BY WILLIAM ROLLER
Attending the Fifth Annual Pioneer Day Feb. 3 at the Pioneers Museum, Imperial Valley residents and snowbirds expressed awe over a variety of machinery of original settlers who developed prosperity from barren desert.
The event was staged by the Imperial County Historical Society, which operates the museum at Aten Road and Old Highway 111 east of Imperial that opened in 1993. The group was formed in 1928 and built its first museum in the 1940s, noted Lynn Housouer, chief archivist and museum manager.
“Even though we’ve been here for over 20 years, Pioneer Day reminds people we keep growing and have more exhibits to show,” said Housouer. “Pioneers started coming around 1900-1901 because it was the last time the government gave away land. But you had to improve the land by leveling, building a house and then farming the soil or build some type of business.”
Some of the first businesses were implement sales for all types of tasks, which is why they called them “general mercantile.”
“Remember, they had no wood for buildings; it was tent cities for the first few years,” she said. “And it was tough. Water had to be poured in a clay jar with a stone filter to settle the mud to the bottom to have drinkable water.”
there was also no air conditioning and to stay cool at night people would wrap in wet sheets, noted Housouer.
“It gives us an appreciation of how pioneers struggled to establish a sense of civilization,” she added.
Inside the museum, Leanne Rutherford, curator, fascinated girls and boys alike by demonstrating a White Rotary sewing machine from the 1890s and a Singer machine from early 1900s, controlling the bobbins with a foot treadle. Even in the early 1900s, Valley pioneers made most of their own clothes and furniture linens.
Earliest pioneers arrived from Los Angeles, San Diego and even a few from the East Coast.
“My grandfather came from outside Abilene, Texas in 1907,” said Rutherford. “Imperial Valley was advertised as the place to be. You could stake your fortune on succeeding in Imperial Valley. And despite the hardships, they persevered because they had been through so much already.”
Alluring another eager crowd was Greg Smith, demonstrating a hand-cranked coffee grinder that allowed visitors to get small samples of fresh-ground coffee. Smith remarked this fresh grind was more robust and less bitter than what the glass percolators he also had on display could do.
“We know our history here goes back to before 1600 when the first Europeans arrived,” he said. “But before that we had Native Americans from 10,000 years ago. And we have the evidence in the desert (of) encampments and fish traps they left behind.”
Much of Imperial Valley was part of the inland sea Lake Cahuilla until about 400 years ago.
Also popular was a hand-crank butter churner. Amelia Aguilar, 5, struggled to whip the heavy cream to proper viscosity but was rewarded with delicious sweet cream butter and enjoyed three pieces of bread and butter. Her mother, Catherine, recalled this was the family’s third Pioneer Day.
“We like it because it helps us remember the past and appreciate what we have now,” she said.
Outside, volunteer George Ogilvie of St. Paul, Ore., demonstrated a 1912 Stover 2.5 horsepower gas engine with a Wico magneto powering a hacksaw to cut a half-inch-thick steel band. Ogilvie remarked he likes the entire museum for its fascinating history.
“I think of the pioneers who settled and developed the canals and tilled the farms,” he said. “I think maybe I’m too soft, too much of the 21st Century. I don’t think I could do this today.”