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Enjoy Magazine

Behrens-Eaton Museum in Redding

10/26/2016 11:00AM ● By Laura Christman

Love of History

November 2016
By Laura Christman
Photos by Erin Claassen

Richard B. Eaton had a heart for history and a mind for facts.

He was not one to be stumped by a historical question. The longtime Shasta County Superior Court judge could name Old Shasta’s first coffin-maker, recite details of a stagecoach robbery, narrate the stories behind Redding landmarks, point out the oldest buildings in town and provide particulars on the area’s first palm trees.

His grasp of local history was encyclopedic, and the delivery precise and polite. He even looked historical, as if he’d just stepped out of a bygone era with his signature dark wool coat, white muttonchops and mustache and wire-framed spectacles.

Eaton was born in 1914 in Oregon, but lived nearly all of his 88 years in a two-story, shiplap house on West Street in downtown Redding. When he died in 2003, he left a $5.5 million estate and a will with a wish: Turn his 1895 house into a free museum.

“The primary purpose of this project is to resist time and defy change—to show to future generations what a home of the Victorian period looked like,” Eaton wrote.

After several years and much effort, the judge’s plan is in play. Behrens-Eaton House Museum is open three days a week, showcasing Victorian furnishings and memorabilia. Two nearby small houses have become display museums filled with vintage books, letters, periodicals, clothing, toys, military garb, medals and other pieces of the past. The nonprofit museum complex runs on the energy of volunteers. It opened two years ago.

The mission is sharing local history – not just looking at it, but interacting with it. Events have included a 1900s games day, quilt show and costumed gatherings to showcase stories of the North State’s past. The museum’s letters, books, newspapers and other documents are available
to researchers.

Bringing Eaton’s wish to reality was challenging.

“It’s hard to start a museum,” volunteer Joyce Morrow says.

The old home was packed with books, papers and a mishmash of memorabilia – not only Eaton’s, but also items saved by his mother and relatives beyond.

The judge’s great-grandfather, Ludwig Behrens, came to Whiskeytown during the Gold Rush and sold provisions to miners. Grandfather Charles Behrens was Shasta County sheriff. Elected in 1899, Charles purchased the West Street house that same year. Richard Eaton was 4 when his father, Walter, died from the flu pandemic. The young boy and his mother, Edna, moved from Oregon to the Redding house. Edna was a teacher, Shasta County treasurer and a founding member of Shasta Historical Society.

Eaton and his mother shared a love of local history and penchant for hanging onto things.

“It was mind-boggling,” Morrow says of the many items in the house.

“It was like a treasure hunt,” volunteer Alicia Coughlin says.

Everything in the house was appraised, cataloged and initially put in storage so the house could be helped.  “It was in extreme disrepair,” Morrow says.

The wooden foundation had deteriorated and a new base of concrete was needed.

“We raised the house and replaced the foundation,” Coughlin says.

The old roof with eight layers of roofing down to the original shakes was replaced and reinforced. The kitchen and downstairs bathroom were repaired and remodeled. The house got new paint, wallpaper, flooring and carpeting.

“We tried to get the carpet and wallpaper as close as we could to the original,” Morrow says. “We saved the tassels from the draperies.”

Still to come are upstairs renovations, paving of the parking lot and construction of a gazebo. 

For visitors, a docent-led tour offers the opportunity to step back in time. Inside are a square piano from the 1800s, an 1895 painting of Mt. Shasta by landscape artist Harry Best, elegant dishes and glassware, vintage dresses, fur coats and an old safe. (The safe contained $98,000 – money paid to Eaton for the many weddings he officiated over the years. It was in bundles, each marked with a year.)

Furnishings are a mix of originals and replicas. In the judge’s study, there’s a 1849 book with the first laws for Shasta County as well as a will Eaton handwrote before leaving for Stanford University at age 16. It spells out who should receive his fishing pole and tennis racquet.

Collections in the two nearby houses on Butte Street feature items from the family and donations from the community. They include a penmanship book dating back more than a century, a 1952 map of Redding, the 1934 Maid of Shasta County dress, World War I helmet, Civil War writing desk, Boy Scout badges, stamps and postcards. 

  And that’s just a smidgen.

“There are wonderful, wonderful things,” Coughlin says.

The museum is important, she says. “We’re giving back to the community some of this history that we think could have been lost.”

1520 West St., Redding

Hours: 10 am to 4 pm Tuesday and Wednesday and 1 to 4 pm Saturday

Free; donations accepted • (530) 241-3454