The history of History San José in San Jose, CA

Ride a historic trolley past a replica of the Electric Light Tower at History Park. | Photo courtesy of History San José

Imagine owning a piece of San Jose’s history…

Tomorrow morning, History San José is holding a deaccession auction of rare + unusual artifacts — including a Wurlitzer piano, Art Deco water fountains, and even some horse-drawn carriages.

Thinking about this incredible collection of local artifacts, we wanted to take you inside this group’s 70+ years of history and their ever-expanding work today.

History Park opened to the public in 1972. | Photo courtesy of History San José

👀 At a glance

Today, History San José is a huge organization that operates in three main areas:

Using these distinct branches, they manage one of the largest collections of regional history in California

So how did this all come to be?

The father of History San José, Clyde Arbuckle. | Photo courtesy of History San José

🕰️ Humble beginnings

History San José would not exist without one man — Clyde Arbuckle. Born in 1903, his family was among the early pioneer-settlers who came to the Santa Clara Valley in 1846. These deep roots inspired a deep love for history.

Despite a lack of formal education, Clyde became so known for his historic retellings, that he was selected as San Jose’s honorary City Historian in 1945. In this role, he received countless historic letters, diaries, records, and objects from the public. The collection grew, but there was no place to house them — until 1949.

To mark the centennial of California’s statehood, a replica of the original State House was built in San Jose’s City Hall Plaza. The replica was such a hit with residents, the City purchased + moved it to the Santa Clara Fairgrounds where it became San Jose’s first museum — with Clyde serving as its director and curator. The State House Museum still stands in the Fairgrounds to this day, but no longer operates as a museum.

The first building transported to History Park was the Print Shop — originally a home that stood where Voyager Coffee in San Pedro Square Market stands today. | Photos courtesy of History San José

🏛️ “A museum of museums”

By 1971, the City expanded the “San José Historical Museum” to Kelley Park to mirror some of the popular historic towns on the East Coast — like Colonial Williamsburg or Plymouth Plantation.

Initially imagined as a “Victorian Village,” History Park eventually expanded to include original + reconstructed buildings from outside that period, highlighting the lesser-heard stories from San Jose’s diverse communities.

Thus, the affiliate program allowed History San José to become “a museum of museums,” as it now hosts the Chinese American Museum, the Portuguese Historical Museum, the African American Heritage House, and the Museum of the Boat People and Republic of Vietnamto name a few.

➡️ The future

“History doesn’t end,” President Bill Schroh, Jr. notes. “We’re always working to save, preserve, and add new voices.” As such, History San José is currently working with the local Tamien + Ohlone Nations to develop a First Peoples Heritage Center at History Park, and it’s in negotiations with the Union Pacific Railroad to save a train depot from 1869 — the oldest one that’s still around.

Looking forward, 2024 will mark the 75th anniversary of History San José, and to honor this, a three-year, rotating exhibit called “Valley Memories” will launch this August — showcasing never-before-seen artifacts from the collection.

Some volunteers at History Park operate these historic trolleys. | Photo courtesy of History San José

💪 Getting involved

History San José relies on 20,000 volunteer hours per year to run — and the organization regularly needs community members to help as:

  • Tour guides
  • Gardeners
  • Trolley drivers
  • Mechanics

If you can’t volunteer your time, consider membership, donations, and of course — bid high at tomorrow’s auction, which benefits History San José’s permanent collection.