Charming Victorian shops line historic downtown Folsom, with boutiques, an ice cream parlor, tasting rooms from local vineyards, delicious chocolate, art galleries, and even a “Princess Academy” with tea shop for children. There is an old fashioned arcade, and the Sutter Street Grill is a hot spot for dining. It is a central location for enjoying excursions to wineries, which have a casual feel and inexpensive tasting fee.
Mired in the land holding squabbles of early California, what had been “Rio de los Americanos” and the property of prominent San Francisco businessman William Alexander Leidesdorff came into contest when there was no obvious heir. Army captain Joseph Libbey Folsom stepped in, causing further legal battles, which continued until after his death. In the meantime, Natoma Water and Mining Company was formed to support the gold mines, along with the railroad being completed in the area. The 1880 Folsom State Prison is still in operation, and Natoma’s projects morphed into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ impressive Folsom Dam in 1955.
Folsom History Museum
Conveniently located on Sutter Street, the museum gives a clear timeline from Native Americans through the 1950s, explaining crucial turning points with a combination of artifacts and signage. They keep explanations to the point, with entertaining tidbits such as the “Alpine Lodge” brothel, an interactive scale to see how much you are worth in gold, letters home from soldiers (I wish my handwriting was that perfect!) and gorgeous beaded gowns.
They have a set of rooms for rotating exhibits, when I visited it was World War II: Life on the Home Front, talking about the nearby airfields and what it was like in Folsom during the 1940s. Their gift shop is a bit tchotchke, but I did learn that the building was used by the Pony Express as a stable and blacksmith shop. Another feature is their quite clean bathroom, and if you go to the museum first when visiting downtown, your sticker is good to use it for the rest of the day while out shopping, rather than having to use public facilities.
Stroll through this outdoor display (open weather permitting) for a jumble of plantation, tractor, and gold mining tools somewhat haphazardly placed in a fenced area. There are occasionally signs explaining them, and if the indoor railroad building is closed, don’t hesitate to ask for it to be opened it up. Not everything is marked, and it is somewhat like walking through a vaguely explained vintage junkyard at times.
The Pioneer Village includes a working blacksmith shop that is run by volunteers. While they were clearly having fun, I got the impression that they considered anyone attending the museum to be a bother. I have seen this sort of attitude with demonstrations before—they are enthusiastic about what they are doing, but don’t want to discuss it with the public because it interrupts their living history playtime. The result is a poor experience for visitors.
In a brief heyday during the 1860s, the California Central Railroad and Sacramento Valley Railroad were active in Folsom, only to fall into disuse soon after. In an odd parallel, the museum had a depot and cars donated in the 1970s, which have unfortunately not been expanded into a compelling display, from what I can tell. The Ashland Station is basically empty, with a few bits of who knows what (most are not labelled) heaped about the edges.
They do open up the tracks for a handcar derby, and the Santa Fe passenger car contains an intriguing display; I would wait to attend this museum during an event, if possible.
Folsom Prison Museum
Drive to towering castle-like walls, worthy of a Game of Thrones episode, and park in the visitor lot. You can easily walk to the main entrance, then go past the guardhouse to find a welcoming lawn with outdoor displays such as a tower and old gate. There is no need to check in as a prison visitor, the museum is a separate area. Keep in mind that this is entirely volunteer run, and they do not always show up—if the museum is closed, do not ask the guards, they cannot go off duty to open it up for you, instead try phoning ahead to make sure it is available to the public that day.
This is an artifact-driven museum, and gives an idea of what it was like to live in the prison throughout the years, from brutal punishments to more civilized treatment. There are ropes that were used for hangings, inmate manufactured tools and art, and of course references to Johnny Cash.
While there are a variety of locations that showcase local history, if you are interested in a quick overview that is well organized, go straight to the Folsom History Museum.