The San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society wanted to build a history museum, but was unable to raise sufficient funds to do so. Robert McKee offered the group $30,000 in memory of his wife, Eila Haggin McKee, if the museum would be named for her father Louis Terah Haggin and if they added a wing to house his art collection. The museum opened its doors to the public on 14 June 1931, Flag Day.
The first addition followed the death of McKee's wife, Eila, in 1936. Wishing to honor her memory, McKee donated the funds for additional square footage including storage space on the ground floor and a small vestibule and main gallery on the second. When it opened on December 1939, the later named "McKee Room" contained paintings, furniture, and decorative art from the couple's New York residence, and it overlooked the rose garden behind the museum.
Following World War II, the museum was once again in need of additional space for offices, storage, and most importantly, for exhibitions. In 1948 Stockton architect Howard G. Bissel drew up plans for a 15,500 square foot addition that would run along the western edge of the existing structure. Principal funding for this addition came from the estates of Miss Jennie Hunter and Robert T. McKee, as well as a significant gift from Irving Martin Sr., owner of the Stockton Record. When it opened in 1949, the new wing contained eight new exhibit areas: the California Room, Jennie Hunter Rooms, Upper and Lower West Galleries, as well as the areas known today the Ancient Arts Gallery, Victorian Hallway, Arms Gallery, and Vehicle Gallery.
The latest addition to the museum, completed in June 1976, was the result of a major gift from William Knox Holt, the son of Benjamin Holt, Stockton's most famous inventor-industrialist. In addition to the main floor exhibition space that pays tribute to Holt's contributions to the mechanization of agriculture, the addition includes environmentally controlled storage facilities, offices and the museum's library/archive.
Formed in the winter of 1928, the San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society listed several aims and objectives in its Articles of Incorporation to develop educational facilities for the study of history, the collection of documents and articles of historical interest, and the establishment and maintenance of a museum where such items could be safely stored and displayed.
The Pioneer Room was the principal history gallery during the museum's early years. It was named in honor of the San Joaquin Society of California Pioneers, an organization that had assembled a collection of both artifactual and archival material since their formation in 1868. Over the years it has evolved from a room that displayed an eclectic mix of items, loosely linked by their shared antiquity, to a gallery that today focuses on Stockton's first 150 years. Immediately below the Pioneer Room, in the southern half of the original 1931 building, was a large gallery that housed items from the museum's history collection that was not incorporated into the Pioneer Room. Although first developed in the early 1950s, the displays known today as the Storefronts are recreations of businesses and rooms typical of the establishments one would have found in and around San Joaquin county between 1890 and 1915.
The museum's California Room was originally designed to tell the story of our state's past. Gradually, renovations refined the nature and storyline of this room. Today the California Room's displays begin with a review of selected statewide aspects of the diverse Spanish and Mexican heritage of the valley and concluded with more detailed examinations of Stockton-related history. The Jennie Hunter Rooms, with their wonderful collection of Victorian furnishings, evoke, memories of life in the Central Valley during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. The contents were bequeathed to the museum by Miss Jennie Mateer Hunter, a local rancher and daughter of San Joaquin County pioneers, with the proviso that they be displayed as they had been arranged in her home. The Vehicle Gallery was originally a convenient repository for any number of large artifactual "odds and ends," e.g. firefighting vehicles, farm equipment, and even a large (and incongruous) collection of rocks and minerals. The gallery's latest remodeling came in 1988 with its focus on the history of the Stockton Fire Department.
The most recent addition to the museum's history galleries came in the early 1970s with the building of the Holt Wing and the opening of the Holt Memorial Hall. Here a Holt "Caterpillar" track-type tractor, a beautifully-restored Haines-Houser combined harvester, and other displays help tell the story of Stockton's rich agricultural and industrial history.
Eila Haggin McKee's grandfather, James Ben Ali Haggin, had begun collecting art to cover the walls of his 50-room Nob Hill mansion. However, it was her father, Louis Terah Haggin, and her mother, Blanche Butterworth Haggin who assembled the majority of the Haggin Collection. Both were well educated and shared a love of art. Over the years their growing collection came to fill their homes in San Francisco and Paris. Fortunately for the museum, when the couple moved to New York from San Francisco in 1890, they brought that portion of their collection with them, thus saving it from the ravages of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Blanche's death in 1915 did not diminish Louis' interest in collecting art. In fact, he continued to do so in volume until weeks before he had died.
Typical of the art collection assembled after the Civil War by wealthy Americans, the Haggin Collection reflects the work of conservative Realism painters of the latter part of the 19th century. It also is characterized by Louis and Blanche's penchant for landscapes, genre and animal paintings. Like their fellow American collectors, they eschewed religious or historical paintings. Nudes were also avoided,Nymphaeum by William-Adolphe Bouguereau not withstanding. And like their contemporaries, the Haggins assembled a collection that was encyclopedic and international in nature, featuring one or two works from a broad sampling of artists. This was not, however, a hard and fast rule and certain artists were collected in depth, including Jean Béraud, Albert Bierstadt, Rosa Bonheur, Jean-Léon Gérôme, E.L. Henry, Barend C. Koekkoek, Eugene-Joseph Verboekhoven and Jehan-Georges Vibert. Approximately one-third of the collection is composed of works by American artists and the remaining two-thirds are by European painters. Of the European artists represented, the French are the most numerous.
Initially, Mrs. McKee gave the San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Society 180 paintings, most of them part of the $10 million estate she inherited following the death of her father in March 1929. Wishing to see the collection grow, both Eila and her husband Robert made provisions so that additional paintings would come to the museum upon their deaths. Today the Haggin Collection totals nearly 240 works, of which approximately 75 are on view in the museum's four main art galleries at any one time. A catalog of the paintings that comprise the Haggin Collection written by Dr. Patricia Sanders was published in 1991. Still available in the Museum Store, Dr. Sander's work is a detailed introduction to the spectacular art collection, a memorial to its principal collector—Louis Terah Haggin—and a tribute to the generosity of Eila and Robert McKee.
Although the core of the museum's art collection is derived from gifts from the Haggin and McKee families, it has been significantly augmented over the years through gifts and purchases. In addition to paintings by American and European artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which complement the original Haggin gifts, the museum has also assembled collections of Japanese woodblock prints, illuminated manuscripts, paintings by American illustrators such as J. C. Leyendecker and Maxfield Parrish and both Western and Asian decorative arts.
The Haggin Museum's library-archives began with a collection of material donated to the museum in 1931 by the San Joaquin Society of California Pioneers. Over the years this group assembled an impressive collection of historical artifacts, as well as photographs, ledgers, journals, correspondence, and other ephemera. Today there are some 10,000 volumes in the library. Approximately 2/3 are history related, and 1/3 deal with art and art history. The latter make up the Earl Rowland Art Library, named in honor of the museum's longest serving director.
The majority of the history volumes are part of the Almeda Mae Petzinger Library, named after the benefactor who left the Haggin a generous endowment to help maintain its library in perpetuity. There are also more than 600 archival boxes and some 100 flat files filled with photographs, maps, business records, greeting cards, advertising, and other items in the library stack room. A separate facility, the Betty H. Schroebel Stockton Historic Center, houses materials that relate specifically to the city's past.
Within the general library-archives' holdings are several special collections. In 1984 the William Knox Holt Foundation awarded the Haggin a grant to establish the Agricultural & Industrial Archives. The history of the Holt Manufacturing Company, the local industry responsible for the development of the side-hill combined harvester and the Caterpillar track-type tractor, is documented in the photographs, drawings, business records, operators' manuals, and advertising that comprise this collection. Other significant elements of the Industrial Archives include the records and drawings of Stephens Bros. Boat Builders, designers of both commercial and pleasure watercraft; the Stockton Iron Works, the firm that built many of the dredges that helped construct the San Joaquin River Delta levees; and the Tillie Lewis collection, which preserves the history of Stockton's preeminent agri-businesswoman.
A large collection of the work of one of Stockton's most celebrated cartoonists can also be found in the Haggin's library. Ralph O. Yardley was the editorial cartoonist for the Stockton Record from 1922 to 1952. During this long tenure with the paper he produced a special series of cartoons that dealt with Stockton's past, published weekly under the title "Do You Remember?" Yardley created more than 1,400 images for the series that dealt with local homes, businesses, buildings, organizations, special events, and everyday life. The museum has more than 1,100 of these beautifully rendered nostalgic glimpses into a Stockton of long ago. The museum currently is in the process of computerizing years of library records to make information retrieval more efficient and the museum's archival collection more accessible to a greater volume of users.