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Docents Bringing History to Life

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Tucked toward the back of the Micke Building, right behind the Holt Side-Hill Harvester, on the campus of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum at Micke Grove Park, an old peddler’s wagon sits complete with an array of copper kettles, tin cups and tin pails hanging on twine strung across its green interior.

A sign on the wall right behind this buggy proclaims, “You can’t sell from an empty wagon.” And right underneath another sign reads “PEDDLERS, Enterprising, shrewd and endearing, they were the ancestors of the nineteenth-century tycoon and the twentieth-century businessman.”

The buggy and signs serve as metaphors for the mission and work of the Museum’s Docent Council members.

For the past 50 years, those “enterprising, shrewd and endearing” docents always have had their wagons full of our county’s history and traditions and are always eager to “sell” their wares to those who visit the museum.

Beginning in 1972 when museum director Medora Johnson and Lodi librarian Edna Smith first started the Museum’s Docent Council, the museum’s docents have been tasked with three main purposes as articulated in the Council’s bylaws:
1. To encourage interest in our heritage and to inspire further learning.
2. To promote development of new programs.
3. To participate in the education programs and community events.

Here at the museum, the 80 or so active volunteer docents spearhead these efforts, perhaps most visibly through the educational programs designed for the county’s school children. Valley Days just might be the flagship of those educational programs, giving the area’s third and fourth graders a chance to experience pioneer life from the mid-to-late 1800s by attending Pioneer School in the Museum’s Calaveras Schoolhouse and participating in pioneer chores such as gold-panning, blacksmithing, tin punching and printing.

During Valley Days, docent Mike Smedley can often be found at the Loafing Shed, instructing his charges how to make corn meal from an ear of dry corn. “How many of our third and fourth graders realize that what is on the dinner table often begins in someone’s kitchen garden?” he asked. “Many of our young pioneers have never seen a hoe or rake, a cultivator or plow. I personally enjoy the amazement on their faces when they put two and two together to realize how their food is grown.”

Behind the scenes and without much fanfare, the docents are the ones who help fundraise to support the museum’s programs, maintain the Docent Library, and initiate the new docents in an eight-month process that brings them into the docent family. “The San Joaquin History Museum is a place where your history comes alive!” says Jeff Ryan, who facilitates the new
docent classes.

Comes alive, indeed, and perhaps that love of life is what really overflows from those peddler’s wagons. Retired museum education director and now museum docent Robin Wood sums it up. “My love for what the San Joaquin County Historical Museum stands for, being community, education, friendship and familiarity to the operations of the programs and administration, has become something that is a big part of my life now as a volunteer and before my retirement from the museum.”