Laws museum gets massive makeover

Kristina Blüm Justice
Staff Writer

While museums across the country were forced to close because of COVID-19, the volunteers and staff at Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site saw the closure as a chance to breathe new life into the beloved Inyo County landmark.
“When we had to close, it was an opportunity for us to look at a lot of our exhibits and rethink them,” said Pete Watercott, Laws volunteer. “We cleaned up the whole place, and we’re working to make all the exhibits tell a story. They may tell different stories to different people, but we’re working on making the exhibits make more sense.”
The museum closed in March for the initial shut-down, then reopened briefly in July before having to close again as the COVID-19 case count spiked – but that hasn’t stopped the dedicated volunteers and staff members from continuing the enormous cleanup effort.
“You will not believe your eyes when you see how very different and enticing the space that will be welcoming you to Laws feels after our renovation,” said exhibits manager Katie Olson.
The work began with the reception center, which received a massive renovation in February. The entire reception center was stripped and gutted, and the new space was put together from scratch.
“We aimed for a parlor type of atmosphere, and have completely redecorated the space with new flooring, bead-board wainscoting, fresh paint, original artwork, and antiques brought in from all over the property,” Olson said. “And just wait until you see the merchandise.”
Laws’ collection is uniquely eclectic, and one of Olson’s challenges has been rearranging the collection to make the displays flow together more seamlessly.
For instance, the schoolhouse used to be a hodge-podge of desks and historic artifacts. Olson took the doll display from the Conway house and used the dolls to tell more of a story in the schoolhouse. The desks were rearranged so the bigger desks are in the back and the smaller ones are closer to the teacher – as they would have been in an actual one-room schoolhouse. The schoolmarm’s room was redone as well, and many of the dolls were added to it, as if perhaps the teacher enjoys making dolls in the evenings.
“We brought in more props and dressed the schoolroom to look as if the kids had just left for recess, and would be back soon,” Olson said.
Over in the Bottle House, the collection of Jim Beam decanters received some much needed attention.
“The floor was covered in small rocks, which meant getting a drink from any of those decanters would have been a painful experience walking on all those rocks,” Olson said. “We removed all of the rocks, put in new flooring, patched some very old walls, and are in the process of making the space into a small drinking parlor, where a few friends could enjoy a glass or two, listen to some music, and tell some lies about places they’ve been and things they have done.”
The Old West shenanigans continue in the Saloon display, where there are now plenty of options behind the bar for thirsty miners, as well as a game of poker in progress. Olson said the Laws crew had a blast re-doing the Saloon, as well as the Bath house and the Miners’ Cabin.
The Wells Fargo Building, which is home to the Native American history display, is currently in the process of being reorganized and cleaned. All of the flooring was replaced, and a new display was added highlighting the Bodie mining operation.
The work is far from over. Olson and her team will be working on the Depot and Pioneer Building next. The Medical Building needs new flooring, cleaning and repairs, and there will be a brand new, never before seen Appliance Building near the Train Barn.
“We can’t wait to get in there and get to work,” Olson said.
The historic turn table also is in the process of being renovated, with a goal of making it functional again. Sometime n the future, the museum hopes to continue the track extension so that Engine No. 18 can give proper train rides the next time it comes to visit from its home at the Eastern California Museum in Independence.
“Stay tuned, and please come visit us at Laws once we reopen,” Olson said. “We’ll be waiting to show off our new exhibits and Reception Center to all of our guests … socially distancing and masks in place, of course.”