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Mining History

Autry museum will reenact historical scenes in celebration of Gold Rush era.


Here's something different for today's mall-bred kids: a trip in time to the rough-and-tumble Gold Rush era--not courtesy of videotape or a classroom lecture but with the help of historical characterizations.

The Autry Museum of Western Heritage will open its doors for free Saturday, which it does only once a year. This time the museum celebrates the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in California in 1848.

In addition to construction of a "Gold Rush Tent City," complete with period costumes, the museum will put on a day of musical and dramatic events evoking the era.

If parents can lure their kids away from the exhibit area where visitors can pan for gold, they should take them to the Chautauqua performances in the Wells Fargo Theatre at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.

At these Gold Rush-themed Chautauqua shows, supported by the California Council for the Humanities, children will interact with people representing historical characters. And they can ask them any question. Even personal questions.

"What do you eat?" is one of the questions that kids have frequently asked Charlie Chin, a San Mateo-based actor who has studied the life of pioneer Dr. Yee Fung Cheung and will portray him at 11:30 a.m.

Yee, kids will learn, came to the gold fields from China in 1850 and founded a family of California physicians and dentists still practicing in the Sacramento area.

A pioneer in every sense of the word, Yee arrived with the earliest settlers and practiced herbal medicine. He saved the life of Gov. Leland Stanford's wife by treating her heart condition with an herb, which we now know contained ephedrine.

"When people got sick, why didn't they just go to the hospital?" some kids have asked during the performance. Chin, who has served as education director for the Museum of the Chinese of the Americas, tells them, "During the Gold Rush, Dr. Yee was the hospital."

Later Saturday afternoon, kids can experience the story of Biddy Mason, born a slave in Georgia in 1818 and in 1851 brought to California, where she filed suit against her owner who refused to recognize her status as a free woman.

An experienced midwife and nurse when she gained her freedom, Mason took a job with the leading physician in Los Angeles, saved enough money by 1866 to purchase land (adjacent to what is now Times Mirror Square), and began a successful career in business and philanthropy.

She is recognized as the "Founding Mother" of this city's oldest A.M.E. church and the organizer of the city's first elementary school for African American children.

Mason is portrayed by Sandra Kamusikri, whose other role in life is chairwoman of the English Department at Cal State San Bernardino. "Kids very much believe I am the person I'm playing. They even ask if I come to the theater in a carriage," Kamusikri said, "and someone always asks if I can take them with me back in time to where I live."


"Strike It Rich!" reenactments of California Gold Rush-era events, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles (I-5 at California 134). Parking and admission to museum and live events are free, but admission to the special "Gold Fever" exhibition gallery is $3. (323) 667-2000, Ext. 317.

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