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LA HABRA : Museum's Caboose Tracks Town's Past

June 02, 1993|MIMI KO

The small red caboose that sits behind the Children's Museum at La Habra is filled with stories of the town's history.

Memorabilia covering nearly 200 years, from the Indian period in the mid-1700s to the growth of railroads during the early 1900s, is displayed in the caboose, which was dedicated to William Guy Steele's memory in 1980.

Steele, a railroad engineer, was an early settler in La Habra and a leading advocate of railroads. He worked for Southern Pacific Railroad from 1920 until he lost his job during the Great Depression in 1932.

Steele then became a citrus farmer in the town where he built his home, living there until he died in 1977 at the age of 80.

Today, his daughter, Dorothy Knox, who lives in the same home, conducts tours of the caboose in the hope of keeping alive La Habra's history and to pay tribute to her father.

"It's very special to me," Knox, 55, said of the caboose. She began leading tours for Children's Museum patrons in 1987, taking over for her mother, Berenice Steele, who died that year after serving as the caboose docent for 10 years.

The caboose "ties together the family and the city," Knox said. "The town is important, and it's nice to have this tie. . . . I'm a firm believer in the value of history for the future, and kids need to see what went on before them to know where they came from and where they're going."

Tourists gaze at the artifacts lining the walls inside the caboose. They include a framed photograph of the first graduating class from Washington School in 1916, Steele's World War I military uniform, a coal-burning potbelly stove, a matat (Indian grinding stone), a bit from a missionary period horse's bridle and other historical La Habra memorabilia.

Children's Museum used to be a train station where the caboose would drop people off. It also served as a depot where food was shipped and mail was delivered.

"My ancestors date back to the settlement period," said Esther Cramer, 66, a lifelong La Habra resident. "The caboose serves as the city's only historical museum, and although it's small, it tells the story of La Habra very well."

Cramer said she remembers when trains would bring freight to La Habra from Los Angeles, serving as a lifeline for the community.

"It was important to the community," she said. "It's neat to maintain history and be a part of it."

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