Stella Fay Miller knew what she was about when she left money to start a proper museum in Quincy. But there’s no way even a visionary from the mid-20th century could predict the massive inventory process the director of the Plumas County Museum is undertaking.
The double-glass doors at the Jackson Street museum are papered over with a message stating the Plumas County Museum is closed until February. The director and a part-time assistant have their work cut out for them.
On a Wednesday morning in the midst of this inventory project, a black dentist’s chair sits just inside those glass doors. As museum Director Scott Lawson hurries in from his office he explains he’s waiting for Bruce (Robbins of facilities management) to help him move the 600-pound chair upstairs.
This, like many of the treasures found inside the museum, has been donated. According to Lawson, museum member Vance Vell decided it was time to part with the children’s dentist chair his father used in his Reno practice around the 1920s.
Cataloging something this size is relatively simple. It’s assigned a number and matching registration label and given a place among the museum’s steadily growing collection. It was relatively easy for Lawson to find a home for the chair — upstairs among other related artifacts — just getting it there proved cumbersome. Nearby is a wooden exam table that Quincy’s Dr. Lawrence Price used in his practice for years. The table was actually part of his grandfather’s practice.
Beyond the dentist’s chair, part of the downstairs is given over to boxes and boxes of files. Inside each box are court records. What Lawson is doing is alphabetizing the cases and entering them into the museum’s database. That way when someone wants to look up something by name or possibly date, they can go right to it.
Over the years Lawson has become somewhat familiar with the court records, either by helping someone find a document or coming across it on his own.
For instance, one case from about 1920 stuck in his mind. A woman made it known during a divorce hearing that she celebrated her wedding anniversary with another man “and was glad of it!”
Lawson recalled another case that involved one of the area’s more prominent men, H. W. Kellogg, in 1880.
It seems that Kellogg’s wife, Mary, left with the couple’s daughter, leaving behind their son. Kellogg apparently told the son that both his mother and sister were dead.
In the divorce proceedings it came out that someone noted that Mary Kellogg was seen with another man on several occasions at the Spanish Ranch Hotel in Meadow Valley. Lawson said that if someone asks for these back files at the Plumas County Recorder’s office, the person will more than likely be told they can’t find them. The company hired to put the files onto microfilm years ago, did it wrong. Instead of putting the files in alphabetical order, the company put them across from each other making it very hard and time consuming to access.
Within the boxes of court cases are probate, criminal, civil and divorce cases.
What’s in the box?
Situated on top of one of the glass display cases is a box of ledgers the museum’s had in its collection for some time.
They’re an odd assortment of records, but provide a snapshot of the area’s activities and its people.
One of the first ledgers is the smallest in this immediate collection. Opening it, Lawson said it appears to be a list of what the author called “trial jurors.” Almost talking to himself, Lawson ponders who the sheriff was in 1906, a date found inside the pages of neatly written names. Then it occurs to him that it was Sheriff Hall’s journal. Inside are also neatly clipped columns of names from the Plumas Independent. Hall also happened to be its editor.
Removing a much larger ledger, Lawson said he thinks this shows details of liquor purchases and customers’ bar tabs from the Plumas House.
Indeed, randomly opening the ledger, there’s a long column of hand-written information of Alex Irwin’s activities in late 1881. He’d run up a considerable tab of $79.50, which he paid off, it appears in $1 increments.
Another entry for a D. Roberson shows among other things that he purchased a gallon of whisky Nov. 19, 1879, for $4. It also shows that a bottle of whisky was sold to him on another date for $1.25, although it doesn’t indicate the size.
And in 1879, a person (presumably a man) just listed as Downy purchased many glasses of ale for 25 cents a glass and a bottle of whisky for $1.50.
Behind closed doors
Giving up a little of his precious time he’s lined out for inventorying the museum’s possessions and items it has on loan, Lawson gives a tour of the backroom or archives.
Following behind him, just inside the museum’s work area, a child’s duo-purpose rocking chair sits. Not only will this piece rock a child back and forth, there’s a drop down tray like those found on old-fashioned high chairs, for feeding. It’s a unique item and at a glance, in excellent shape.
Lawson said this item isn’t one of the treasures that’s been donated for safekeeping. It will probably be offered for sale to other museums that have budgets that allow for expanding collections. The funds are always needed within Lawson’s small budget to help cover many of its projects and programs.
Continuing the tour, Lawson enters a second room. The first set of solid white shelving units are stacked floor to ceiling with museum-quality boxes in all sizes and varying shapes. Each box is labeled and numbered indicating what’s inside.
This part of the collection is in fairly good shape, Lawson explained. By that he means that people can find what they’re looking for with relative ease. And that’s one of the goals he’s been slowly working toward in the nearly 30 years he’s been a full-time museum employee.
Lawson also wants a future museum director to walk in and understand the collection. He said that it might not be done the way the new director would like, but at least the individual will be able to find things without too much difficulty.
While the labeled boxes and preserved county ledgers in red and brown leather covers are interesting in their own way, it’s the treasures in the next room that are truly noteworthy.
Here again are floor to ceiling shelves and they’re all jam-packed with treasures.
For instance, a lower shelf of pots, pans and coffee pots captures the eye. Here is a row of large graniteware coffee pots that must have known a cook stove if not an open campfire as a gallon of coffee was brewed.
There’s an assortment of now rusty three-legged Dutch ovens, some complete with lids that surely once cooked beans or biscuits in their useful days.
Indicating a dented pot with a wire handle and a hole in the bottom, Lawson said that each of these items was important to someone and they wanted them in the museum’s collection. They’re the kind of things that many of us only get to read about, see in photos in some book or in an antiques store.
In another spot is a collection of kerosene lamps — one with a painted flower, another in yellow glass, some in metal. They speak of the past before the country knew electricity.
Nearby are heavy leather saddles and an old leather-worker’s narrow bench. Lawson shows how the worker could straddle the bench and affix a piece of leather in a wooden vise, tighten it, and go to work.
On another shelf, Lawson points out an old white accordion and laughs about learning to play one someday. Then he takes down a guitar detailed with designs.
Nearby stands a shoe collection, including a knee-high pair of lace-up leather boots and an equally high pair of moccasins in astonishingly good condition. Lawson said that Zona Morgan gave them to the museum in her father’s memory. He was former Quincy resident Orville Brown.
Everywhere there’s something to attract the eye and the imagination.
At one corner stands a stone column and concrete scrollwork Lawson said is from the old Quincy High School gym.
Whether it’s a small tool, a pot or a sign, every item carries a serial number and detailed information for museum staff and volunteers to decipher about what it is and where it came from. That is if they know.
Indicating a rough and well-weathered, long box-like devise, Lawson said someone dug it out of a Meadow Valley area stream where it had been buried presumably for many, many years. It’s presumed it was used in mining, but its exact purpose is a mystery. Was it a variation of a long Tom or a sluice box? That’s part of the mystery. Lawson said he ran of a photo of it in the newspaper looking for information, but didn’t learn anything new. It’s stored away and kept safely as part of the museum’s tribute to the past.
Lawson didn’t say how far he would get with this year’s inventory process. He’s devoting January to the process and then it’s business as usual.
Stella Fay Miller
In the 1890s, William J. Miller built a house for his wife Carrie and their daughter Stella Fay. It stood on the corner of Buchanan and Jackson streets in Quincy. Miss Miller became a well-known teacher and music composer. Her endowment established the Plumas County Museum in 1964, according Lawson’s book “Images of America: Quincy,” published in 2003.