Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comments from San Benito County. Last updated 2:21 p.m.
On May 1, just in time for National Museum Month, the San Benito County Historical Society welcomed visitors to their museum in the Wapple House, next to the San Benito County Free Library, for the first time in over a year. With the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the society hopes this is just the first of many such weekends to come but the future may be uncertain as the county contemplates relocating the museum.
“I think the city of Hollister needs us to be open,” said newly elected society president, John Wrobel. “We are going to attempt to staff the museum on Fridays and Saturdays at least through this month. Due to funding, it might be just me coming in by myself on some days. But I think we have to let people know that there is a museum here in town and that we have an important story to tell about the history of this county.”
While the society is enthusiastic about the Wapple House Museum reopening, the County Board of Supervisors is currently considering plans to clear the property.
“A month or so ago, the Board of Supervisors had a budgeting meeting,” Wrobel said, “The county owns this whole block and they had several different options for this property for things that they might want to do, like create library parking. Interestingly enough, this building does not appear on any of the plans. The people who put together the plan did not seem to think this building is an important thing to save for the community.”
When Wrobel asked about what they had planned for the Wapple House, he said he was told, “You could just take it to the Historic Park.” Wrobel was quick to point out that moving a building the size of the Wapple House would cost a very large amount of money that the society does not have—and that losing the building would take away the museum’s home within the central part of the city. The two story Wapple House is at 498 5th Street in downtown Hollister.
San Benito County Public Information Officer David Westrick said no decision has been made on the building.
“The plans for that property are still in the early stages and nothing has been decided,” Westrick said. “The county is very aware of the historic nature of the building and intends to preserve it should it need to be moved.”
There is no final plan yet, leaving the house’s fate in development limbo. But while Wrobel would like to preserve the building, he also feels a need for a space more suited to being a museum.
“My dream is to find a piece of property someplace,” Wrobel said, “maybe with the help of some great landowner who values the preservation of our history. Someplace where we can put up a building that has temperature and humidity control to protect our collection. Then we could really open up a real museum for people to come and see.”
Wrobel is also a member of the local chapter of E Clampus Vitus, a benevolent society formed during the Gold Rush era. Six years ago, he convinced his fellow Clampers to volunteer for community service projects at the Wapple house and the San Benito County Historical Park. His leadership in that work led the society to ask him to join its board of directors four years ago. He was elected president of the society at the Board of Directors meeting in December.
The Wapple House, the home of Hollister pharmacist George Wapple and his philanthropist wife Jane, has housed the historical society since 1995. It was designed by the famed San Jose architectural firm of Wolfe & McKenzie and completed in 1908.
The museum has a section dedicated to George which includes his old pharmacy cabinet with a display of drugs, and over-the-counter products he sold as well as the equipment he used.
Jane is represented by displays detailing her work in 1918 to raise money locally for the Belgian Relief Fund, which was used to provide assistance for refugees and orphans left homeless and starving after World War I.
Jane was also responsible for the idea of constructing the Hollister Veterans Memorial Building on San Benito Street, financed in part by a horse show at Bolado Park which was the origin of the annual County Saddle Horse Show and Rodeo.
Jane outlived George by 37 years, passing away in 1971. Her will left her home to the county, which used it as office space before turning it over to the historical society.
Other exhibits at the Wapple House include displays on the schools and hospitals in the county, the men and women from the county who served in the armed forces, 19th-century household items, interpretive panels, as well as framed photographs and artwork.
Wrobel hopes that since the museum and park are open again, some of the revenue they lost during the shutdown will be restored, with much of the society’s funding coming from rental fees at the park’s dance hall.
“Funding has been problematic,” Wrobel said. “We were able to get a small COVID grant and $750 from the Downtown Association, which allowed about $5,000 to use on computer equipment and laptops that are newer than the old Windows XP computers we have been using. It means we can get the research staff together to start working on cataloging our collection again and taking care of some of the information requests we have gotten.”
The research room, closed to the general public, contains newspapers, government records and donated family archives dating back to the creation of San Benito County in 1874. The heavy bookcases hold a large assortment of printed and written items including an almost complete collection of the Hollister Freelance in bound volumes, large leatherbound yearly assessor’s books, land records and maps, and even ledgers used to record the meals served to prisoners in the county jail.
May 1 also marked the reopening of the Visitor Center at the Historical Park. The park grounds have been open during the pandemic, but the buildings on the site remained closed until last weekend.
The park is under the direction of Anita Kane, the previous society president, and will resume hosting regularly scheduled events including volunteer work days once a month, as well as Civil War Days, staged by reenactors, planned for Sept. 17-19.
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