Many years ago, Ed Gwartney, a visionary, initiated a lifelong process of gathering period objects for his school to help teach the local history with tangible experiences his students would never forget. Eventually, the James Monroe Children’s Museum was launched in the 1990s and was rededicated as The Ed Gwartney California History Center in the fall of 2018, a few months after Ed Gwartney’s untimely death.
The museum project was launched in the 1990s, conceived to display a realistic small-town environment of the late 1800s to early-1900s in California and the local area, for children to ignite an appreciation for history, to foster interest for a better understanding of how their surroundings have evolved into what they see today. The museum was specifically designed for students to imagine reliving the past in an interactive environment. The museum complex features multiple buildings: a general store, a workshop, a church courtyard with a steeple, a mine shaft, a prison, and even a cemetery!
All built along the main street of a fictitious town, complete with street lights, store signs, and a veritable trove of antique furniture, period tools, and various objects that populated people’s homes, stores, workshops, and daily lives so many years ago. The museum concept includes a history curriculum, of which the purpose was to provide a unique experience reliving California History, and to provide students indelible memories, through acting and hands-on experiences, in a way similar to an oral tradition.
During the orchestrated presentations, the teacher would narrate to 4th-grade students, as the group walked down Main street, and student actors would appear out of nowhere, reenacting a slice of life from yesteryear: a funeral, a gunfight, a stagecoach robbery, etc.
Other activities included learning old techniques of rope making, or leather bracelets manufacturing, with hands-on workshops built into a learning experience only available at the school site. Schools from the surrounding districts and counties were invited to contact the James Monroe Elementary School to schedule visits and performances.
Presentations took place about twice a week, throughout the school year; a schedule that, although demanding, was not only feasible but thrived for over two decades, thanks to the enthusiastic dedication of history teacher Ed Gwartney, his supporting team of colleagues, and the school children of James Monroe Elementary.