Saturday, June 28, 2014

A long road nears its end, as museum comes to life


Pamphlet from 1999 after the museum grounds had been developed. Photo courtesy of Neal V. Hitch

Imperial Valley Press

Over the next year, the Imperial Valley Desert Museum will be fabricating and installing a permanent exhibit called the Land of Extremes. It will be an exhibit on the human adaptation to the desert environment.

That is just a big way of saying that it is really hard to live somewhere that is so hot and has so little water ... but people have been doing it for more than 10,000 years.

Telling this story, in fact, has been one of the primary objectives of the Imperial Valley Desert Museum Society since its incorporation in 1974. Over the summer, this story will unfold in a series of articles that will be included in the Saturday edition of the Imperial Valley Press.

The Imperial Valley Desert Museum has been a dream for more than four decades. The museum in Ocotillo opened in March 2012 after more than 13 years of construction. Since that time, more than 9,000 people have come out to Ocotillo for programs and activities. In December the museum became an approved curation facility for federal archaeology collections.

Soon, we will achieve the dream of being a fully functioning and operational visitor center welcoming thousands of visitors to the recreational and environmental opportunities of our deserts.

To many people in the county, this has been a long time coming, but success of finally getting the museum open owes to the grassroots organization behind the museum.

The Imperial Valley Desert Museum Society was incorporated in 1974 to support the “promotion and expansion” of the Imperial Valley College Desert Museum, which had been founded in 1969. Under the direction of Michael Barker and Jay von Werlhof, both anthropology professors at IVC, the college operated a small museum in downtown El Centro. The museum was ahead of its time for the Imperial Valley, with an outstanding archeology program run by the college and a Carbon 14 dating laboratory, one of just three in California.

But in 1979, the downtown building was destroyed in an earthquake. I am sure no one knew the path that lay ahead.
Von Werlhof came to teach at the IVC in 1973. When he arrived in the Valley, there were 109 recorded archaeological sites. Over the next several years, he documented more than 10,000 additional sites.

Under his direction, the Imperial Valley Desert Museum Society managed cultural and educational activities throughout the Valley. The main objectives were the preservation and investigation of cultural sites that pertained to early man. The society promoted the idea that Imperial County held “the key to the antiquity of man in the Western Hemisphere.”

Sometime around 1984, plans were drawn up and a fundraising campaign was initiated for a new Desert Museum. And in 1987, an Act of Congress transferred 24 acres of federal land in Ocotillo “for the purpose of constructing and maintaining a public museum.”

In the early 1990s work began at the site in Ocotillo. Everyone in the county thought that a new museum was right around the corner. But there was a long road of fundraising ahead. In 1999, a federal transportation enhancement grant, in the amount of $238,000, was received to put in a parking lot, trails and picnic shelters. “It Used to be a Dream,” the society announced. Fundraising continued. Family pledges were made at $2,000, with the donation paid annually over 10 years. People were asked to buy a square foot of the new museum for $55 ... 1,200 were sold.

During the 1990s, over $350,000 was raised locally, all in small gifts. It was decided that the building would be “built as income allows on a pay-as-you-go basis.”

In 2000, Duggins Construction erected the exterior of the museum. Not until 2005, did the society receive a large grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment to finish the interior of the building.

The Desert Museum’s primary focus since 2011 has been the inventory and re-curation of the IVC archaeological collection. This prehistoric artifact collection is one of the most significant collections in Southern California because it documents the life ways of the earliest people in our region. When von Werlhof led students into the desert, he taught that people began living here 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In recent months, an archaeology site in Jacumba was positively dated to 8,400 BCE (Before the Common Era).

The story of how people adapted to living in such an extreme environment is exciting. It is a story that still affects those of us living in the Valley today. In the coming months the story will unfold at the Desert Museum as construction of exhibits gets underway. It is an exciting time at the museum. Finally, we can truly say it used to be a dream.

Neal V. Hitch is director of the Imperial Valley Desert Museum in Ocotillo.

  • 1969 – IVC establishes Department of Anthropology
  • 1972 – H.P. Meyers Foundation donates building for Desert Museum
  • 1973 – Jay von Werlhof hired by IVC
  • 1974 – Imperial Valley Desert Museum Society incorporated as a 501(c)(3)
  • 1979 – Museum building condemned owing to earthquake
  • 1987 – By act of 100th Congress 25 acres set aside for museum in Ocotillo
  • 1994 – Spirit of the Desert sculpture erected at the museum property
  • 1995 – Groundbreaking ceremony at museum property
  • 1999 – Caltrans ITEA grant awarded for access road, parking lot, picnic shelters, and landscaping
  • 2000 – Duggins Construction builds exterior of museum building
  • 2005 – CCHE grant awarded to finish interior of museum building
  • 2008 – Certificate of Occupancy received from Imperial County
  • 2012 – Museum staffed and opened to public
  • 2013 – Inventory of IVC archaeology collection completed
  • 2014 – Design of Permanent Exhibit completed

Friday, June 20, 2014

Authors talk about Rufus, Death Valley’s “rescue dog”

Story will be the subject of talk at ECM.
by News Staff
Sierra Wave

Authors John and Barbara Marnell will be making a presentation and signing copies of their book “Good Samaritans of Death Valley: Lou Westcott Beck and Rufus,” at the Eastern California Museum in Independence on Saturday June 21.

The slide show and presentation will begin at 1:30 p.m. In addition, the authors will be at the Museum to sign copies of their book from 1 to 4 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.

The book documents a rather unique era in Death Valley history in the early 1900s when visitors started driving cars into the desert, and explores the unique, live-saving team of Lou Westcott Beck and his dog, Rufus. The pair took it on themselves to provide directions, instructions and, when necessary, rescues to stranded or distressed motorists. With Rufus decked out in custom “boots” made of elk skin, and Beck driving a big, lumbering touring car named “Chuckwalla,” the team was a welcome sight to many desert travelers.

In the early 1900s when automobiles first started to cruise through the barren and often dangerous terrain of Death Valley, there were virtually no road signs or informational signs that directed motorists and visitors to the places in the sprawling desert where they could find water. The era’s automobiles could be quite unreliable in the desert, since they were prone to overheating without a steady supply of water for the radiator. Tires went flat so often most travelers carried multiple spares and patch kits.

Beck had a life-changing event himself in Death Valley, when he ran out of water and Rufus came to the rescue by locating a spring.

That prompted Beck to become a tireless promoter of safe travel through the desert.

Rufus, thanks to his booties and other unique gear, quickly became a bit of a celebrity. The Siberian bloodhound carried a “packsaddle” on his back with food and water, and a camera case around his neck containing snake bite antidotes and other medical supplies. A pair of yellow goggles, to protect his eyes from the dust, completed his outfit.

The Chuckwalla was also customized for desert travel. One of the most interesting adaptations was Beck’s homemade “tire chains,” which consisted of wire wrapped around the tires to provide better traction in the sand. The car also carried water, food and a full array of tools.

The pair were quite a sight, and even participated in the Pasadena’s famed Rose Parade to bring attention to their mission.

Besides roaming the roads of Death Valley and offering hands-on help to travelers, Beck also worked tirelessly to get the state to put up road signs and informational signs along the region’s roads. When the state dragged its feet, Beck went ahead and painted and placed his own signs. Many of them directed travelers to water or shade or provided information about various services available in desert towns.

The Marnells, a husband-and-wife writing and research team, have thoroughly researched Beck’s life and his Death Valley days. The book’s lively style provides interesting insights and information about the early days of motor travel in the desert.

The Eastern California Museum is located at 155 N. Grant St. in Independence. Call 760-878-0258 for more information.