At long last, the Heritage Museum of Orange County readied to welcome the public back to its grounds for the first time in over a year. Jamie Hiber, the executive director of the cultural and natural history site in Santa Ana, arrived to open the gates the morning of its grand reopening last Sunday unsure of what to expect when Fred and Ethel, two resident ducks, awaited on the other side.
Hiber exchanged a surprised look with her staff; Fred and Ethel usually appear on the grounds around March but hadn’t been seen lately.
“Of course, you showed up on opening day,” said Hiber to the ducks. “This is a good sign. This is going to be a great day.”
And it was!
The museum’s crew had much time to ponder how to swing those gates back open, having been closed for the better part of 13 months on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Once public health improved, the original vision included a deejay and food trucks, but Hiber ultimately decided to scale back.
“We were just going to open as ‘us’ and see if our mission and our grounds alone would attract people,” she says. “That’s exactly what people came for.”
The Victorian Kellogg House, immaculate floral gardens and citrus groves that spread out over 12 acres proved to be the breath of fresh air that people cooped up at home craved. Volunteers helped get the grounds in shape for the big day. The museum’s board members greeted guests as they returned—and they arrived threefold more than anticipated.
“We were really nervous because after not being able to welcome anyone for so long, did people still care about us?” Hiber wondered. “It surpassed our expectations.”
The museum’s successful return owes itself, in part, to Hiber’s baptism by fire. Firmly committed to the nonprofit’s mission, she first started as a volunteer more than nine years ago before becoming the site’s wedding coordinator. Hiber, then, took on the role of executive director in April 2020, all of one month into a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“I kept getting sympathy messages,” she says. “I felt the complete opposite. I’ve had nine years to brew ideas in my head that we just didn’t time to explore. Covid actually allowed us to do that.”
Despite the resilient optimism, the pandemic, especially as it worsened in Santa Ana, took an inevitable, and heavy, financial toll. Couples either postponed or cancelled planned wedding ceremonies and receptions on the grounds—a chief revenue stream for the nonprofit. School field trips came to a halt and gave the museum a disquieting stillness where once there was the din of children.
A few very generous donations abated the initial anxiety, including from Kellogg Garden Supply. A lifeline arrived in the form of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and substantial grant money from the CARES Act. Still, without weddings or field trips, the museum’s staff whittled down to just five.
Together, those who remained brainstormed on how to keep the museum’s mission alive while the grounds laid dormant. Field trips turned remote with schoolchildren playing a game that virtually outfits Hiram Clay Kellogg—the first appointed civil engineer in Santa Ana, a land surveyor, builder of the Kellogg House and Kellogg Garden Supply namesake, for a party instead of trying on the clothes themselves.
The tour of the home, itself, also turned virtual.
For members, new and old, the museum also started offering exclusive online content such as blog posts on historical topics like the Lavender Scare and episodes of the new “History With a Twist” podcast. The content not only kept members engaged but grew the base of support during trying times.
“We’re almost at a 300-percent increase in membership sales since people stopped coming to the museum,” says Hiber. “Now that we’ve reopened, our members get all the same things, they just are also allowed to come during public hours for free.”
And the Heritage Museum is already seeing a bounce back. April was the first month since the pandemic began that its income exceeded expenses. The grounds played host to the first wedding to be rescheduled after postponement; five more nuptials are on the way this month.
Hiber can finally breathe a sigh of relief—and maybe even take a well-deserved vacation someday.
But for now, guests are finding their way back to the museum or discovering its wonders for the first time. A family returned on Sunday with their school-age son who last visited as part of a class field trip right before the pandemic and bugged his parents to bring him back ever since.
Almost all of the museum’s grounds are open. The Kellogg House is welcoming people back, at limited capacity and with a guided tour per the still ongoing pandemic. The Gospel Swamp nature trails remain closed, though, for the time being; without humans around, coyotes have been busy, well, getting busy with twice as many litter of puppies being born during the pandemic.
And the Heritage Museum has much to look forward to in the years to come. Hiber’s ambitious agenda includes forging new community partnerships, restoring the John A. Magg farmhouse and rebuilding the blacksmith shop badly damaged in a 2019 blaze.
The museum is also teaming with Historic Wintersburg for the purchase of the Huntington Beach historical site’s land and buildings with the hopes of establishing a second campus there focused on Japanese American and agricultural history
In the meantime, Hiber invites folks to mark their calendars for the museum’s biggest event of the year, “From Dinosaurs to People,” on June 27, which is slated to return—and not as a drive-through.
All is abuzz again at Heritage Museum, from wedding vows to historic home tours, to returning dinosaurs and ducks.
“I’m proud of everything that we were able to accomplish throughout the pandemic,” says Hiber. “I’m switching my brain over from survival mode to how we can really get our mission out to the public in a new post-pandemic world.”
For more on the Heritage Museum of Orange County visit www.heritagemuseumoc.org
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.