A dilapidated Kelley House when it was acquired in 1975.

Collecting, preserving, protecting and sharing. This is the mission of the Kelley House Museum.

Kelley House has been around long enough for three generations to have experienced it, enjoyed its history-themed events, or dug into its archives to research family stories and photos. Some have called it Mendocino’s most important cultural institution

It all began with Dorothy Bear and Beth Stebbins, now gone, who had come to Mendocino in the late 1960s for their retirement. As happens to many, they were utterly taken in by the old buildings and the stunning natural setting, capturing it in photographs they developed themselves. Early on, the two ladies, one a former accountant and the other a librarian, combined their talents to produce well-researched publications, such as the walking tour booklet, “A Tour of Mendocino,” and a more substantial book entitled, “Mendocino, Book I,” both still in print and available at local bookstores.

The two women also shared their newly found passion for the town’s history in a second-floor museum they operated in the early 1970s at Gallery Fair in the Odd Fellows Hall, located on the southwest corner of Kasten and Ukiah Streets.

That’s how it was when, in the summer of 1973, the senior curator of the Smithsonian Institute, C. Malcolm Watkins, came to Mendocino to give a workshop on Victorian architecture and invited Dorothy and Beth to attend. Part of the course included walking around town discussing the architecture of various buildings and their importance in the history of Mendocino and California. As Beth later wrote, “That was when Malcolm and his wife Joan began to emphasize to Dorothy and to me that the whole Kelley complex, including the MacCallum property, must be preserved or the true historic environment of the town would be lost. It was then we turned our undivided attention to incorporating and acquiring the Kelley property.”

One month later, they had incorporated as Mendocino Historical Research, Inc. (later to become Kelley House Museum, Inc.) for “the specific and primary purpose to collect, document and publish the history of Mendocino City, California and the coastal areas of Mendocino County, California; to assist in the preservation and protection of places and things of historical significance.” The incorporators included Dorothy and Beth, as well as Francis “Al” Nichols (publisher of the Mendocino Beacon), Margery Mullins, and Barbara Caler Bird. “The property of this corporation is irrevocably dedicated to scientific and educational purposes.”

The acquisition of the property proved to be a daunting task, with many contributions, grant solicitations, and help from dozens of people. In the end, it was Robert O. Peterson, philanthropist and founder of Jack in the Box restaurants, who came to the rescue in 1975 by purchasing the entire Kelley property, and donating the 1861 house, pond and ¾ of an acre to the new organization. He retained the balance of the property, including the Lansing/Main Street corner building (William Kelley’s old store), as well as the water tower and its well for his newly renovated Mendocino Hotel.

Very soon after acquiring the property, Kelley House had the foresight to document its beginnings with the help of Michael MacDonald, a photographer funded by CETA. His instructions were to photograph everything going on – the workmen, gardeners, progress on the work and now and again events, street scenes and buildings. This was all gathered into a picture scrapbook that is kept to this day in the Museum’s Escola Room to show interested visitors how far the house has come since 1975.

But as anyone who’s owned an old house knows, there’s always more to do. This summer, the lovely 158-year old home received a much-needed paint job. The siding, previously pock-marked with rusty nail heads popping through peeling paint, has now been thoroughly washed, scraped, sanded, filled and painted a soft buff yellow by the very competent crew from CY Painting. The trim around the large windows, many with their original wavy glass, have been painted black, like eye kohl. Decorative brackets, dentil moulding and scrollwork are now renewed with clear white paint, and the French door shutters and six paneled doors have received a spiffy coat of glossy, dark green paint.

This wonderful transformation has been made possible by the generous gift of Martha Wagner, who, on her passing, left funds to the Kelley House Museum, a place she had devoted many of her days.

There are other necessary repairs that must be done if we are to preserve the place whose very mission is to preserve. At the top of the list is a new roof for the main house. The steeply pitched gables and porches over this old family home require more expertise than our volunteers possess. With roofing bid in hand, we have applied for a grant to help us with this important task; however, the grant will not take us all the way. We need additional funds from the community.

Now is the time to show your support of the Kelley House Museum with a donation toward our Building Fund. You can easily do this online at www.kelleyhousemuseum.org and then click the DONATE button, or send a check to us at 45007 Albion Street, Mendocino, CA 95460. Any amount will be most welcome, but those sending gifts over $100 will in turn receive 2 walking tour passes ($40 value). Please include your address with your donation!

Each week, people bring to the Museum things they wish to preserve for the future. Logging maps from a timber cruiser’s backpack, dolls that were once loved by grandmothers, pictures and videos from youthful days now past but still remembered. They bring them out from the back of their closets, drawers and attics and into ours for safe keeping. With a new roof over “our attic,” Kelley House will continue to collect, preserve, protect and share our community and its treasures.