The Bernhard Museum Complex Self-Guided Tour of the Grounds 291 Auburn-Folsom Road

The Bernhard Museum Complex consists of three historic structures on approximately 1.5 acres of unique, and beautiful grounds. Even if the museum is closed, a walk around the property can reveal the economic transitions and historic developments of Placer County from the Gold Rush to present day.

We invite you to take a tour of the Museum grounds and see why the story of the Bernhard Museum Complex keeps people coming back time and again.

The Path

Walking onto the property you’ll be using the same path used by gold miners in Auburn’s early history. The dirt path in front of the Bernhard Museum is a remnant of the original stagecoach road that ran from Sacramento, through Auburn, and up into the gold fields.

The House

The main two-story building was constructed along the Sacramento road in 1851 by George Bishop and John Long as the “Travelers Rest.” This hotel operated just outside Auburn until 1858, when it became a private residence for Bishop. After Bishop lost the estate due to economic hardship, Eliza Caruthers purchased it in a Sheriff’s auction in 1864.

Bernhard Bernhard

Bernhard Bernhard, for whom the museum is now named, bought the house and property in 1868.

Second Floor Door

Why do we have a door leading out of the second floor? We don’t know. Museums are an excellent source of information on history and the people and artifacts that make it. However, sometimes pieces of the puzzle are missing, interpretation changes, or new facts are revealed.

We can hypothesize why the door might exist based on the buildings use, but without further evidence, we cannot definitively state its purpose. The door might have been used as a fire escape, to access the roof, or for another purpose. But until we have more facts, we can’t say for sure.


The two-story winery was added to the property in 1874. The building is partially constructed into the hillside with stone and mortar. The walls are two feet thick and house a venting system. This helps maintain the proper temperature for storing wine.

A short passage was built between the bottom floor of the winery and the home’s basement. This allowed Bernhard, who was processing wine in his cellar, to move casks to the bottom floor of his new building. This tunnel is currently inaccessible, but evidence of its existence can be seen at the access door in the downstairs winery (owned and operated by Mark Bonitata of Bonitata Wines) or by the slightly irregular stonework at the base of the first floor.

The Rust Garden

A short walk along the side of the wine processing building reveals a collection of old farming equipment. While Bernhard Bernhard was originally lured to California by the gold discovery, economic necessity dictated the eventual turn to agriculture. This was a common theme in Placer County, where agriculture succeeded mining as the primary industry.

Prior to the advent of tractors, tools would have been attached to horses and used to prepare fields. This collection includes a mower, two rakes, a plow, a harrow (for breaking up soil), and a Fresno scraper. The Fresno scraper was used in building ditches and canals, and later influenced modern bulldozers and earthmovers.

The Pump

Before the widespread use of indoor plumbing, water was obtained from a well. The installation of a closed hand pump allowed access to deeper groundwater without an open hole. This helped protect people from a greater variety of contaminates.

However, with many aspects of daily life requiring water, pumping, carrying, heating, and emptying buckets was still an arduous part of most chores.

The Wine Processing Building

When Bernhard purchased the property from Caruthers in 1868, it was reported that the existing vineyard would produce “no less than 4,000 gallons of wine” that year. This proved to be correct, as Bernhard made 4,000 gallons of wine.

Bernhard’s farming income was heavily supplemented by his production of alcohol. Bernhard first installed a brandy still in what is now the Gold Country Fairgrounds. This started in 1872 and continued until 1893. In 1874, Bernhard constructed the stone winery at the front of the house and in 1881, added a brick wine processing building behind the home.

The July 21, 1870 edition of the Stars and Stripes detailed Bernhard’s plans for the construction of his new buildings, and how he would move wine between the buildings.

“From the latter [processing building] he will run his wine through hose into the upper tier of casks in his old cellar, whence, at the proper time, it will in the same way, be racked into the lower tier, and thence the final racking off will be by the same means through the tunnel into the new and still lower cellar.”

Washing Machine

On the back porch of the museum is an early version of the washing machine. By the mid 1800s, the first washing machines were making an appearance. Clothes were put into a closed wooden barrel and agitated with a crank. This removed the need for a washboard and dasher, but still required water to be pumped and heated, and for the clothes to be wrung, hung, and ironed by hand.

In the 1800s families did their laundry by hand, which was a time-consuming chore. The man or older sons of the house carried water pumped from the well and built a fire for heating it. The mother and older girls soaked and boiled the clothes then scrubbed them on washboards. After thoroughly rinsing, bluing, starching, and wringing out the clothes, they hung them on a line to dry. When the clothes had dried, the women prepared them for ironing.


The Victorian period, an age of industrial revolution and urbanization, was also a time of avid gardening. The practice exploded in Britian where new technology and easier travel allowed the upper-class to procure and keep exotic plants. There was also a concerted effort by authorities to create new public spaces due to the belief that they would improve the public and decrease social unrest.

This Victorian past time, like many, also came to America. While private gardens flourished, and public green spaces became more available, farmers were already gardening to sustain their families. For the Bernhards, a personal garden would have provided a substantial amount of the home’s food for the year. What a family couldn’t eat immediately was pickled or preserved, allowing the family to save it for a future time when fresh fruits and vegetables may not be available.

This garden, which rotates crops for the fall and summer, represents a sustainable family plot. Lemon trees form the top border of the garden and fill the right corner plot. Throughout the year, the seasonal fruits and vegetables, like squash, corn, strawberries, and beans, are planted and harvested.

The Carriage Barn

Built by Native Sons of the Golden West, Parlor #59, the carriage barn is a modern addition to the museum property. During the museum’s open hours, guests can see restored wagons owned by the Native Sons, and the Museum’s own collection of farm wagons.

These vehicles represent the different ways in which Auburn has functioned as a hub of transportation. Many mining towns which formed contemporaneously with Auburn did not survive, either for lack of gold or new industry. Auburn, however, was a center of law and order, business, and travel. Early miners came overland to find the first pieces of placer gold, then along newly developed stagecoach roads. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad then opened Placer County to the rest of the state and the country – much like the I-80 corridor does today.

After the gold rush, Auburn’s agricultural industry flourished. With rich soil and a favorable climate, fruit orchards like Bernhard’s, grew rapidly. Wagons were essential for moving supplies and crates full of harvested fruit to market. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed through Auburn, with the ability to ship fruit in specially refrigerated cars, Placer County’s fruit industry expanded exponentially.

The Restoration

The home was slated for demolition in 1963, but as the oldest wooden structure in Auburn, the community came together to fund and coordinate the repairs. It took a number of years, various organizations, money, and volunteers to restore the home.

Restoration began in 1973 when Placer County purchased the home and grounds. The Placer County Museum Foundation, which was formed by the Placer County Historical Society, began fundraising.

In 1979, a fence was built around the property to recreate the original fence which would have once encircled the home. The Foundation turned this into an opportunity to raise money by selling each picket for $5.00. If you look closely, there is a name on each picket.

With the restoration nearly complete, the Foundation established the Placer County Docent Guild where volunteer docents began training to lead guided tours through the museum; a feature which continues today.

The museum has not only helped preserve the history of our area but also has become home to our living history program which helps educate over 3,000 students every year.

Today, it’s still the community spirit that keeps the Bernhard alive. The Museum hosts thousands of school children every year for Living History days on the farm, while volunteers from the community guide visitors from around the world through the historic home.

If you enjoyed this presentation, come join in on the fun. Click the link below to find out more about volunteer opportunities with the Placer County Museums.