Danville's Blackhawk Museum offers fascinating February lineup
By Lou Fancher
Despite and due to their dramatic histories, certain subjects never lose their mystique. From cowboys to American Indians or cavalry to classic cars, the Blackhawk Museum has art and entertainment in spades.
That's why the museum's February calendar earns the spotlight this week. During the month's 29 leap year days, race car driver George Follmer's astounding career goes first-person as he appears Feb. 13 to launch the 2016 Speaker Series. The "Spirit of the Old West" exhibit mounts up guest lecturers with tall tales Feb. 27 from Frederick Klink, the vice president of the U.S. Cavalry Association. And the annual Hearts & Flowers Luncheon will be held Feb. 10 at the museum to support the 2016 Children's Education and Transportation Fund that reimburses schools' bus transportation for school tours.
And that's not yet mentioning the increasingly popular first-Sunday-of-every-month "Cars & Coffee" gathering that had 652 participating cars lining up in the museum's parking lot on a blustery January morning. Executive Director Timothy McGrane says the next event Feb. 7 is sure to attract families, but the speaker series is also demonstrating overlap in visitors.
"We get very automotive-knowledgeable (lecture) attendees who bring children, depending upon the speaker," McGrane said. Follmer, he predicts, based on word-on-the-street information he's received, will draw an audience from far and wide.
"He came out of retirement to drive in the Le Mans 24 Hours race and finished third ... what was the motivation to come out of retirement and to achieve that result?" is a question McGrane says people are likely to ask along with, "What were the challenges in his 1972 Can Am Championship winning year driving the Porsche for Roger Penske?"
Arizona native Follmer had a pattern of appearing out of nowhere or out of retirement -- as he did in 1972 when he jumped into the injured Mark Donohue's unfamiliar Porsche 917-10 and won the Can-Am; and later, when the up-to-then-retired driver cruised in a Porsche 956 to take third place in the 1986 Le Mans. A biography, "Follmer, American Wheel Man," tells the stories with impressive photos, but hearing the real deal from the man himself can only enhance the printed experience.
Live talk is also at play with Klink, of San Ramon, whose father and grandfather were members of the military when it ran on horses, not horse-powered engines.
"My grandfather received his commission in 1906 and served through the end of World War I," says Klink. "My father was in artillery right before World War II and went through the transition from horse-drawn to mechanized."
Klink recalls his father's stories about farm boys learning to drive and says the transition was "hilarious" and not always smooth. An assignment to move a battery of cannons on truck beds at night and orders to disconnect the headlights to maintain secrecy resulted in a problem. Following orders to a "T," soldiers misguidedly disconnected the brake lights. When the lead truck stopped suddenly, the trucks collided and Klink's father heard a "boom, boom, boom," as each trucks' radiator was burst by the barrel of the cannon on the truck ahead.
Myths and misconceptions about the U.S. Cavalry abound, and Klink's talk is aimed at bursting a few of those stories. Chief among his targeted subjects is George Armstrong Custer, the army officer and cavalry commander whose reputation as "just out to attack Indian communities wherever he could" is inaccurate, Klink says. "Custer at Little Bighorn was under orders from General Sheridan and the U.S. cavalry, who were trying to encircle the Plains Indians. They were operating under orders. Custer didn't get to make the decisions; he wasn't operating on his own except within his regiment."
Whether a person agrees or disagrees with Klink's position, he says history is a continuous process of discovery. "I enjoy that the people in the 19th century were just like us. You can find different opinions, new perspectives all across the board."
Childlike curiosity drives adults, and at the museum that passion has turned to an energetic "say yes" program for local schools. Through the museum's funded educational programs between 1991 and June 2015, 179,300 K-12 students visited the Blackhawk Museum. Bus transportation support is the foundation's current focus, with a goal to raise $50,000 in 2016. A matching challenge grant up to $25,000 annually from the Patricia R. Behring Foundation will double contributions dollar for dollar.
"Any and all amounts large or small help us get there," says McGrane. Last year 1,767 students and 68 teachers from about 24 schools in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, the Central Valley and the greater Bay Area benefited from the program.