By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer– Our neighbor to the east is home to several museums curated by the Searles Valley Historical Society (SVHS). They are the Old Guest House Museum, the Fire Museum, the History House, the Caboose, the Trona Railway Museum, the Archive Center and the most recent, Tufa House. Trona is made up of the main town, Trona, and the surrounding towns of Pioneer Point, Argus, and West End, and there was once Borosolvay and South Trona.
The Old Guest House Museum is across the street from Searles Valley Minerals at 1393 Main Street. It is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 1 pm. Debby Celaya, Secretary of the SVHS Board, tells us since volunteers can, on occasion, have conflicts, they suggest you call before coming to confirm they are open. 760-372-5222. The building is one of the oldest in Searles Valley. It was built in 1917 as four apartments and eventually remodeled as a guesthouse with 12 rooms. Early companies that owned the plant were New York-based, so they built the guesthouse so the executives would have a place to stay when they visited.
In the very early days, workers at the plant were all bachelors. SVHS Board Treasurer Sharon Hartley tells us, “When they finally allowed men to be married, they let the men bring their wives here and rent one of these on weekends.” At some point in time, the plant converted the building into offices. In the 1980s, it housed a drafting business, a cable company, a realtor, and the local newspaper, The Argonaut.
There are several exhibits in the Old Guesthouse Museum. There are numerous artifacts from the chemical plants, an antique optician’s chair, Trona High School memorabilia, John Searles’ coat from 1892, an axel hub from 1849, and a Mojave Street corner. Other room displays include Austin Hall, Trona Hospital, Panamint Valley Indians, Randsburg, Atolia, the Magnesium Monorail, Ballarat, Panamint City and early prospectors.
The Old Guesthouse Museum also has a gift shop with postcards, t-shirts, magnets, books and other souvenirs. The most popular items are branded with “End of the World 10 miles; Trona 15 miles.” The most recent unusual question was a message left on their answering machine asking if people can swim in Searles Lake.
All of the other museums are available by appointment only. The Trona Railway Museum and Caboose at 83281-83299 Trona Rd includes a building filled with artifacts like railroad scales, addressograph machines, timetables, stamps, and various photographs. It is difficult to miss the Trona Railway Caboose, built in 1958, which sits on the same property. The Trona Railway was built to transport products from the plant. But it also was used for passengers. Hartley tells us that once upon a time, the plant had a baseball team. “We had a lot of men that came here because they could play baseball. The company would hire them if they could play baseball. And so all the teams would ride the trains.” She remembers two destinations being Lone Pine and Randsburg.
The Fire Museum is located at 83732 Trona Road. Inside are two antique fire engines, a 1927 Stutz and a 1938 Aherns-Fox. Displays in the museum include photographs of major fires in Argus, Borosolvay, and Trona, as well as fire memorabilia.
The Archive Center, located in the old credit union (now located in Ridgecrest as the Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union” located on Jones Street next to the Sheriff’s Stationhouses, a large collection of photos and documents including newspapers, maps, a library, letters and files of Trona, Searles Valley and surrounding areas. These are available for research by appointment.
Robert Schuette donated his childhood home, The Tufa House. Located in Argus, the house is like no other because all of its walls are made of Tufa, a calcium carbonate stone deposited when Searles Lake was full of water. This is only for viewing from the outside at this time.
The History House, located at 83001 Panamint Street, was built around 1920 and was the first location for the SVHS. It was donated by Kerr McGee Chemical Corporation in 1988. The house is still almost in its original condition. In it you will see the music room with a Weber piano first tuned in 1909, the kitchen with its original breakfast nook, a built-in ironing board, and early household appliances. A feature of the early Trona houses includes a root cellar, a drawer with free-flowing air from below the house.
However, the SVHS had been started on March 15, 1979, when a group of citizens convened. These concerned citizens included Ed Bueltmann, Fred Boyer, Gudrun Doug, Gladys Dluzak, Lou Jeske, Mary and Bill Merk, and G.N. McDonald. They filed their articles of incorporation on July 24, 1980.
In the beginning, they had a file cabinet in the library. Hartley tells us, “They let anybody come in and dig through their files. So they lost a lot of stuff.” In digging through old minutes, Hartley learned, “They had a display in the old furniture store. And then I guess they had problems with stuff disappearing there.” And then came along someone who has been closely associated with the museums, Margaret “Lit” Pipkin Brush, who died in her sleep earlier this year. Lit had been working at the plant since 1945 and was the supervisor of Searles Valley Residences, Inc., the organization that was responsible for managing the company’s properties. In 1988, she used her connections with the plant and they donated the History House.
Lit lived in Trona since she was nine months old, so whenever there was a question about the history of Trona, she remembered. She lived it and she lived for the museum. Under her leadership, the SVHS expanded to what we can visit today.
Trona is a tight-knit community. Its population once numbered 7,000 and in 2016, it was around 1,000. In the 1800s, mining started at Searles Dry Lake. The town was officially established in 1913 “as a self-contained company town operated by its resident mining company to house employees who were paid in company scrip instead of cash.” (Desert News, 6/28/21)
There have been many owners of the plant. The Searles Valley timeline provided by SVHS begins with 1873 when John Searles formed the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company—followed over the decades by California Borax Company, Pacific Coast Borax Company, California Trona Company, American Trona Corporation, American Potash & Chemical Corporation, Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation, North American Chemical
Company, IMC Global Corporation, Sun Capital, LLC, until 2004 when Searles Valley Minerals became the owner. The neighboring plant, West End, is also included in the timeline.
Museums are an essential part of contemporary civilization. The Museums Association website reads, “Museums can increase our sense of well-being, help us feel proud of where we have come from, can inspire, challenge and stimulate us, and make us feel healthier.” The University of Toronto website says, “Local history contains a wealth of details and stories that help reveal how societal changes impacted the lives of ordinary people. Locations and objects in your community, sometimes things as mundane as names of streets, can reflect the long heritage of past generations where you live. Few of us know the origins or histories behind our community, but learning the stories of a region’s past can change the way you think about the present.”
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” is attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana. It is too late to repopulate Trona to its population of 7,000, but perhaps we can understand Trona better.
Visit the Trona museums, it is worth the short drive.