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Valley Days: A San Joaquin County Tradition

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By Phillip Merlo
Photos courtesy of the Stockton Historical Society

The San Joaquin County Historical Museum has been proud to serve the community since our founding in 1966. From our first day in business to today, education has been a major theme of our work: tours, traveling trunks, exhibitions in the Cortopassi Building exhibit Innovations in Agriculture and Pioneer School have all served thousands of students since 1970. No program, however, has captured the local imagination than our famous Valley Days program.

Founded in 1982, Valley Days has served over 130,000 third- and fourth-grade students in the 41 years of its existence. In its first year in business, 300 students participated, and the program has grown to serving close to 6,000 students a year from throughout San Joaquin County. The program itself is a real hoot; students spend a month or more learning about local history and 19th century life in California, preparing for their big day at the museum.

On the day of the field trip, students dress in 19th-century clothing, arrive at the museum and take a class in the 1866 Calaveras School House. Next, students head to rotating historical life-skills stations, where they are trained in the arts of blacksmithing, gold panning, cooking on a woodstove, planting seeds, milling corn, making leather art and laundering clothes the old-fashioned way, a popular choice with parents. The parents actually manage each station, having been trained in advance by the museum’s docents.

Our docents conceived of, founded and actively manage the Valley Days program. They have developed and fine-tuned curriculum, expanded the program through fundraising for buildings and supplies, and coordinated parents and teachers since its inception. The Valley Days committee is the governing body, and scores of docents over the years have left their mark.

In 2023, Valley Days is gearing up for more evolution and fine-tuning. For the first time since 1997, we are planning to update the beloved curriculum. This will give contemporary teachers and parents an opportunity to provide input, while also allowing us to bring the program in line with modern state curricular guidelines.

We’re also planning to develop our new Pioneer Village, a Disneyfied 19th-century village space that will bring all our stations together. The village will allow Valley Days to be more centralized on our campus, which will mean we can increase enrollment for students and classrooms. Pioneer Village is being funded by significant contributions from local businessman Wil Smith, boosters Bonner Mendez and Julie Gillespie and from the County of San Joaquin.

We’re super excited for these updates and upgrades to our program, and incredibly proud of our history. If you’d like to learn more, please feel free to give the museum a call at 209-331-2055 today.