Madera County Historical Society
Ed Gwartney is shown here with some of his museum docents who portrayed the lives of various ethnic groups who immigrated to California. They are standing by a covered wagon that was one of their props in presentations made at the James Monroe Children’s museum.
It has been two years since that self-described product of the “Okie” migration, who never earned a high school diploma but became a pathfinder of new trails in the teaching of history, said goodbye to Madera Unified School District.
Ed Gwartney, founder of the James Monroe Children’s Museum, feeling that he had completed his mission in Madera, left it to others to build upon his vision of a unique educational laboratory for teaching California history on Lake Street.
That was in 2016. As far as this writer can tell, however, not much has been happening at the museum since Gwartney’s retirement.
The town with its general store, blacksmith shop, mission, graveyard, and gold mine is still there, but there doesn’t seem to be any student activity around the place — at least not the kind that sent kids in frontier costumes scurrying to and fro, looking for gold, churning butter and performing breathtaking melodramas.
The scenery still stands, but no one plays the parts.
Actually, the old James Monroe Children’s Museum seems to have gone the way of all of the Gold Rush ghost towns, and that’s a shame, especially when one considers it during its heyday when kids from other schools packed the place to experience life in the Old West.
A typical program began with youngsters crowded in the general store to hear Gwartney tell what it was really like to travel the Oregon/California Trail.
He told how mothers gave birth to children; fathers buried them, and marauders dug them up. Dysentery swept through the wagon trains, and loads of precious provisions were dumped to keep the jaded mules and oxen alive.
Then with visions of the “Real West” firmly implanted in their minds, the visitors followed Gwartney outside to meet the Monroe student historians.
Folklorico dancers entertained the students in the old mission, and a docent shared some of the highlights of a neophyte’s life under the Jesuit missionaries.
The student visitors met Mrs. Jackson and Mrs. Johnson, two women who traveled the trail together in 1846, and learned about the trials on their wagon train.
Kids met “Big Tooth Gordon,” who was locked up in the James Monroe hoosegow because of some egregious violation of gold rush law. The visitors stopped by the cemetery where bodies of the recently departed stepped away from their tombstones to tell their sad tales of woe.
Visitors were always startled by the boom-boom of a bass drum filling the air. A funeral procession took place right there in front of everyone. Three female mourners walked in front of the casket and the undertaker followed.
When the remains had been appropriately placed at the cemetery, the atmosphere lightened a bit as the Monroe kids performed an old-time melodrama entitled “Holdup at Dead Man’s Gulch.”
Each visit to the Children’s Museum always brought visitors face to face with the Monroe docents in several different stations. Everyone made cornhusk dolls and worked with leather to make nametags for themselves.
There was rope making and panning for gold. There was also the bucket brigade and a trip into the gold mine. Everyone had to send a telegraph message and experience the tribulations of loading a wagon.
All told, visiting the museum was a magnificent experience. By weaving such a complex tapestry of history whereby kids taught kids, it was a time of pure elixir.
Thankfully, these memories are not written in the wind. Madera Unified Superintendent Todd Lile is determined to see that the Old West will live again on Lake Street, and that brings me to my main point.
Why not pay tribute to the man, without whom there would be no children’s museum? Why not name it the Ed Gwartney Center for California History and Performing Arts?
No one, perhaps not even Gwartney, knows for sure just when he conceived the idea of building a western town at Monroe School. Maybe it was when he and his 4th grade classes were building covered wagons that actually were used on trail rides. Maybe it was when he built a tent city on the playground to give his students the feel of life in a gold mining town.
At any rate, by 1997, with the assistance of two fellow teachers and a host of parents, he opened the James Monroe Children’s museum in a portable building, and the rest was history, as they say.
Supporters of education throughout the state have recognized Gwartney’s pivotal role in the museum program. The Oregon/California Trails Association named him Teacher of the Year. He has won the Golden Bell Award for his school, and in 2004, the California Council for Social Studies named him Elementary Teacher of the Year. Gwartney has twice been selected Distinguished Teacher of the Year by his colleagues at James Monroe.
Perhaps it is time for Madera to join others throughout the state and recognize Ed Gwartney for his contribution to education — a perfect way to give this tremendous teacher’s dream a name.