Gallagher House is portal to California, Pa., history
Share with others:
Local legend has it that California, Pa., got its name from a group of gold prospectors heading west to seek their fortune. When they arrived at a location along the Monongahela River, they decided to stay and named the settlement after their original destination.
Whatever, the California here was founded in 1849, the dawn of the California Gold Rush, and while the connection is obvious, the exact origin of the town's name is still unsubstantiated.
To educate the public about the heritage of the town and nearly a dozen surrounding communities, the California Area Historical Society was formed in April 1992, when a group of some 50 history-minded people met at the California Public Library.
"Originally we thought we'd be housed in the library, but, when we realized we'd be taking up more space than it could offer, we put a news release in papers seeking an alternative," recalled Patricia Cowen, archivist.
Fortunately, after Mary Gallagher, owner of a large 10-room house on the corner of Wood and Fifth, passed on, her niece, Kris Kelly read the news and contacted the Gallagher heirs to ask if they'd be willing to donate the house to the historical society. When all agreed, papers deeding the house to the society were signed on Dec. 7, 1994.
The worth of the house in 1994 was estimated at $55,000 and the society has since put in $65,000 worth of repairs and improvements that include a new roof, the repointing of the exterior brickwork, rewiring the interior, installing new windows and more. Money to finance the projects came from fund-raising, membership dues ($20 per year per person), donations and grants. The brick repointing project was especially important because it's believed the bricks may have been made at one of the town's brickyards.
"Early on, we asked Roy Sarver, then the executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, to advise us," said Edgar Harris, the society's charter president. "He told us to make a decision as to whether we wanted to be a museum or an educational center. Because we have such an all-inclusive collection of research material, we chose the latter."
While the Gallagher House, the society's official home, does have displays of furniture with historical references to the area, the society takes special pride in its research items that includes 120 cubic feet of archival material.
Starting with a few historical books, the collection has grown to more than 7,000 photographs, county atlases, local maps, deeds, mining and payroll records, military records, school yearbooks and more.
"We have one of the largest collections of funeral home records in Washington County," Mr. Harris said. "We also have [more than] 50,000 obituaries starting in 1850 up to today, as well as a large collection of cemetery records."
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the society has scheduled a public open house from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday. During the event, State Rep. Peter J. Daley will present the society with a citation from the Legislature acknowledging the group's accomplishments over the years. Tours of the Gallagher House will also be given.
"We're also releasing CDs of information on local cemeteries we've gathered over the years that include photos of tombstones, inscriptions in stone and maps of the cemeteries," said Mary Beth Graf, current president.
The society has 329 members who reside in 29 states. Ten years ago, the society published a 250-photograph pictorial history of area communities titled "Images of America: California, Pa." The book published by Arcadia Press proved a good fundraiser and earned the society close to $5,000. The book is still available at the Gallagher House.
The town is also home to California University of Pennsylvania, and the society is working with the university library on a special project. In exchange for letting the society copy editions of the "Normal Review" dating back to June 1, 1884, one of the university's first publications, its volunteers are indexing the periodicals.
"When I see all the work volunteers have done over the past 20 years, I'm amazed," Mrs. Graf said.
First Published May 17, 2012 5:25 am