California History Discovered!
By Debbie Miller Marschke
It was a mild Saturday morning when the group all met in the park in front of the Banning Mansion on August 22, 2009. Naturally, the traditional DE potluck spread was delicious and there was WAY more food than we needed. Our group consisted of myself, Steve Marshcke, my parents Pete & Marlys Carusone, Allan & Ding Wicker, Jim Proffit, Larry Boreio, Roger Deranian, Jonell Hart, Dave & Penelope Bullock, and Bob & Shirley Bolin. The most common comment of the day was, “ I can’t believe I’ve lived so close and never knew about this place”.
Our tour of the Banning Residence started a little late due to some miscommunication between the museum docents. That delay was further exacerbated by the availability of only one toilet for the entire site, which was not marked or open until after the docents got it together. While we were waiting, we were allowed to explore the historic barn which contained numerous interesting artifacts and carriages. Everything there seemed to be very well maintained and preserved, so the delay was to our advantage as we had time to get a good look at things.
Our group was split in half, each half lead by a site docent. I was disappointed that the museum basement was under renovation and closed at the time of our tour ( I was not informed of that). The basement area contained an impressive collection of historic photos pertaining to the creation of the Los Angeles Harbor. Larry Boreio had also seen this exhibit and agreed that the photo display alone was worth a follow up trip to the museum. We walked around the residence which was surrounded by an unusual wrought iron fence, depicted with cornstalks on pumpkins, wrapped in morning glories. There are only three fences like it in the world, and the other two are in New Orleans. It’s pretty neat!
The house was built in 1864 by a young Phineas Banning. The city of Los Angeles was known as “El Pueblo” at the time, young and unimpressive. El Pueblo, as did all other California towns of that day, was subservient to San Francisco for all transactions of business and commerce. Banning had a passionate vision for the area where he constructed the 23 room Victorian mansion, and through his lifetime he connected with other magnates to build our present San Pedro harbor and attract the railroads down from the established San Francisco artery. The house remains on 20 conserved original acres, and is impeccably furnished with Victorian era pieces that would be the envy of any collector. Essentially, it is a walk through yesterday and is historically correct right down to the paint shades, carpeting, draperies, and artwork. Each main room contained a special temporary display of a period Victorian gown. A few pieces of furniture were original to the house. The docents did a good job of explaining what it would have been like to live in the mansion with the Banning Family.
We spent so much time at the Banning Mansion, we had to hustle to travel three blocks to the Drum Barracks Museum for our tour there. Phineas Banning sold a section of his property to the U.S. Government for one dollar so that Camp Drum could be constructed in 1861. It was his intention to have the facility close to his home and arranged that the camp would revert back into his name when it was abandoned. Banning was a steadfast supporter of the Union Army, and was politically involved. Believe it or not, California was in danger of being commanded by Confederate supporters, so the Civil War brought military operations into the Los Angeles area. Troops were bivouacked near present-day downtown LA and also Culver City. Camp Drum was established with 60 acres of land, permanent structures, and was the main staging area for the military operations of the Southwest. It’s namesake is Lt. Colonel Richard Drum of the Ninth Infantry. It’s estimated cost was a million dollars, and provided vital supplies and instrumentality for California’s 17,000 volunteer soldiers! There were many attempts to have the location’s name changed from Camp Drum to Fort Drum, but because the facility was used in a manner of dispatch rather than defense, it was never elevated to “Fort” and retains the unglamorous name “Drum Barracks”.
Only two structures remain, and the museum is housed within the former junior officers quarters. Nevertheless, it is packed with interesting artifacts and displays. Our young tour guide, Britton, was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. He lead us on a walk through history and enlightened our group about the life of a California Civil War soldier.
I decided to lead this trip because it satisfied a question in my head every time I traveled the famous Mojave Road – where were these soldiers dispatched from, and where did they go? History told me of a place called “Drum Barracks” in Wilmington, CA, so Steve and I decided to look for the place. We were very pleasantly surprised that Los Angeles’s progress did not forget this slice of history. After our first visit, we both read the book “The Beat of the Drum” by Don McDowell, which is fascinating (available at the museum store). Having been a California girl my entire life, I was amazed at what I learned about my state’s history (and equally ashamed that it was not taught in our schools). It seems that today’s kids are doused with the California Missions and the Gold Rush, and short changed on what happened here after that! I enjoyed leading this trip, and having a chance to enjoy these museums a second time. If you were interested in the trip but just could not make the schedule, I urge you to strike out on your own. It really is a part of California history that should not be skipped !