Left, part of the Vacaville Museum’s exhibit “Under Where?” and right, Artifacts and Exhibits Manager Caroline Whyler in the upstairs storage and research area of the 38-year old facility (Tony Wade/courtesy photo)
The Vacaville Museum opened to the public Saturday, May 5, 1984, with much fanfare and showcased its very first exhibit titled “Rivers, Railroads and Rolling Hills: Solano County 1875-1915.” It featured everything from information on the Patwin Indians, who were here before 1875, to the travel trunks that belonged to immigrants from Europe, India, Russia and China, who settled here, to agricultural artifacts.
Tony Wade, Back in the Day
Current Vacaville Museum Board of Trustees President Jean C. Cox moved to Vacaville from Iowa in 1981 and got involved with the then-fledgling organization, which was incorporated that same year. While the collection now includes more than 30,000 artifacts, it started with 250 sad irons.
Sad irons are heavy – sometimes up to 9 pounds – antique household irons that got their name because “sad” in Middle English used to mean “solid” or “heavy.”
“A gentlemen in town had a collection of sad irons and he put them up for sale. Eleanor Nelson, who was a longtime local teacher, didn’t think they should leave Vacaville so she raised money to buy them. Well, then we had to figure out what to do with them,” Cox said.
A committee was formed and Eva Buck, philanthropist and wife of U.S. Rep. Frank Buck, gave the city of Vacaville the land next to her house to build a museum. Two stipulations were that it be named the Vacaville Museum and that it be dedicated to the preservation of history from all of Solano County.
While those involved with the preservation and exhibition of history to the public appreciate the immense generosity of Eva Buck, the first stipulation has caused more than a little confusion ever since the museum opened.
“Mrs. Buck, God love her, didn’t do us any favors when she insisted on it being called the Vacaville Museum. People tend to think that it is just about Vacaville. It has been a problem when we try to get people from, say, Fairfield to serve on the board. That’s why everything we send out mentions our mission of the cultural and historical preservation for all of Solano County,” Cox said. “On top of that, people also sometimes think we are the Nut Tree museum. We do have a lot of materials from the original Nut Tree, but we are not the Nut Tree museum.”
Cox can point to a number of exhibits over the years that were her personal favorites.
“I was a real fan of ‘Solano Women,’ and ‘Victorian Dining’ was another one that was fun – I didn’t know you could put so much silverware on a table. Another favorite was ‘From Rising Sun to Golden Hills,’ which was the story of Japanese residents in Solano. That was super interesting because in 1942 we lost a huge part of that population when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps,” Cox said. “ ‘Spanish Voices’ was another one that was interesting because it explored how Spanish speakers came to this area. People assumed that it was just going to be about the Mexican migration north, but it was so much more than that. Some of them came from Spain directly, some went from Spain to Hawaii, and others came from New Mexico. I think it has always been about the stories behind the exhibits.”
Caroline Whyler is the relative new kid on the Vacaville Museum block as she started as the Artifacts & Exhibits manager in August 2021. She replaced Heidi Casebolt, who had been in the position for 25 years before retiring. Whyler’s first exhibit is called “Under Where? Vintage Undergarments from 1850-1980,” which opened May 17 and will run until Sept. 24. According to press materials, it explores the purpose and misconceptions of underclothes through the decades and delves into how they were influenced by evolving cultural ideals, and linked to events such as the Industrial Revolution, World War II and the changing roles of women in society.
The museum typically has an exhibit in the gallery, and volunteers are working on the next exhibit and thinking about the one after that. Their calendar timelines already go through 2024. After “Under Where?” closes, the next exhibit in the on-deck circle is “Solano Skies: The History of Aviation in Solano County,” which opens Nov. 5. When that has run its course, an exhibit with the working title of “Fruit of the Vine” about the wine industry in Solano County is on tap.
“I like the fact that every exhibit that goes up is going to be completely different. ‘Under Where?’ is more artsy and whimsical in the design aesthetic that I chose for it, but ‘Solano Skies’ will lean more toward the military undertones and be more uniform and conservative,” Whyler said. “There’s no cookie cutter formula here. I like having the ability to be creative.”
While the Vacaville Museum is tasked with preserving history, the way they communicate with the public has recently been given a modern upgrade. Paper newsletters may have sufficed in the past, but Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and other social media platforms have bolstered the 38-year-old museum’s online presence thanks to volunteer Sarah Olsen.
The upstairs storage and research space of the museum is jam-packed with everything from Vacaville Reporter newspapers from the 1880s-1929 (1930s and on are at the Vacaville Heritage Council), an extensive collection of items from the original Nut Tree, the aforementioned sad irons that helped birth the place, fabrics, antique household artifacts and much more. They even have some vintage comic books.
Ultimately, the artifacts, when exhibited in eye-catching and inventive ways, are there to serve a much larger purpose.
“We are pushing to tell the cool stories that we discover. It’s rewarding when you find interesting takes on things,” Whyler said. “Sometimes people think of us as just historians or collectors, but we have to be storytellers, too.”
The museum is located at 213 Buck Ave. It’s open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information on the Vacaville Museum, call 707-447-4513 or visit www.vacavillemuseum.org.
Fairfield freelance humor columnist and accidental local historian Tony Wade writes two weekly columns: “The Last Laugh” on Mondays and “Back in the Day” on Fridays, although they sometimes are swapped one for the other. Wade is also the author of The History Press books “Growing Up In Fairfield, California” and “Lost Restaurants of Fairfield, California.”
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