For The Madera Tribune
Four years ago, the late Ed Gwartney received an unexpected birthday gift from Sheryl Berry, president of the Madera County Historical Society — a check for $12,000 to keep the James Monroe Children’s Museum open.
Four years ago the late Ed Gwartney got a special birthday present. His James Monroe Children’s Museum was given a new lease on life, thanks to a $12,000 donation from the Madera County Historical Society. While 15 excited sixth graders in costume looked on, Society President Sheryl Berry presented Gwartney with the check that assured that the kids wouldn’t have to close the doors to their interactive western town. They were able to finish one more school year.
The good news came at the society’s annual meeting in the fellowship hall of Harvest Community Church, which featured a special program from the museum’s student docents. The young thespian/historians regaled their benefactors with tales from the Old West, including a stage coach robbery, flirting dance hall girls, fainting travelers, and a monologue from William Thurman, Madera’s first sheriff. It was a vintage Gwartney production.
Berry expressed the society’s admiration for the example the children’s museum set by allowing students to be teachers.
The unique educational laboratory for teaching California history ran into yet another financial crisis when funding sources dried up. For the previous two years, grants from the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians kept the museum doors open, but in 2014, the museum didn’t make the cut.
Undaunted, Gwartney and his co-director, Monroe sixth grade teacher Sandra Carter, raised the curtain on another year’s production, hoping for a miracle. The museum ran on a budget of $25,000 per year.
While Gwartney, who retired in 2007, and Carter gathered the costumes, repaired the props, and prepared the student docents, James Monroe principal Tom Chagoya went looking for money. By Christmas he was able to raise $12,000, but that was all. It began to look as if the Grinch had stolen more than Christmas. Then the MCHS stepped up to the plate again.
When the society’s board of directors learned of the children museum’s plight, it voted to fund the remainder of its annual budget for this school year.
The Children’s Museum also got some good news from Madera Unified School District. Gwartney was told the district was working on a program that not only would secure the Children’s Museum operation but would expand the interactive concept to include other grade levels.
The James Monroe Children’s Museum has become an institution in Madera over the past 15 years. It was Gwartney’s brainchild, and he enlisted two of his fellow Monroe teachers, Sandra Carter and Susan Miller to join him in building his dream.
The museum opened its doors in 1997, and expanded every year until by the time Gwartney retired, an entire gold mining town, complete with a boot hill, had been constructed on the site.
Gwartney continued to operate the museum on a part-time basis after his retirement, but with the onset of a budget crisis, Madera Unified cut off funds for the project.
Throughout the 2010-2011 school year, the museum became something of a place for storage while the western facade of its buildings stood silently beckoning youthful visitors.
No student docents told their story at the adobe mission. No trial was held at the jail, and no one visited the boot hill cemetery. The gold-streaked walls inside the gold mine didn’t feel the touch of young hands looking for treasure. The budget crunch had turned the old pioneer settlement on Lake Street into a ghost town.
Then came the word that funds from the Chukchansi Tribal Council had been earmarked to revive Madera’s unique history classroom. With Chukchansi support, the museum program continued through the 2011-12 and the 2012-13 school years.
In September 2014, Gwartney prepared to open up the old West to elementary kids for another year, but then came the bad news — no funds would be coming from the Chukchansis that year.
Gwartney and Carter went ahead with their preparations. They trained their 6th grade docents to teach the history of the West to the 4th grade classes that would visit the museum. All the while, they hoped.
Then the Historical Society stepped in, and the smiles became a little broader at James Monroe School. There was more bounce in the steps, as the kids prepared for their next group of visitors.
And over at the old Courthouse Museum, headquarters for the Madera County Historical Society, there was a renewed awareness of the value of making it possible for kids to experience the glorious enterprise of doing history.
So Gwartney’s ideas continued for another year, and it looks like they will do so for years to come. Madera Unified has committed itself to preserving Gwartney’s dream; it has even renamed it in his honor.
Happy 78th Birthday, Ed.