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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

A Labor of Love at Tulare Historical Museum

Nov 27, 2017 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Local History

December 2017
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Michelle Smee

The ties to the Tulare Historical Museum go all the way back to high school for Executive Director/Curator Chris Harrell. “I’ve always been a big Olympic buff,” says the now 40 year old.

What started as volunteerism for an Olympic reunion of Tulare natives Bob Mathias and Sim Iness to raise funds for a youth recreation facility parlayed into support for the Olympic history section of the museum. Time spent there transitioned to deeper involvement, whereby Harrell is now surrounded by the local ties to many of his passions: military and law enforcement history, dedications to local founders and the memorabilia of everyday life of the people of Tulare going back to its first people, the Yukuts.

“It’s been a labor of love for the citizens ever since we started,” says Harrell. “This really is the people of Tulare County. It’s their museum. They’re the ones who started it and sustain it.”

A project of the Tulare Historical Society, which was founded in 1980, the museum opened its doors in 1985. The museum was built from the ground up on the west side, so while it enjoys a historical surrounding, it also benefits from being developed specifically for museum display and archival purposes. “The block that we’re on was the site of Tulare’s first public schoolhouse, which was built in 1884,” adds Harrell. Yet, as a newer building, he says, “I think that’s one of the reasons why our museum stands out.”

Visitors are often fooled by the exterior, discovering that the museum is much larger once inside. In fact, the response from the community to the call for items of historical significance was so great that the museum was expanded in 1991.

In addition to an archival wing, the museum sports two main wings and a heritage art gallery that hosts three large annual shows. “There’s so many great things,” says Harrell, hedging an answer to the question of his favorite area. Then he adds, “For what it means to the city and its residents, the military history wing.” Exhibits start with the Revolutionary War and continue to modern times. “It serves as a very powerful way of learning and remembering and paying honor,” says Harrell, himself a veteran of the Security Forces of the U.S. Air Force. “We had an older woman from Germany who was visiting. When she saw the SS officer’s uniform, she wept.

“In our display in our history of law enforcement, we highlight three police officers who were killed in the line of duty over the years,” Harrell adds. Perhaps most profound, he says, is the personal effects of these officers.

While tribute to military and law enforcement heroes is a powerful piece of the museum experience, there is also celebration. Museum staff and volunteers are gearing up for a large exhibit in March called Tulare Big Band Blast that will pay homage to the great school bands over the years. In 1954, the Tulare Union High School band played at President Eisenhower’s second inauguration. Tulare school bands have played Carnegie Hall and the Rose Parade. All of these will be celebrated in a large exhibit combined with concerts and reunions.

For people doing their own research, whether personal, journalistic or academic, the Tom Hennion Archives Center provides access to thousands of historical documents and photographs. Locals and visitors can call ahead to schedule time in the archives, and staff will support the requests of people living far away.

Tulare County artists also share a spotlight in the Heritage Art Gallery wing. Art shows rotate every five or six weeks, with annual shows such those featuring the Tulare Art Club and work by Tulare county students being eagerly anticipated. The show Tulare County Impressions challenges artists of all mediums to use the community as inspiration for their works.

For area third graders, the Tulare Historical Museum is where lessons come alive. Local history is an integral part of the third grade curriculum, so the museum spends much of its time arranging field trips for the youngsters. Says Harrell, “It takes almost the entire year to get all of the classes in.”

When he passes by the the gold medals of his Olympic hero Bob Mathias, or ponders the personal effects of fallen Tulare County soldiers and law enforcement officers, Harrell is clear on the good fortune to have landed where he did. “What I do is ensure that the high level of excellence that they set in 1985 stands and gets raised for years to come.”

Tulare Historical Museum • 444 West Tulare Ave.

(559) 686-2074 • 

Thursday-Saturday 10am-4pm