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Time (and) Travel

Way back at the Blue Lake Museum



It's May and the Blue Lake Museum just reopened for the season — two good reasons to head inland, toward the sun. A copywriter working for the now-defunct Hotel Korbel, close to downtown Blue Lake, puffed the excursion in the 1920s: "Ho! For Korbel in the land of sunshine, fruit and flowers. While in Humboldt, don't fail to visit Hotel Korbel — fine automobile drive from Eureka." Hotel Korbel has no more vacancies but the rest of the description still applies. The drive is fine, especially this time of year. Hitch up the buggy and pump those tires.

As the Blue Lake Museum opens for its 2017 summer season the museum's curator, Cynthia Gourley-Bagwell, and her team of dedicated volunteers continue working to catalog a wealth of diverse historical materials and make them accessible to the public. The museum's exhibition spaces are historic in their own right — the institution occupies the old Blue Lake train depot, a wedge-shaped building straddling the platform between what used to be the Arcata and Mad River Railroad track's two forks. The building's front rooms continue to feel like rooms in the country station they once were (the area has had no passenger rail service since 1931 and no service at all since 1985).

Railroad ephemera, logging memorabilia and turn-of-the-century residents' portrait photographs occupy the former depot's public rooms. Rooms in back feature spaces organized around domestic, railroad, farming and logging themes that flow into one another without interruption.

The notional parlor assembles pieces of heavy wood furniture into a configuration suggesting the Biedermeier comforts of a middle-class home circa 1890. The sheet music resting on the upright piano is a popular tune titled "I Love You Truly," dedicated modestly "to A.B.H." An armchair wearing an antimacassar has a black ribbon pinned across it to keep visitors from trying to sit down. But the side table next to it supports reading glasses, a book, a teacup and a ball of grey yarn, as if to suggest that the absent sitter/knitter/reader has just stepped out.

Some historical museums take an exhaustive approach to scholarship, seeking to annotate the provenance of every wilted doily. But the artifacts in the Blue Lake Museum are presented with minimal comment, which means they communicate largely through form.

The intimate exhibition space juxtaposes artifacts in ways that can be engagingly disruptive. A delicate woven Hupa cap can be seen only steps away from the 3,000-pound letterpress used to print the Blue Lake Advocate in the 1890s. (The museum preserves a complete run of the Advocate in print and microfilm among its major holdings.)

Here teachers' and butchers' tools rest side by side, as they must have at times in daily life during the hardscrabble heyday of this logging town. Gold Metal crayons and old editions of McGuffey's Eclectic Spelling Book repose cheek-by-jowl with a stained and studded pair of leather gauntlets "worn for slaughtering."

A few books are on display, among them an enormously embossed and gold-stamped Self-Interpreting Bible, published in 1878 by one enterprising New Yorker, John Brown, which someone really should read cover-to-cover some time; the titular claim would raise some interesting theological questions, if true.

Here is a sequence of longhand homestead deeds and land grants. As they rest there in their dimly lit vitrines, the sight of them might make you imagine the way a Hupa or Karuk might have felt when a white settler first communicated the idea this piece of paper says I own this land; the initial reaction might well have been to scoff — yeah, right — given how extreme the disconnect between the referent (the deed) and the thing (the land itself) would have been.

Here is a Studebaker "doctor's buggy," which seems to have been a practical yet stylish choice capable of handling some rough terrain: big wheels, high clearance, a wide protective awning and all-weather celluloid upholstery in a shiny black pattern with tiny gold stars made it, arguably, the horse-drawn Tacoma of the 19-teens. The lovingly restored carriage looks as though it could drive away today, although perhaps the Elvira-like mannequin representing the carriage driver, with a Goth mane of wild black hair sticking out around the collar of her floor-length black theatre coat, hasn't aged quite as well.

Here is a playbill for a silent comedy that played at the Korbel Theater in 1917: Jack Pickford and Louise Huff starring in the movie adaptation of novelist Owen Johnson's story The Varmint, directed by William D. Taylor, released by Paramount. This movie is now lost, with no known existing prints. But the playbill offers a tantalizing glimpse of a cinematic experience now permanently beyond our reach.

The Blue Lake Museum is located at 330 Railroad Ave. in Blue Lake. It's open Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays from 1-4 p.m. and by appointment. Call 668-4188 or visit


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