April 21, 2017

An Old Train Depot Keeps One Town's History Alive

  • By: Lauren Walser
Porterville Historical Museum exterior

photo by: Ron Reiring/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The Porterville Historical Museum in Porterville, California. The railroad tracks were recently removed.

Southern Pacific Railroad closed operations inside its Porterville, California, depot in the 1950s. The story of that two-story train station, constructed in 1913 in a town along the Sierra Nevada foothills, could have ended there. But a group of committed Porterville residents banded together and got both the city and the railroad to agree on its next chapter: a museum dedicated to Porterville’s history.

The Porterville Historical Museum was officially established in 1965. And it’s still going strong.

Visitors today can see plenty of the depot’s original architectural details, like its ceiling beams and arches, though some of the arches have been filled in with glass to create display cases. Old signs and lighting fixtures and original benches still fill the interior, too.

The depot’s footprint has expanded a bit over time, as additions were built to accommodate more exhibit space.

The museum is a mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The displays change regularly. But each of the artifacts tell a different element of Porterville and Tulare County’s history. An entire room is devoted to Native American artifacts, like woven baskets. There are military displays with artifacts dating back to the Civil War, and a display with bullets belonging to notorious outlaw James McKinney. There’s a huge collection of decorative arts and crafts, including dolls, quilts, and china. There are old photographs showing Porterville through the ages, and a music room with an old gramophone and memorabilia from the Porterville High School Band.

“It’s easy to step back in time here,” says curator Sheila Pickrell.

In addition to exhibits, the depot-turned-museum hosts numerous events and fundraisers throughout the year, like the annual Pioneer Days event, or the annual model train show, which has run every year after Thanksgiving for the past three decades.

It also hosts regular field trips for local schools, internships, programs for students with physical and mental disabilities, and work programs for adults looking to re-enter the workforce.

Maintaining one of Porterville’s oldest buildings to share the town’s past and inspire its future generations is no small undertaking for Pickrell and the rest of the museum’s staff, board members, and volunteers. But it’s important work, she says.

“We give people something to think about,” Pickrell says. “I love to see kids’ eyes get really big when they see something they’ve never seen before. And some of our older visitors come in and tell really great stories. … We just try to keep everything as close to the original as possible.”

Porterville Historical Museum entrance

photo by: Porterville Historical Museum

The entrance to the Porterville Historical Museum.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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