Big Bear Museum

Panning for gold at Big Bear MuseumStamp Mill at Big Bear Museum

BIG BEAR MUSEUM–History comes alive at Big Bear Museum, where blacksmiths pound out iron creations while keeping the fires stoked and children learn how to pan for gold. A working 5-stamp mill powers up weekends to pulverize ore and there’s exhibits that document Big Bear history, from its discovery and Southern California’s largest gold rush to the ski slopes. Operated by the nonprofit Bear Valley Historical Society and open Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays from Memorial Day through September 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission $5

800 Greenway Dr. Big Bear City at Bear City Park) (909) 585-8100

Go Back in Time with Blacksmith Shop, Cabins

 Schoolhouse, working blacksmith shop where metal is forged as it was a hundred years ago, saloon, barbershop and dentist office and more. Big Bear Museum is really more of a living western town where kids can pan for gold on weekends and parents can sip sarsaparilla.

Yet of all of the nine historic buildings renovated where history comes alive at Big Bear Museum, the latest might be grandest of them all. At least that’s the opinion of curator Kim Sweet, who has transformed the historic Juniper Point Cabin into a trip back in time to circa 1919.New Camp Juniper cabin at Big Bear Museum

Step inside the museum’s latest exhibit and experience Camp Juniper, the kind of general store found in every Western town at the turn of the century, where locals went for everything from staples to sundries, and the Minnelusa Post Office.

Going to Minnies as the locals called it was like stopping in at Oleson’s Mercantile from “Little House on the Prairie” fame. Produce, pain relief, pots and pans were all found under one roof in a store much like the museum’s Camp Juniper building. The project began in 2009 when the building was moved from its original location on the north shore near Alpine Pedal Path and was moved to the museum.

The historic cabin was restored to original condition by James Smith of Smithhaven Homes and Ron Core, son of late famous Big Bear historian Tom, adding modern day necessities like handicap ramp to meet 2016 codes. Rebar was installed through every wall but some touches like the original glass windows were retained. Some $80,000 was spent on the extensive renovation and moving the building.

Then Sweet along with Cathy Geary brought in an amazing array of antiques and period pieces to create the look and feel of general store and post office. Of the thousand or more items on display, tins and cans and bottles and pans, all are authentic—no replicas—and straight from Big Bear’s past. Of particular note is bluebird pattern china that belonged to Rose Knickerbocker, wife of legendary Big Bear mountain man Bill, purchased through a Montgomery Wards catalog.

“The original pine came from Pedersen’s Sawmill in Fawnskin,” Sweet said.

There were lots of surprises in renovating a hundred-year old original building. “We found stuff in the walls,” Sweet said, pointing out a Prince Albert poster from the 1930’s. “It was a virtual time capsule. We found scrunched up newspapers in the walls added for insulation. That’s why so many historic buildings burned. There was a 1937 edition of the Los Angeles Examiner next to exposed wires.”

The Post Office is especially impressive. Displayed are actual mailboxes from the old Boulder Bay Post Office, numbers 1-135. Original postal equipment, 15-cent receipt from 1898 box rental, antiques and more duplicate almost exactly a store from the 1920’s.

Bring history to life is what the museum does each Big Bear Summer from Memorial Day through the first weekend of October. Big Bear’s storied mining past, where Southern California’s largest gold rush unfolded, is well represented; there’s an array of equipment all about that came directly from local mines, including ore carts on train tracks and the remnants of the famous seven-mile long wood Chinese water flume that ran across the mountains. Talk about an engineering marvel—it ran at just the precise angle for water to flow mile after mile down and across a mountain ridge, built with an estimated quarter-million square nails!

When miners weren’t running stamp mills they were panning for gold, a skill Jim Lanners and other volunteers demonstrate most weekends. Swirl the water in a pan and splash out foreign material little by little till only the gold is left behind. It’s a great hands-on activity that youngsters love, especially when they find bits of “gold” (actually pyrite or “fool’s gold”) at the bottom of their pans they get to keep.

The five stamp mill is impressive, originally from Mariposa but representative of the operations that dotted Holcomb Valley during gold rush days. It’s one of only two in the state that works and on weekends it’s fired up with a roar. At one time dozens of stamp mills pounded ore in Big Bear and Holcomb Valleys, most notably the 40-stamp mill operated by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin.

Baldwin was a significant Southern California figure—Baldwin Park is named after the man who founded Santa Anita racetrack—who made a fortune in real estate and even at horse racing, only to lose much of it on his 1875 mining operation in east Big Bear Valley. It’s wasn’t so much that they didn’t find gold because they did, in large quantities, but it was mostly low grade stuff that cost more to extract than it was worth. Subsequent owner J.R. DeLaMar rebuilt the mine working the so-called “Mountain of Gold” in 1900, using an advanced cyanide process to separate gold more economically, and at its peak pulled $4,000 a week from Gold Mountain Mine, but it eventually shut down around 1920.

Mining equipment abounds at the museum, from carts to crushers, and most of it came from local operations. There’s a miniature model that shows how the big one works. For a hands-on mining experience kids can splash water in the sluice box and pan for gold (pyrite nuggets) they get to keep for free each weekend.

See how metal was forged in yesteryear at the working blacksmith shop. Coals are fanned as strikers and blacksmiths including Jim Lanners keep their irons in the fire (hence the origin of the expression, by the way) and mold metal into tools, horseshoes and more, Inside Camp Juniper Cabin at Big Bear Museumeven a stunning rattlesnake design. Check out the anvils—one weighs a whopping 623 lbs.!—along with forges from the original Rose Mine.

Authentic Maltby Cabin filled with Big Bear memorabilia, chuckwagon, Civil War displays, turn-of-the-century barbershop and dentist office, it’s all at Big Bear Museum, off Greenway in Big Bear City at the park. Sip a cold sarsaparilla, buy old time photos for cheap, and browse the exhibits Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays through Big Bear Summer from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The all-volunteer run museum is the most affordable family outing in Big Bear, with admission just $5, 14 and under free.