25 objects that define Sacramento
SN&R tells the story of Sacramento with a couple dozen pictures
How do you tell the history of something? Textbooks and classroom lessons only tell part of a story, particularly when it comes to a place.
To that end, we know the basics about Sacramento: The city was, for all intents and purposes, founded by Swiss settler John Sutter in 1839. In 1849, citizens adopted a city charter, which was recognized by the state legislature in 1850.
Now, as the state capital, it’s a town known primarily as a political hub filled with government workers, rivers and an abundance of trees.
But what else tells its story?
Inspired by a 2012 New York Times photo feature “A History of New York in 50 Objects” (which was, in turn, inspired by the British Museum’s BBC Radio book and series A History of the World in 100 Objects, SN&R writers got to thinking about what makes Sacramento Sacramento.
Some choices here—presented in no particular order of importance—are obvious. Others, perhaps not so much. Some objects are concrete and tangible, even museumworthy. Others, however, entries skew esoteric and abstract.
Likewise, many of the picks here are serious, reverential. But others? Not quite.
As with any history, however, this is an incomplete one, subject to bias and memory and personal experience.
More than anything, it’s also a story in progress, one that’s up for endless debate and reconsideration.01 Gold nugget
A few months after James W. Marshall saw little golden flecks in the water of the American River in the foothills in 1848, the “greatest mass movement of people in the Western Hemisphere” was underway, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s website. Many of these people left their families and their countries—life as they knew it—to come to Sacramento and its surrounding hills to be the next one to strike it rich by unearthing a glowing nugget of gold. But many other enterprising souls also came along to strike their fortunes in other ways, by selling provisions or providing services to the gold-fever afflicted. The reaction to the discovery of this valuable metal shaped what Sacramento became, what it is today. Otherwise, who knows? It may have kept its pre-gold-rush name that John Sutter gave it: New Helvetia. S.02 Grain of rice
This city might be nicknamed “Sac o’ Tomato,” but rice is the No. 1 crop in the Sacramento Valley area, making up to 26 percent of total agricultural areas, according to the Sacramento River Watershed Program. California is the second-biggest rice-producing state (strangely, Arkansas is the biggest), with 95 percent of California’s crop produced in the Sacramento Valley, according to statistics from the California Rice Commission and the Agricultural Presidents’ Council. By volume, it’s also the No.1 product shipped out of the Port of West Sacramento. J.M.03 Kindergarten Cop VHS TAPE
Sacramento’s played host to its share of colorful governors since the state’s 1850 induction into the union. Of course, there’s Ronald Reagan, a former B-movie actor who reportedly believed in UFOs and honed his political chops as the state’s 33rd governor from 1967-1975. Then, there’s Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown, the state’s current chief executive, who, during his first two terms (1975-1983) dated Linda Ronstadt and famously eschewed the tony official governor’s digs in favor of a modest Midtown apartment. None, however, were as world-famous and, well, just plain weird as the state’s 38th head of state, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Where do we even start? A young Austrian-born Schwarzenegger trained as a weight lifter and, at age 20, was crowned Mr. Universe. He eventually conquered Hollywood, becoming famous worldwide for cinematic gems such as Terminator, Total Recall, Twins and Kindergarten Cop. In 2003, Schwarzenegger won a recall election against Gov. Gray Davis. At first, it almost seemed like a surreal political fluke that a cigar-chomping action hero could commandeer the highest office of one of the union’s most powerful states, but then, in 2006, California citizens overwhelmingly re-elected the Governator. It still feels weird typing that. R.L.04 ‘for sale' sign
The asymmetrical crosses with a real-estate agency’s logo and phone number dangling from their horizontal arms planted in front yards became a frequent and familiar sight in Sacramento Valley neighborhoods in the late 2000s. This was, of course, after the value of homes were inflated, the housing-development boom and devastating crash of the economy in 2007 (thanks, dud loans). The homes were worth less than what the buyers’ paid for, so some residents abandoned them, and the homes became bank owned. Yes, this also happened all over the country, but the Sacramento region was one of the worst hit. In the past few years, investors have been swooping up those reduced-priced properties to flip them, new-home construction is experiencing a surge, and buyers seem to have more confidence in the housing market, all of which has been resulting in property values being driven up. And “for sale” signs have resumed residence on many front lawns. S.05 Dirty shovel
Sacramento has had more than its share of serial killers. Like the “I-5 Strangler” and the “Vampire Killer,” there’s no denying the imprint of local murders on the city’s psyche—and, sometimes, its soil. In 1971, Juan Corona was convicted of murdering 25 farmworkers and burying their bodies in peach orchards off Highway 99. In the 1980s, Morris Solomon Jr. preyed on prostitutes, hiding their remains in shallow graves in Oak Park. In 1988, police discovered the bodies of seven of Dorothea Puente’s lodgers in her backyard at 1426 F Street. Thus, the shovel becomes a dark part of Sacramento’s history, used by murderers to cover their crimes and by authorities to uncover the truth. B.C.06 Vinyl record
It started modestly. Russ Solomon sold some vinyl records in his father’s drugstore in Sacramento during the 1950s. But the idea bloomed into the full-fledged record store Tower Records, which opened in 1960 on Watt Avenue. Solomon didn’t stop there, however. Over the next few decades, Tower grew into a chain, with stores across the country, and across country borders (there were dozens of locations in Japan alone). Culturally speaking, it became a haven for music nerds and an enticing place to work for thousands needing entry-level jobs, locally and elsewhere. A former employee of a Phoenix branch wrote the 1995 film Empire Records, about an independent record store that was in danger of being bought out by a large chain. For Tower, though, the empire of records, cassettes, CDs, books and magazines began to crumble in the mid-2000s, as its management was not prepared to deal with the age of digital music. The stores closed down in 2006, but www.tower.com (and stores in Japan) still exist. S.07 Kevin Johnson's senior class photo
Say what you will about Kevin Maurice Johnson—Sacramento’s charismatic and sometimes infuriating mayor—but the kid looks good in pictures. Specifically, his senior class photo from 1983. Raised in Oak Park by his maternal grandparents after his father died in a boating accident, the precocious, fleet-footed Johnson bloomed into a full-fledged stud at Sacramento High School. Star of the varsity Dragons basketball and baseball teams, the 17-year-old BMOC famously went on to play college b-ball at UC Berkeley and enjoy an all-star NBA career with the Phoenix Suns before returning home to “save” the Sacramento Kings. But before all that, Sactown’s prodigal son flashed a grin local voters and NBA Commissioner David Stern know all too well. “Cheese.” RFH08 Rowboat
The flat plains of the Midwest have to contend with tornadoes. Sacramento, located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, must contend with flooding. When a levee broke in December 1861, it left much of the city underwater, and famously, in January 1862, newly elected Gov. Leland Stanford used a rowboat to travel to his inauguration. It was after this massive flood that the streets downtown were raised. Still, over the century, there’s been several more floods of varying sizes—and its citizens relying on rowboats to get around. S.09 A dusty film reel
Sacramento’s movie houses of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s are largely forgotten. Traces remain: the neon marquee of the Esquire Plaza on K Street, a monument to the Alhambra Theatre tucked in the Safeway parking lot on Alhambra Boulevard. Fortunately, Sacramentans still have the Tower Theatre and the Crest Theatre to remind us of cinema’s golden age. The Crest first opened as the Empress vaudeville theater in 1913, and later became the Hippodrome. In 1946, the building was remodeled into the Crest and screened its first movie, That Midnight Kiss starring Mario Lanza. The Tower also still shines on Broadway, a neon landmark since its construction in 1938. B.C.10 A bottle of really good olive oil
The reason olive oil represents Sacramento is twofold. Famed grocer Darrell Corti of the Corti Brothers grocery store was one of the first importers of fine olive oil in the country—and no doubt largely responsible for its ubiquity in the United States. He’s been lauded for this by, among others, food-world giants Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters. Second, the UC Davis Olive Center, an arm of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, is currently leading the way in olive oil research. In 2010, the Institute issued a study finding that 69 percent of imported olive samples and 10 percent of California samples were falsely labeled as “extra virgin.” This may not sound like a big deal, but it awakened those in the culinary sphere, and news quickly spread to the popular press. It’s not a stretch to say that the region is a big player in both olive oil’s history and its future. B.G.11 Railroad spike
In late 1995, right before construction on the Robert T. Matsui United States Courthouse (501 I Street) began, a team of Sonoma State University archeologists found a trove of Chinese artifacts at the soon-to-be construction site. Untouched since an 1855 fire razed the site of the former Chinese district, the archeologists discovered several hundred artifacts here, including soy-sauce containers, bones and Chinese coins. Today, many of these artifacts are displayed in the lobby of the courthouse, including a pair of railroad spikes—a reminder that Central Pacific Railroad employed “12,000 Chinese workers, more than 90 percent of the workforce,” according to the Smithsonian Program for Asian Pacific American Studies. The full death toll and exact hardships of these workers might never be known, but an 1870 article in the The Sacramento Reporter mentioned that the bones of 1,200 Chinese workers passed through Sacramento on a Central Pacific train. J.M.12 Radio mic
Once upon a time in an America unbeknownst to O’Reillys and Olbermanns, there used to be something called the Fairness Doctrine: Any time a radio station aired a commentary or opinion, it had to give play to the opposing view. Hard to imagine.
That’s because in 1987, three years after Rush Limbaugh arrived in Sacramento on KFBK’s airwaves, the Reagan administration told the Federal Communications Commission that equal airtime was for suckers.
Rush embraced this newfound free speech right here on 1530 AM, which spawned the Fox News style, right-wing media-spin machine as we now know it.
Limbaugh’s Sacto tenure was short-lived; he quickly moved on to New York City and beyond. But others, such as Tom Sullivan, stepped up to the mic locally to perfect his brand of major-league blowhard. N.M.13 Pharmacy show globe
In the 1800s, show globes hung outside Sacramento’s pharmacies. They weren’t just a pretty adornment, however—the ornate orbs were filled with red liquid to signal an epidemic sweeping the city. An overpopulated boomtown burdened by flooding and a troubled sanitation system, Sacramento likely displayed red show globes fairly often in the mid-19th century. Perhaps the worst epidemic was the cholera plague in October of 1850, just months after Sacramento was officially incorporated as a city. Historical accounts disagree on whether the disease arrived overland with pioneers or via boat from San Francisco. Either way, within three weeks, nearly 1,000 people died and 80 percent of the town’s population had evacuated. B.C.14 A booze-filled copper still
The prohibition of alcohol in the United States lasted 13 years, beginning in 1920, but that didn’t stop the city of Sacramento and its surrounding areas from tippling. In the city, saloons and speakeasies remained open, and out in the countryside, including Jackson and the Delta, is where many gallons of moonshine were produced, including whiskey in copper stills. The capital city was known as one of the “wettest” places in California. James E. Henley, the city’s former historian, was quoted in a 1999 Sacramento Bee story as saying, “There was a full-blown saloon that never stopped operating during Prohibition—in the Capitol.” So, no, it wasn’t very difficult to get one’s hands on some alcohol during Prohibition in this town, legally or illegally: Doctors offered prescriptions for medical alcohol. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? S.15 Scoopy Bee
James McClatchy, founder of The Sacramento Bee, named his newspaper after the industrial, hard-working bee. The little buzzer has represented the paper since it was first published in 1857, but it was Eleanor McClatchy, James’ granddaughter, who approached Walt Disney to commission a cartoon mascot. On September 4, 1943, Scoopy Bee was introduced on the front page of the Sacramento Bee. Since then, Scoopy’s gone through many renditions. Different versions include the bee spinning a Sacramento Kings basketball on his finger, braving the rain, and celebrating our independence atop a spray of fireworks. Today, Scoopy continues to embody the three Bee newspapers, bringing the scoop to his home in Northern California. J.R.16 Delta smelt
One look at Sacramento’s famed Delta smelt and you might wonder, “All this trouble for a bug-eyed sardine?” Well, yeah. The translucent fishlet has been at the cause of much environmental consternation since making the Endangered Species Act of 1993. (Happy 20-year anniversary!) It hasn’t helped that the little guppies—Hypomesus transpacificus, if you’re nerdy—swims the in-demand waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which keeps Central Valley farms in business and Southern California hydrated. If the Delta is a punch bowl with too many straws, then the smelt is the orange pulp that gets chewed up. RFH17 Native American woven basket
Northern California Native American tribes such as the Patwin, Nisenan (Southern Maidu) and Miwok all wove baskets for various uses. Baskets made out of pine needles, wormwood, twigs, roots, fern and feathers were used by all three tribes for food storage, traps and cooking. Many master basket weavers still reside in the greater Sacramento area, and a number of these functional and beautiful baskets are on display—and for sale—at the State Indian Museum (2618 K Street.) J.M.18 Chris Webber's knee
It was that moment Sacramento sports fans knew could happen, but didn’t want to think about: Chris Webber, sprinting toward the basket in hopes of snagging a pass, suddenly collapses onto the hard court. His hands immediately grab at his left knee. Teammates carry him off. Afterward, he tells reporters that he “heard something go pop.”
The Kings were resilient, even dominant, during the 2002-03 season. They’d crushed the Utah Jazz in the playoff’s first round, which was followed by a clutch road win in Dallas in game one of the semis. Webber scored 24, and the team cruised: They were destined to succeed. Fans dreamed of redemption for the previous year’s choke job against the Los Angeles Lakers. It. Was. Gonna. Happen.
To this day, River City sports fans fear C-Webb’s knee is an omen: that no matter how close, Sacramento will surely, devastatingly, fail. N.M.19 Frank Fat's banana cream pie
The story of Frank Fat is legendary in Sacramento, and rightly so. Frank Fat founded his flagship downtown restaurant—the family currently operates four—in 1939, and it is still going strong. This year, it won a prestigious America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation. No dish represents this legacy more than Fat’s banana cream pie—except perhaps the honey-walnut prawns. The pie is a decadent, tall slice, with almost as much real whip cream on top as there is banana filling. The crust shatters into flaky layers on every bite. Even though its namesake founder died in 1997, Frank Fat’s still got it. B.G.20 Johnny Cash's voice
Johnny Cash had never set one boot inside Folsom State Prison when his hit single “Folsom Prison Blues” flattened the music world in 1955 like a train crushes a penny. It would take the man in black another 13 years to rectify that. In 1968, Cash recorded At Folsom Prison, a live album forged inside a sweaty chapel packed with the condemned. There, he sang about cocaine binges and shotgun murders, of redemption and grace. He sang a song written by an inmate and congressed with his kindred sinners. The iconic country outlaw may have left the stage, but he never left Folsom. RFH21 Cowbell
The simple cowbell says Sacramento in so, so many ways. For starters, it’s emblematic of this city’s “cow town” reputation. You know, we’re simple-minded folks yearning to live in a world-class city. But the cowbell also represents the city’s fervent love for all things Sacramento Kings. Back in the day—you know, when the team actually won games—Kings fans were known for raising the roof at the then-Arco Arena by shaking those damn metal bells. No eardrum was safe. Then, the bell seemed to toll a bit more quietly compared to how it sounded during the Kings’ glory years. But now, with new team ownership (thank you, Vivek Ranadivé!) and, finally, the promise of a new arena, fans are starting to shake it like they mean it again. Proof: Kings lovers broke a Guinness World Record earlier this month for indoor crowd noise by yelling, stomping and, yes, clanging the cowbell, past the 126 decibel mark. R.L.22 A perfectly ripe tomato
You know it’s summer in Sacramento when the tomato trucks start rolling by on the freeway, adding thousands of vibrant spots of red when tomatoes inevitably roll off the vehicle’s load. There are also periodic tomato-truck accidents, no doubt due to tired drivers—these trucks run 24-seven during peak periods. OK, maybe these aren’t the foodieworthy artisanal tomatoes—those delicate fruits would never survive being loaded 10-feet deep—but tomato production is part of what makes the region a major food supplier to the world. In 2012, California tomato growers harvested 261,000 acres to produce 13 million tomatoes, mostly from the Sacramento Valley. And if you want heirlooms, you can always hit up Watanabe Farms at the farmers market during the summer months—it produces more than 50 varieties. B.G.23 Bulldozer
Sacramento County’s population is an estimated 1,418,788, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, but only about 466,000 of those people actually live in the city proper. The rest of the population, meanwhile, takes advantage of the surrounding suburban areas, like Rio Linda, Carmichael and El Dorado Hills. With an increasingly expensive cost of city living and the influx of commuters from the Bay Area, these communities are rapidly expanding, bulldozing over outlying farmland to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. Sacramento city planning paves the way for the city outliers, converting acres of rural beauty into housing units and shopping centers galore. What was that about paradise and a parking lot? J.R.24 A cheap tent
When the recession hit in the late 2000s, Sacramento was one city most affected by the slew of layoffs and home foreclosures. Many suddenly found themselves unemployed and unable to pay their rent. And, as homeless shelters quickly filled beyond capacity, Sacramento’s tent cities emerged. Other towns across the United States have also harbored these makeshift-shelter neighborhoods, but in February 2009, with an estimated 1,200 tent city dwellers putting Sacramento on the map—journalist Lisa Ling visited one such community along the American River for a segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not surprisingly, this garnered much national news attention, and the tents became a national symbol of the homeless plight. J.R.25 Joan Didion's wit
Sacramento’s rich in literary history. Mark Twain lived here and even worked as a reporter for the original, now-defunct Sacramento Union newspaper. Other famous scribes include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dale Maharidge and William T. Vollmann, a novelist, journalist and essayist known for his gritty examinations on, among other subjects, war, poverty, prostitution and drugs. And then there’s the novelist and literary-journalism pioneer Joan Didion. The Sacramento-born writer has long lived in New York City, but she’s still distinctly ours. The 79-year-old Didion, named earlier this year as a recipient of a 2012 National Medals of Arts and Humanities award, forged a career writing novels, memoirs, essays and journalism with a keen insight and seemingly bottomless emotional well that’s tempered only by her razor-sharp wit. Didion won the National Book Award for Nonfiction (and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist) for her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicled the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. Still, it’s Didion’s brief writerly stops in Sacramento that resonate. Her 1977 study of the unused multimillion-dollar Ronald Reagan-commissioned governor’s residence in “Many Mansions” is spot-on in its satirical take on politics and consumerism. Similarly, “Pretty Nancy,” her 1968 Saturday Evening Post profile on Nancy Reagan scathingly portrayed the future First Lady as a sheltered governor’s wife unforgivably out-of-touch with her adopted Sacramento home. She gets us, she really gets us. R.L.