Keeper of History

By Alexandra Krueger

San Joaquin Historical Society & Museum safeguards SJ’s most precious artifacts

The rich history of San Joaquin County cannot be understated, but many who live here often underestimate, or worse, forget that fact. While the San Joaquin Historical Society & Museum in Lodi is a popular spot for field trips and school functions, it’s also the home of over 50,000 historic objects representative of the history of our county, from artifacts from the Native American peoples who lived here first, to the historic buildings that have been here since the days of Charles Weber. 

This month at the San Joaquin Historical Society is a very special time for one of those artifacts: the revolutionary Holt “75 Caterpillar” Tractor celebrates its 100th birthday. Not only did its rumbling tracks build the Delta as we know it, but it also unofficially helped us win World War I by hauling heavy artillery for the British, French, and American armies.

“Most types of earth moving equipment were invented in San Joaquin County,” says Philip Merlo, Director of Education and Visitor Services at the San Joaquin Historical Museum. “But the Holt family revolutionized agriculture.”

Most notably, Benjamin Leroy Holt. You’ll have no doubt at least seen his name on one of the most trafficked roads in Stockton, Benjamin Holt Drive, but the real-life Benjamin was an American inventor who created the first crawler-type tread tractor, the Holt 75 Caterpillar. Its unique tread allowed it to climb slopes and haul heavy materials without the need for horses. In both domestic and foreign affairs, this innovation was a game-changer—and the San Joaquin Historical Society & Museum doesn’t intend to forget it.

“On June 22, we’ll be having a ‘birthday party’ for the tractor and have a large celebration,” says Philip. “We’re hoping to honor the Holt family.” With an exhibit explaining the tractor’s role in the military as well as our domestic economy, this event is a fascinating way to explore and understand San Joaquin’s impact on the country at large.


Other Happenings at San Joaquin Historical Society & Museum

As Director of Education at the San Joaquin Historical Society & Museum, Philip Merlo thinks of himself as both a historian and an educator. “It’s a powerful experience to find out where you’re from,” he muses. “It’s important for all people to know and have ownership over their own stories. History is one way to do that.”

One of the most important objects used to help kids understand their identity is the Calaveras School House. Built in the 19th century, this one-room schoolhouse was the last of its kind in San Joaquin until it shut down in 1959. It was moved to the Museum grounds in 1976 and still hosts weekly classes of fifth graders from schools across San Joaquin County through their “Valley Days” program. With the boys clad in button-ups and the girls in dresses and bonnets, the school children are ushered in by the school teacher to learn the 1880s state curriculum for a day. “It’s very cool for them to see how far we’ve come,” Philip adds.

Apart from the schoolhouse, there’s a working blacksmith shop from the 1880s, the house of Julia Weber (Captain Charles M. Weber’s only daughter), an ag equipment center, and much more. This being one of San Joaquin’s most prominent museums, it’s also home to a vast, publicly-accessible archive of over a million documents from throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, all pertaining to San Joaquin County. There you will find everything from the Charles Weber family collections, to historic collections of SJ County court cases dating back to the 1870s, as well as a large historic photo collection. “We are the county’s archival institution, so if you’re interested in learning about the community this is the place to be,” declares Philip.

Whether you’re looking for something family-friendly to do on the weekend, hoping to invigorate your child’s mind over summer break, or just wanting to know more about this amazing county we call home, the San Joaquin Historical Society & Museum has everything you need for a learning experience that’s actually tons of fun.

“The San Joaquin Historical Society & Museum is a hidden gem in this county,” says Philip. “We don’t get a lot of publicity, but we serve tens of thousands of people per year, have amazing exhibits, and hands-on, fun education programs.” Philip and the rest of the staff invite you and your family to join in on the fun this summer!

San Joaquin County Historical Museum
11793 Micke Grove Rd., Lodi
(209) 331-2055

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