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Four Decades of Exhibits at Sisson Museum

06/26/2017 11:00AM ● By Tim Holt

Telling the Stories

July 2017
By Tim Holt

The oldest fish hatchery west of the Mississippi River sits on the outskirts of Mount Shasta. When the California Department of Fish and Game was getting ready to tear down an old building at the hatchery back in the 1980s, a group of Mount Shasta residents went down to Sacramento and persuaded the state to let them use the building for a museum.

Then a crew of volunteers got to work and restored the building, opening it up as the Mount Shasta Sisson Museum on July 4, 1983. Thirty-four years later, it’s still an all-volunteer operation. A crew of about 30 people do the landscaping and building maintenance, plan and build exhibits, raise operating funds, staff the front desk and run the cash register in the museum’s gift shop.

If you see a guy with a hammer or saw prowling around the building, that’s probably Jim McChesney, the president of the museum’s board of directors and the guy who builds its exhibits. Griff Bloodhart, the museum’s treasurer, is a train buff who’s constantly making improvements to the museum’s elaborate model railroad train.

Over the years, the museum has covered a wide array of subjects, from the town of Mount Shasta’s history to the impact of fire on the region, from the legendary writer Joaquin Miller’s exploits to the habits of black bears.

Its current exhibit looks at the geology and volcanic legacy of the Mount Shasta region. 

Ideas for exhibits, according to Museum Director Jean Nels, come mostly from community members and other museum visitors, people who are curious about what goes on inside the nearby mountain, or the reported sightings of space ships and Lemurians on its slopes.

The Sisson Museum gets the biggest chunk of its revenues, just over half, from donations from individuals and businesses. It cobbles together the rest of its operating funds from grants, memberships, fundraisers and even yard sales.

Some day it hopes to be able to afford a paid staff and avoid becoming what Nels describes as “a museum of a museum,” something that can happen when a museum’s core group of volunteers loses its initial energy and enthusiasm and the museum becomes static, with the same exhibit year after year. 

With a view toward the future, the museum’s board is looking at endowments and support from local government to help provide a stable source of income and long-term sustainability.

Meanwhile, plans are in the works for an unusual pairing of exhibits for next year: an exploration of the spiritual journeys people have been making to Mount Shasta since the 1930s, and a history of tattoos. With the latter exhibit, the museum hopes to attract a demographic that doesn’t always show up in large numbers: members of the millennial generation.

Any visitor will immediately be struck by the time and energy that has gone into the museum’s exhibits, from the beautifully restored room from a 19th century resort hotel to the shiny, like-new 1915 fire engine that was part of an earlier fire exhibit.

Visiting the museum can be exciting for kids, too, because every exhibit includes games and other interactive features to entertain and educate them. These include puppet animals, a wooden train set, a fire station playhouse—and, in the old hotel room, clothes from a bygone century that they can dress up in.

Nels points out that the Sisson Museum’s core function is to tell the stories that help people understand their town and their region, its natural and its human features.

“If we weren’t here, who would be saving and sharing those stories?” she asks. 

The Sisson Museum’s current exhibit is “Volcano: Mount Shasta, Inside and Out.”

Sisson Museum • 1 North Old Stage Road, west side of Interstate 5 next to the Mount Shasta Fish Hatchery

Admission: $1 suggested donation

Hours: Daily, 10 am to 4 pm through Labor Day, then Friday through Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm through December 11

(530) 926-5508 •