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A Treasure Trove of History at Sharpsteen Museum

This year marked the 45th anniversary of the opening of Calistoga’s Sharpsteen Museum. This volunteer-run institution, filled with Napa Valley historical gems, is open to visitors free of charge. 

Artifacts from the life of Calistoga pioneer Reason. P. Tucker are on display at the Sharpsteen Museum through Feb. 24. Photo by Eden Umble.

This year marked the 45th anniversary of the opening of Calistoga’s Sharpsteen Museum. This volunteer-run institution, filled with Napa Valley historical gems, is open to visitors free of charge. 

On Sept. 30, 1978, Ben Sharpsteen welcomed the public as he opened the museum with a ceremonial ribbon cutting.

“Pause for a moment — reflect upon the past — and join the Sharpsteen family in its simple enjoyment of a priceless heritage,” he said that day.

“Many years of research and planning, combined with the generous contributions of funds and countless hours of volunteer services, have made this possible.”

The museum was “dedicated to a succession of pioneers,” Sharpsteen said. Among these was his grandmother, Catherine Crittenden Sharpsteen “who, in 1890 invested a widow’s dowry in a fantastic scheme for profit. It ended disastrously, but without that mishap, I would not have been saturated with Calistoga lore and the desire to preserve for all time my childhood impression.”

Sharpsteen was referring to a project founded in 1888 by Emma P. Eels, who bought 108 acres of land west of Calistoga and founded The Callusto Company to manufacture metal polish and soap. When her company, formed entirely of women, failed, Catherine Sharpsteen, a major investor, became sole owner of the property, which Ben Sharpsteen first visited as a child. “I fell in love with the location and it has been in my blood all my life,” he wrote later in an article about the Callusto Company.

After a career as an animator and illustrator for Walt Disney, he and his wife Bernice returned to Calistoga, where he was dismayed to discover that the history and heritage of Calistoga was in danger of disappearing. This inspired his subsequent dedication to establishing the museum.

The vision for the museum was not Ben’s alone. His wife Bernice was a key player in its development. Many of today’s Sharpsteen Museum volunteers and board of directors attribute the organization’s volunteer culture to the dedication of both Ben and Bernice Sharpsteen.

On that opening day and ever since, visitors to the Sharpsteen Museum discover a treasure trove that includes a diorama depicting Calistoga during the 1860s complete with a running model train. There is also an authentic stagecoach and an original cottage from the early Brannan resort with antique furnishings as well as a blacksmith shop and an “Old Thyme” kitchen. Ben’s Room commemorates his years at Disney with drawings, sketches and one of his 11 Academy Awards.

The story of Reason P. Tucker

In addition to its permanent displays of historical artifacts, the Sharpsteen Museum presents special exhibits, including the newly opened “Reason P. Tucker: The Man and His Legacy.”

Curated by four members of the museum board of directors — Eden Umble, Patricia Larsen, Kathy Bazzoli and Bev Barnes — this exhibit tells the life story of an unassuming pioneer turned hero and rescuer of the Donner Party. It runs through February 2024.

Umble said, “Our motivation for this exhibit was to celebrate the momentous life of a lesser-known Calistoga pioneer whose legacy can still be traced today through the lives of his prolific descendants, many of whom still live in Napa Valley.”

Reason P. Tucker’s story unfolds through photographs and family artifacts, including his rifle, a rustic sugar box, an iron bell that once sat atop the Tucker School on Larkmead Lane, a calligraphed ledger, a wooden flute and an 1862 bible belonging to his son, John Wesley Tucker.

Born in Culpepper, Virginia, in 1806, Tucker married his first wife, Delila Compton, around 1829. Over a 45-year period, he would eventually outlive three of his four wives and father 10 children.

Tucker, Delila and their growing family arrived in Napa Valley in 1846. Umble said the Tuckers escaped “by one day the Sierra snow that trapped the Donner Party.” Tucker led the first mission to rescue the Donner Party survivors and participated in a fourth mission. He is attributed with saving 19 people, 12 of whom were children.

Umble continued, “Granddaughter Martha Calvert Tucker described him as ‘six feet three inches tall, very strong and heavy weight. 'He was a man of great determination, she said, and always very friendly and kind to everyone. He was quiet and reserved and never interested in public recognition. He did not seek the status of hero, but like it or not, a hero is what he became.” 

Sadly, Tucker lost his Calistoga homestead and vineyard (now Canard Vineyard) in 1872 during a legal battle over California land grants, when the California Supreme Court decided against him. He not only lost his Napa Valley land, he also was ordered to pay the court costs.

He moved to Goleta, California, near Santa Barbara, to rebuild his life. At the time of his death in 1888, the 82-year-old Tucker had achieved that goal. Buried at the Goleta cemetery, his marker reads, “An honest candid worthy man — one of the heroic rescuers of the Donner Party.”

Many of the rare historical treasures in the Tucker exhibit were lent by Bobbi Enderlin, who came across them following the death of her 95-year-old mother, Ann Tamagni Enderlin, earlier this year. Ann Tamagni Enderlin was Tucker’s great-great-great-great granddaughter. These heirlooms, loaned to the Sharpsteen by Bobbi Enderlin and other families for this special exhibit, provide a visual account of Tucker and his life.

There exists an interesting parallel between the Sharpsteen Museum and Tucker: both are lesser-known Napa Valley icons worthy of acknowledgment and celebration.

The Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History is open Monday through Friday, from noon to 3 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 13 11 Washington St. Admission is free but a $3 donation is appreciated. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. For more information, visit sharpsteenmuseum.org or call 707-942-5911.

Rebecca Yerger is a Napa Valley-based writer and historian.

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