Tucked away in Wilmington, in a neighborhood where the alleys scream with graffiti and oil pumps are almost as common as palm trees, Marge O'Brien is struggling to preserve a little-known sliver of Civil War history.
The Drum Barracks Civil War Museum--housed in 128-year-old quarters used by Union soldiers--is one of a handful of Army buildings on the West Coast that date from the Civil War. The rich history of the Drum, as locals call it, includes countless colorful stories, among them tales of Mexican cavalry units and an ill-fated attempt to use camels to haul military supplies.
As director of the 3-year-old museum, O'Brien spends much of her time digging up such tidbits from the Drum Barracks' past.
But she also worries about its future.
The Drum Barracks is in disrepair. Its glass display cases are cracked. The exterior lights don't work, and some of the wood shutters and thresholds are rotting. Its last paint job was in 1976, and at least one windowpane has been shot out by vandals. There is no security system; the Drum has been burglarized twice. And there is no sprinkler system, a violation of the city fire code.
And to top it off, O'Brien complains, "We're broke."
So the Drum Barracks is making its first foray into the world of corporate donors. O'Brien has sent out 350 letters to big businesses and multimillionaires--"I went to the yellow pages and just wrote everybody I could find," she said--inviting them to a fund-raiser today and asking for contributions of $50 to $1,000.
While larger museums have sophisticated private foundations to help them raise money, the little-known Drum Barracks has relied mostly on a small group of Harbor Area residents.
"We have tried to raise money. It's very difficult," said Elaine Shallenberger, president of the Drum Barracks Society. "We don't have celebrities standing there to make people come. And a lot of people hear so many bad things about Wilmington, they don't care to come to our town."
Indeed, the Drum Barracks, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1927, is so off the beaten track that O'Brien switched its front and back entrances to help visitors find it. Although the building fronts on Cary Avenue, the museum address is on Banning Boulevard, the busier street outside the back door.
The Drum Barracks began in 1861 as a tent encampment called Camp Drum. It grew to a 19-building, 59-acre military base, renamed in 1864 and deactivated in 1871.
The 7,000 troops who passed through the Drum fought Indians, manned coastal defenses, guarded roads and kept Southern sympathizers under control. Among them were two Spanish-speaking companies--the so-called "Mexican cavalry units," made up of young horsemen and cattle-herders from the ranchos and haciendas of California.
The Drum Barracks also served as the last stop for a herd of 36 camels--part of the "Camel Corps" the Army bought in 1856 on the theory that camels would do better in the Southwest desert than horses or mules. The experiment flopped, and the herd wound up at the Drum in 1862 until the government auctioned it a year later. The museum's collection includes an 1862 photograph of a camel at what is now the corner of Avalon Boulevard and A Street.
Today, only two Drum Barracks buildings remain--a small powder magazine that is privately owned and the 16-room junior officers' quarters, which was purchased by the state in 1968 but is operated as the museum by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
The city budgets $42,000 annually for the Drum Barracks, nearly $41,000 of which goes to pay the salaries of O'Brien and two part-time employees.
By contrast, Wilmington's well-established Banning Residence Museum, just two blocks from the Drum, receives $191,000 from the city annually, $173,000 of it for salaries. A private support group raises all the money for restoration of the Banning museum interior, as well as for educational programming, according to museum director Zoe Bergquist.
City officials say the difference in funding is in part related to museum attendance. As many as 22,000 people a year visit the Banning museum, while visitors to the Drum Barracks have numbered just over 2,000 this year, up from about 450 last year.
Drum Barracks supporters say that policy creates a Catch-22.
"You need to put money into it to make it more interesting and more viable, but people aren't going to come unless you put the money into it," said Don McDowell, who edits a quarterly publication about the history of the museum.
O'Brien--who has fashioned the museum's exhibits of antique weaponry and period furniture from "everybody's leftovers"--says the lack of an alarm system has already cost the Drum Barracks at least one collectible: an antique Sheffield razor that was stolen and later used in a crime, according to a victim who described it to police.
The museum director is hoping to raise enough private money to pay for the physical improvements so she can then concentrate on the exhibits.
"Anything that doesn't move ahead falls behind," O'Brien said. "It's just a rule of nature. And I don't want to see this fall behind."