The Ed Gwartney California History Center

A Local Gem Reimagined and Soon to Be rededicated

By Frédéric Martin, Editor-in-Chief

A very well-kept secret in Madera is about to become a bona fide educational attraction for students from anywhere in California. The recently renamed Ed Gwartney California History Center provides a one-of-a-kind museum experience. In the final days of 2018, we met with Principal Leonard Perez at the James Monroe Elementary School in Madera, who graciously invited us to visit and discuss exciting plans for the soon to be rededicated James Monroe Children’s Museum. 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 mission courtyard with 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 gun fight, a stage coach 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. This is a genuinely remarkable elementary school program that could be marketed as the treasure it truly is. The last show took place about three years ago, when Ed Gwartney became gravely ill and had to retire; the popular school program has been in hiatus since, but it is the intention of the Madera Unified School District to revive this stellar project. To that end, all the main street buildings were recently refurbished, with fresh coats of paint, repaired lights, and all the objects in the shops will eventually be cleaned up, labeled and repositioned to recreate the lived-in environment of the old days. Taking the California history curriculum into a live event sears the experience into the students’ minds. That was the core idea of the museum. Sadly, the creator, founder, and main actor of the project, Ed Gwartney, passed on, in late September 2018. The life he breathed into California history cannot be abandoned and it is our collective duty to reinfuse energy into the museum, to keep it running, and occasionally fixed up, as isolated vandalism has taken place on the museum/school grounds, usually, mostly broken windows. The Ed Gwartney California History Center is a Madera jewel and we welcome local companies or generous individuals to invest in the museum’s infrastructure: installing security cameras, funding the ongoing acquisition of historical artifacts, managing donations, general maintenance funds, and other private subsidies to lighten the burden of maintenance from the already stretched school budgets. There is still one missing ingredient to complete its restauration: the school district is looking for someone to manage the museum. Most likely a volunteer or a group of volunteers will be needed to manage the Ed Gwartney California History Center and keep adding to the already impressive collection of artifacts. Ed Gwartney himself built fully functional pioneer wagons, some of which were used in the other popular local school wagon trail project, headed by his long-time friend Bill Coate, and, being a handyman, Ed was able to maintain the many components of the living museum. For over twenty years, Ed made California history come alive for all the Central Valley fourth graders — and older visitors. We welcome feedback from the Madera community and anyone interested in volunteering. James Monroe Elementary Principal Leonard Perez is fully engaged in supporting the exciting and proven educational project, and hopes the MUSD leadership will soon find a capable and engaged project leader. If interested, please email us at and we will pass along your information and ideas. A ceremony for the rededication of the Ed Gwartney California History Center will take place in early spring 2019. Look for event information on the WeBelieveNews and the MUSD websites.

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