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Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Mariposa, CA, along with my son and his fourth grade class, as a field trip chaperone. I expected to handle the responsibilities of chaperoning and keeping the eight boys in our group focused on educational activities versus making spit wads, accidentally throwing fidget spinners across the room, or whatever else fourth grade boys frequently do, but what I didn’t anticipate was actually learning a lot and enjoying the museum tours myself.
Our field trip consisted of two stops: The Mariposa Museum and History Center and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum. These two locations are just about five minutes apart from one another (driving) and on route to Yosemite, so if you’re headed that way and can make the time to stop – I suggest you do!
Printing Press & Panning For Gold at the Mariposa Museum and History Center
First, a little history. During the Gold Rush era, Mariposa experienced a huge boom in mining. People came from across the country to build and work underground mine tunnels and pan for gold in the Mariposa Creek (“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly.” The town was named after the numerous butterflies seen in the area by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga in 1806, and each year it holds a Butterfly Festival.).
The Mariposa Museum and History Center boasts a life-size, working stamp machine, a preserved home called the Counts Residence that belonged to the town’s treasurer and features furniture and appliances from the 1870s (yes, the treasurer’s family name happened to be Counts – wasn’t that convenient!), as well as a printing press, a gold panning area, a blacksmith’s shop and artifacts including huge, water-tight baskets made by the Miwok Indians.
Gems & Minerals on Display at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum
The California State Mining and Mineral Museum offers visitors a look at hundreds of gems and minerals, many of which I’d never seen or heard of before our tour. (Have you ever heard of neptunium?)
They even had meteorites on display! Haven’t you always wondered what one might look like up close? They’re quite amazing! Additionally, you can tour a replica underground mine and see what it would be like to have worked in one (spoiler: not so fun!) and see possibly the coolest thing of all – the largest undisturbed gold crystal (yup, gold is actually a crystal!) ever mined and kept in one piece.
10 Things I Learned at the Mariposa Museums that Blew My Mind
1. Gold is super heavy, but can also be made super thin. An ounce of gold is about the size of a pinky finger, but can be rolled thin enough to cover the floor of a large room!
2. A stamp machine from the gold mining era has nothing to do with rubber stamping, but instead is a huge machine made from timber, iron and cylindrical “stamps.” It’s powered by steam and belts and is used to crush granite so gold can be collected from within the rocks.
3. Huge stamping machines filled rooms and were so loud that when they were actually turned off, the townspeople in Mariposa got antsy because they were so used to the constant booming sound, the absence of which made them anxious.
4. Chinese coins, which have a square-shaped hole in the center of them, are often found by people who pan for gold in the Mariposa Creek. The Chinese were among the first groups in the area, brought in from San Francisco to build the intercontinental railroad.
5. Many people came to the Mariposa Creek to pan for gold, and they lived in tents and camped out with fires. Due to the close proximity of these tents and fires to one another, the entire city caught on fire multiple times.
6. Miners who were in charge of blasting tunnels bore small holes and used gun powder to break away at the earth. The blaster role was one of the higher paying mining jobs, but also the most dangerous.
7. The Mariposa newspaper was published once a week on a printing press that had to be hand set with type stamps for each page. The average paper circulated to 400 subscribers and was 8-10 pages long, and each page had to be pressed one at a time.
8. Some gems and minerals make bulgy, circular crystals where others make very square or rectangular crystals.
9. Families living in the late 1800s typically bathed once a week in the kitchen near the stove. The youngest was bathed first, standing in a tub, while heated water was poured over them. The water was then reused for each family member, with the oldest/adults going last, with what was certain to be pretty dirty and cold water.
10. Houses in the late 1800s also didn’t have running water, and using the family outhouse after dark could be dangerous, so most families kept pots under their beds for late night um … “waste” purposes. The oldest child was typically in charge of dumping them each morning. (Tell your oldest this next time they complain about taking out the trash!)
Mariposa Museum and History Center
- Located at 5119 Jessie Street, Mariposa, CA 95338
- Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
- Phone: (209) 966-2924
- Admission Prices: Adults $5. Children under 18 are free. First responders and military in uniform (or presenting active duty I.D.) also are free.
- Website here
CA State Mining and Mineral Museum
- Located at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds, 1.8 miles south of Mariposa on historic Highway 49. Turn left into fairgrounds.
- Open Thursday-Sunday, closed to the public Monday-Wednesday. Summer hours (May 1- Sept. 30) are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Winter hours (oct. 1 to April 30) are 10 a.m to 4 p.m.
- Phone: (209) 742-7625
- Admission is $4 for adults, children 12 and under are free.