Whittier Rocks!!!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Whittier Historical Society and Museum

In the Spotlight this week: Whittier Historical Society and Museum
Mission: "Dedicated to collecting, preserving, and displaying the first 100 years of Whittier history and beyond."
- Non-profit, 501(C)(3) tax exempt

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with Myra Hilliard, Executive Director of the Whittier Museum, who was so very kind to give me a tour of the entire building with all its great exhibits.

The second you set foot into the museum, it feels like you are in a time warp, transported to another era, another place in time … I was truly amazed by what I saw and the wealth of knowledge I was able to experience. Oftentimes, we mistake the place where we live for just a geographical location … but Whittier is so much more – a compilation of life experiences and success stories of incredible people who made this city what it is today.

One of the first display cases is dedicated to Harriet Russell Strong, also known as the “Walnut Queen” or the “Pampas Woman”. Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1844, Harriet moved to the San Gabriel Valley after marrying Charles Lyman Strong, a wealthy man who had made his fortune in banking and publishing as well as in mining. After purchasing 325 acres from Pio Pico and establishing the “Rancho del Fuerte” estate, Charles attempted to go back into mining, but failed terribly, taking his own life in 1883. Left with four daughters, an incredible amount of debt, and on the verge of losing her ranch, Harriet single-handedly established a flourishing walnut grove, with the basis of its success being the irrigation system invented by Harriet herself. Besides the irrigation patent, Harriet went on to invent four other devices, with her success culminating in her presentation of her design to dam the Colorado River before Congress in 1917. Besides her technical accomplishments, Harriet was also a strong advocate for women’s rights and was instrumental in saving the Pio Pico Mansion.

As you enter the large room on the first floor, the historic street scene that will greet you is amazingly realistic, put together with so much love for detail, depicting homes and businesses around the turn of the century (the 1800s to the 1900s, that is …). Going farther towards the back of the building, you will get to see a display of the agricultural products Whittier had to offer in its early days, as well as a model of the irrigation channel that was used to supply the farms with water.

One of my personal favorites is the exhibit you will see once you exit the barn towards the back – it is a model of an early Whittier. We have grown a lot since then! It is very interesting to see how it all started, what used to be in certain places, you can even locate what was in this very spot before the museum was built!

Moving on, there is a tribute to A.H. Pickering, Jonathan Bailey, as well as Jonathan Greenleaf Whittier, the famed Quaker poet our city was named after, featuring the famous poem he dedicated to our city.

The next exhibit is a true gem to all those who love cars and racing – the George Salih Exhibit, dedicated to the racing legend and Hall of Fame inductee who won the Indy 500 in 1957 and 1958 with the car he and his neighbor, Howard Gilbert, built in his garage on Milliken Avenue.

In the same room as the George Salih Exhibit, you will be able to gaze at even more Whittier history (one of the old switch boards used in this building before it became the museum, the historic “Tip Top” barber shop, as well as an original, old wooden phone booth) and memorabilia from “back in the day”, featuring a great collection of antique cameras amongst other things, a replica of a railcar from the “Whittier Line”, as well as a tribute to local pilot Bob Downey, father of Bill Downey, owner of West Whittier Paint.

The second floor is home to even more great Whittier exhibits, like for example the furniture store that turned into a funeral business (White Emerson, part of the current exhibit), a great display of antique doll houses, and the changing exhibit (currently “Death and Taxes”) which will also be the location for the annual “Victorian Feast” fundraiser. You will also find a tribute to the Pio Pico State Historic Park and the Whittier Host Lions Clubs.

As Myra explained to me, the two previous Executive Directors were gentlemen who were extremely interested in the military history of the citizens of Whittier and it shows – you will be able to see quite a collection of military memorabilia as well as depictions of very personal stories of Whittierites effected by the different wars. And of course there is the famous Veterans’ Wall with a collection of photos of War Veterans related to Whittier in one way or another – each picture tells a story of heroism, a monument of pride to serve this great country.

And of course a trip to the Whittier Museum would not be complete without paying a visit to probably one of the most famous local celebrities – Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States of America. Nixon moved to Whittier when he was nine years old (in 1922), attended Whittier High School (graduated in 1930) and went on to Whittier College where he graduated 3rd in his class in 1934. After getting his law degree at Duke Law school, he returned to Whittier in 1937 and started practicing law with Winegart and Bewley, who were located in the Bank of America building on the corner of Philadelphia and Greenleaf. After World War II, Nixon got more heavily involved in politics, being elected to Congress in 1946 and winning the presidency in 1969.

After having had the pleasure of seeing the entire exhibit at the Whittier Museum, I got to meet the Museum staff and had a chance to sit down with Executive Director Myra Hilliard to talk a little bit more about the history of the Museum as well as current affairs effecting the Museum.

As most of you probably already know, the Whittier Museum is owned and operated by the Whittier Historical Society, which was founded in 1970 with an immediate focus on establishing a museum to collect and display the local, historic treasures. After finding and purchasing a building that would suit the Society’s needs, the Whittier Museum opened its doors to the public in 1983.

The Museum is funded primarily through private donations, membership contributions, fundraisers, and a small grant from the city. It is governed by a 12-member-strong Board of Directors, with Ms. Audry Gee as the President and Phil White as the Treasurer. The Whittier Museum is a great venue for school tours and it has an infinite source of information that will be invaluable if you are working on a project concerning the history of Whittier (available for research purposes, please contact the museum office at 562-945-3871 to schedule an appointment and/or visit this Links Page to start your research online).

If you would like to help preserve Whittier’s heritage, please become a member of the Whittier Historical Society (there are many levels of membership) and/or join the Society at its upcoming, annual fundraiser, the “Victorian Feast”, which will be held on February 4 – 6, from 6pm to 10pm. Tickets are $65 for members and $75 for non-members and will include a Champagne Reception, a six-course gourmet dinner as well as a live melodrama performance. For more information or to reserve your tickets, please call the Museum office directly at 562-945-3871.

Besides the "Victorian Feast", there will be several other fundraisers and events throughout the year:

March 6th, 2011 - "Let's Celebrate - Living it up in Whittier"; Exhibit Opening! Starts at 2pm

April 16th, 2011 - Chili Cook-Off

June 4th, 2011 - Tea & Fashion Show; 2pm - 4pm; $25 members, $35 non-members

Like many other non-profits, the Whittier Historical Society and Museum rely heavily on dedicated volunteers – if you have some time to spare, please consider becoming a volunteer docent for the Whittier Museum and/or the historic Bailey House. For more information on how to become a volunteer, please contact the main office at 562-945-3871.

A big Thank You to the Whittier Historical Society and the Whittier Museum Staff who are all doing such an extraordinary job in preserving our local history.

See you around town,

Whittier Historical Society and Museum Contact Information:

6755 Newlin Ave
Whittier, CA 90601

Phone: 562-945-3871
Fax: 562-945-9106


Free Public Tours: Saturday & Sunday, 1pm - 4pm

School Tours: Tuesday & Thursday (please call for appointment)

Research: Tuesday through Friday (please call for appointment)