History buffs will find a lot to love and get lost in when visiting the storied and fascinating museums of Lake County, California.
About 100 miles north of San Francisco, Lake County’s museums tell the story of wine country before it was wine country. With a fascinating array of Native American artifacts, pioneer relics and stagecoach-era heirlooms, a series of museums across the county brings yesteryear alive in immersive style.
“It really does provide you the full spectrum of human habitation in Lake County from the very beginning, the first native groups in Lake County all the way up to the modern day,” said Tony Pierucci, Curator for the Lake County museums, the Historic Schoolhouse Museum in Lower Lake and the Historic Courthouse Museum. “It gives you a great glimpse into the history of the area. A large history.”
The Lake County Historic Courthouse Museum serves as the cornerstone, with the entire administrative record of Lake County dating back to 1867 and one of the largest collections of eastern Pomo baskets in the nation. The museum has several dozen baskets on display at any given time, showing the exquisite artistry and amazing functionality of these baskets created by Lake County’s indigenous Pomo people. “The baskets are so tightly and finely woven that they cooked food in them,” Pierucci said, noting that the baskets are so watertight that one could carry and even boil water in them. “The craftsmanship is truly extraordinary.”
There are also some rather eccentric artifacts in the Historic Courthouse Museum. “One of the more interesting objects we have in the museum is a box of dirt,” Pierucci said. The museum has been collecting for about 82 years, and it occasionally gets bizarre objects like the box of dirt that requires research to find out exactly what it is or where it came from.
“So we’ve got this box of dirt,” Pierucci continued. “We did some research and it turns out that it was the first shovel full of dirt for the 1911 attempt to bring a railroad here to Lake County. And we have a picture of the woman who was shoveling the dirt. She was the sister-in-law of Teddy Roosevelt. So we have this bizarre object that is very mundane, but it has a phenomenal history behind it.”
The museum also has a fainting couch that once belonged to world-famous 19th century actress Lillie Langtry, the same Lillie Langtry who purchased the Langtry Estate & Vineyards in 1888.
“She came over to Lake County in the 1880s,” Pierucci said. “She loved it. She bought an area that eventually became the Guenoc Ranch. You can actually go to the winery and see the reproduced ranch house.”
One of Langtry’s pianos is on display at the Lower Lake Historic Schoolhouse Museum. “It’s a hidden jewel in Lake County,” Pierucci said. “You drive down Main Street in Lower Lake and suddenly you see this bizarre little steeple peeking over the modern buildings. You go a little farther and you’re greeted with this amazing view of 19th century American architecture, a gorgeous bell tower and a three-room brick schoolhouse.”
The Schoolhouse Museum focuses on pioneer history and contains a fully accurate reproduction of an 1880s schoolhouse. “If you’re interested in what it was like going to school in early California, that really is the museum to go to,” Pierucci noted.
There are several other historical wonders in Lake County standing the test of time. The Stone House Museum is the oldest building in Lake County, a one-time general store and dancehouse furnished with items that recreate daily life in the 1800s. The stagecoach days come back to life at Ely Stage Stop and Country Museum, a real stagecoach station from the 1880s that has been painstakingly restored. The Gibson Museum and Cultural Center has a fascinating collection of Lake County ephemera including some of the area’s earliest ever photographs and preserved Pomo artifacts.
The history is there to be taken in at these museums that keep Lake County’s yesteryear alive and well today. From ancient Native American relics to pioneer artifacts to some of California’s first photographs, these museums keep wine country’s beloved history preserved. Take a trip back in time by making a trip to Lake County, California, where these living histories will give you the thrill of a lifetime.