The Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center

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A Decade of Toy Trains: Q&A with Over the Hill Gang’s Eric Childs

Posted by on December 14, 2016


This week the MAH blog sat down with Eric Childs of the Over the Hill Gang, the Santa Cruz-based group of Toy Train aficionados who have partnered with the MAH to put on the Toy Trains exhibit for 11 straight years. The Toy Trains exhibit opens Friday during at 3rd Friday: Winterpalooza and runs through December 31st. 

Hi Eric, thanks for sitting down with the MAH Blog today! Can you tell us a little bit about the Toy Trains exhibit and how visitors can interact with it? 

Toy trains have been part of America since the late 1800s. We have representative trains from the ‘30s on up into current production, and in fact there are probably more toy trains available now than there ever have been.

The Toy Trains exhibit has four loops of trains in a 12-by-24-foot layout—5 if we include our little Thomas loop. The kids come up, and as slots become available we set them up and let them run the trains themselves. We’ll point out which train they’re controlling and explain what they can do, and work with them if they’re having trouble. In addition, we have a whole collection of carnival type rides that work, in miniature of course, so we have our whole miniature boardwalk area and on the other end we have Thomas and we have some winter scenes—so there’s always something going on on each part of the layout.

Any bells and whistles? 

There are also certain accessories that people can operate—they can push a button and blow the whistle, they can push a button and swings will go back and forth, all kinds of little things like that. Then for the littlest kids we have the Rio Wooden trains in a 3-by-5-foot layout of those. So it’s a fully decorated layout.

Can people bring their own trains to run on the tracks? 

For the kids who already have trains we encourage them to bring them in, and we can run all O-gauge and standard trains on the tracks. We have kids who have been with us for several years who now we put them behind the scenes and they control everything, and we sit in front and relax and enjoy ourselves.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Over the Hill Gang and how the exhibit came together.

The Over the Hill Gang is about 15 years old, and it was simply a group of people in Santa Cruz who like toy trains and typically would go over to a room, it was open to the public, and we had several layouts in place where we could run our trains and have fun. About 11 years ago I had the idea of, gee, why don’t we do something in Santa Cruz? Let’s talk to the Museum. I bet we could put a toy trains show there around Christmas time” — which is exactly what we did. So it was my idea originally [laughing] I’m still glad I had it. The first year we were in the MAH Classroom—needless to say it was a little crowded. It was a full room but a lot of fun.

You’ve been overseeing this exhibit for a decade now. What’s one memory that has stayed with you? 

There was this one kid, he must have been 5 or six at the time, and within half a day he had everything down pat. He could bring the train around, he could stop it at the station, he could start the announcements—he just knew everything to do with that train. To see a kid of that age learn everything so quickly was amazing.

What do you think it is about trains that so effectively captures our imaginations?

I think many children are fascinated by anything that moves. I was at my aunt and uncles house and they had just an oval of track and a few freight cars and an engine—but I could sit there and make it go. Anything where kids get to sit there and controls it is amazing. And we notice, the older kids for the most part as interested in trains, but for the younger kids, it’s a feeling of ‘Oh, wow, we can control this.’ It’s like controlling your own little world.

Eric, thank you so much for your time and your longstanding commitment to bringing Toy Trains to life. Any last words?

Come one, come all, and we hope you enjoy yourselves.

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MAH Journal Unites Congregations

Posted by on November 14, 2016

by Joan Gilbert Martin, editor Do You Know My Name?


On Sunday, November 6, the MAH History Journal, Do You Know My Name? became the catalyst for uniting two congregations, one white and one black. This came about because of articles in our journal on the founding of Calvary Episcopal Church in 1863 and the founding of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church a hundred years later in 1963. As it happens, the churches are neighbors: the Calvary Church at 523 Center Street and the Progressive Church across the street at 517 Center.

After reading about the churches, members of the Calvary Church had an idea. They asked me and two other journal authors to speak at a gathering in their Parish Hall about the history of these churches. And then they asked the congregation of the Progressive Church to join us for the talks and refreshments. The Progressive congregation came, and it was a joyous occasion.

samuel-jacksonAs editor, I discussed the journal’s focus on the history of unknown people who lived in our county. Then I passed around a copy of the journal to see who could find the cover photographs of Eliza and Joseph Boston, founders of the Calvary Church, and the Reverend Samuel Jackson, first pastor of the Progressive Church. The congregations joined forces and picked them out from the many cover images that included a number of white women, several black pastors, and a few black baseball players.


Dana Bagshaw who wrote the article “The Bostons,” spoke of her research on the young couple who founded the Calvary church. She told how Eliza and Joseph started a church despite great personal difficulties including madness and suicide in the family and the death of their only son. Dana’s research also led her to the strong possibility that young Eliza (Miss Lizzie Bull) became an abolitionist while growing up in Canandaigua, New York, and that both the Bostons were abolitionists while living here in Santa Cruz.

Stanley D. Stevens who wrote the article “African American Churches in the City of Santa Cruz,” told two personal anecdotes. He spoke of standing in the rain after a rally and holding out his umbrella for Martin Luther King, Jr.—as he said, he didn’t actually meet the great man, but he did come close. He also told of attending a memorial for Reverend King at the Progressive Church shortly after King’s death. When then Reverend Cassius Ellis, asked him if he was a Christian, Stan replied: “No I am not, but I believe in the teachings of Martin Luther King.” Ellis replied: “That makes you a Christian.”

After the talks, the congregations mingled, discussing with us their newly discovered histories and enjoying the food prepared by the Calvary Church. Then we all went from the Calvary Parish Hall to the church itself, where the two congregations spontaneously raised their voices together to sing the African American Spiritual: “I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me.”

Following the event, Reverend Eliza Linley of Calvary Episcopal Church wrote me to say, “I have the sense that this will not be the last joint effort of our congregations. So thank you, thank you for bringing us together!!”


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The MAH represents at the History Fair

Posted by on October 17, 2016

Santa Cruz County History Fair 2016

The second Santa Cruz County History Fair, hosted again by Friends of the Cowell Lime Works, took place on October 8. It was at Louden Nelson Community Center, and featured displays and activities by more than 30 local museums, historians, historical societies, and other groups. The MAH was well represented by volunteers from many of the museum’s history groups: Publications Committee (selling the new history journal, Do You Know My Name?), Historic Landmark, and Evergreen Cemetery. Thank you to all of our wonderful volunteers who staffed the event!

This year’s fair commemorated the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Santa Cruz as an incorporated city, and the City of Santa Cruz was a co-sponsor of the event. The fair filled most of the available rooms and even hallway space at the Community Center.
“Friends” president Frank Perry (Coauthor, Lime Kiln Legacies: The History of the Lime Industry in Santa Cruz County, California) again took the lead role in organizing and running the event, as he did at last year’s inaugural History Fair. Frank estimated this year’s attendance at about 400 – about a third more than last year’s fair. The four history talks were well-attended and well-received, with standing-room-only audiences estimated at 50-70 for each presentation.


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Journal Launch Santa Cruz County History Journal 8: Do You Know My Name?

Posted by on September 19, 2016

Front Cover of Santa Cruz County History Journal 8, Do You Know My Name?

Front Cover of Santa Cruz County History Journal 8, Do You Know My Name?

By Joan Gilbert Martin, History Journal 8 Editor

On September 2, 2016, a large First Friday crowd gathered in the MAH auditorium to hear short talks by three local historians who contributed to the latest MAH History Journal, Do You Know My Name?Martin Rizzo asked do you know the names of the Native Americans who assassinated Padre Quintana at the Santa Cruz Mission? Lisa Robinson asked do you know the names of some early eccentrics who enlivened the history of the San Lorenzo Valley? Conor O’Brien asked do we know the names of a Santa Cruz family who entertained themselves with games and visits and movies in the early days of the twentieth century.

These are just a few of the questions answered in this lively journal that tells the stories of men and women who were not in the mainstream of Santa Cruz County history, who were unknown, overlooked, or discriminated against.

Other stories answered other questions: Who were the group of squatters evicted from Rancho Bolsa del Pájaro (site of the city of Watsonville) following a quarrel between two brothers? Why did an early Hispanic settler in the Villa de Branciforte lose his standing in the community following statehood? Why did so many of the children buried at Evergreen cemetery die of so-called “natural deaths?” What were the names of the men who played on an all-black baseball team here in Santa Cruz? Who were the men and women who established the first black church in Santa Cruz? And, who were some other folk who once lived in our community, but whose stories have never been told?

Louis Berry, catcher on the all black Santa Cruz baseball team, the “California Giants,” 1909. (McKean Photo)

Louis Berry, catcher on the all black Santa Cruz baseball team, the “California Giants,” 1909. (McKean Photo)

The plan for this unorthodox history journal began over two years ago when Lisa Robinson, chair of the MAH Publications Committee, attended a memorial for the late historian Phil Reader. Phil was a local boy who spent his life researching and writing about people marginalized in their lifetime and often neglected or misrepresented by later historians. If Phil thought someone had been victimized, even if it was a hundred years ago, he set out to research their life and bring them retroactive justice. Hearing about Phil’s people, Lisa said, “Here are the subjects of our next journal.”

At the launch ceremony, authors were on hand to sign journals for the audience. Joan Gilbert Martin, editor of this eighth journal, presented Phil’s widow, Lorraine Reader, with the gift of a hardbound edition of the journal. Joan is a longtime member of the Publications Committee, a contributor to many of MAH’s preceding seven journals, and also was editor of History Journal 6, Pathways to the Past.

We are thrilled that so many attended in appreciation of this important addition to the unknown history of Santa Cruz County.

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Martijn Stiphout turns trash into surfboards.

Posted by on September 14, 2016


This Friday, come get trashy with Ventana Surfboards at an evening of Lightning Talks at the MAH.

The theme of the night is ‘Made in Santa Cruz,’ so you’ll get to hear me and 7 other speakers give fast-paced, visual talks about local innovations. See the full list of speakers here.

In my lightning talk about Ventana Surfboards, I’ll showcase amazing local craftspeople and companies, and how we’ve turned their trash into wooden surfboards and more.

Surfers love to think of themselves as protectors of the sea, but surfboards, wetsuits and even the t-shirts surfers wear are terrible for the environment. At Ventana, we set out to create a better example for the industry.

I think of myself as the trashiest surfboard builder in the world. What started as a way to save money on materials has evolved into a passion to discover the most beautiful, exotic and historic reclaimed woods around in order to build surfable works of art.

Come get trashy with me this Friday!

Martijn Stiphout is the co-founder, master craftsman and board design visionary of Ventana Surfboards & Supplies. He was born in South Africa, moved to Germany when he was still small, then on to the Netherlands a few years later. He finally came to settle in California in 1993. See more of his bio here.

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