Los Angeles had become a hotbed for secessionists.

Henry Hamilton, the fiery editor of the Los Angeles Star, was particularly vitriolic in his editorial attacks upon the Lincoln administration. Federal troops arrested him and he was sent to San Pedro to be transported to the military prison on Alcatraz Island. Friends interceded and Hamilton was freed.

A barbecue was held in the editor's honor at El Monte where he received a tumultuous welcome. In lieu of a barbecue Sunday, members of the museum's staff will be serving tea and refreshments, and modeling hats and gowns that were in fashion at the turn of the century.

Hours Sunday are noon to 4 p.m. The museum's regular hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission is free. Exit at Santa Anita Avenue from the San Bernardino Freeway. South one block to Mildred Street. Turn left five blocks to Tyler Avenue. The museum is on the corner. For more information: (818) 444-3813.

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