A Love of History Nurtured at Kearney Park

A love of history has brought Sharon Hiigel to this point in her life. Indeed, her dreams of the future will be resting upon her wholehearted affection for a piece of the San Joaquin Valley’s past.

Sharon, 31, is the curator for the Kearney Mansion Museum, about seven miles west of downtown Fresno in the 225-acre Kearney Park.

But if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, she also is the director of the
Fresno City and County Historical Society — a non-profit organization of numerous volunteer members who have one thing in common: their pride in Valley heritage.

Sharon’s eyes seem to sparkle as she speaks in high regard of the late Martin T. Kearney, the prominent agricultural businessman who owned and operated the mansion and surrounding property around the turn of the century. “He was a fascinating man, and is certainly well worth a biography,” she says with a smile.

Although Kearney was involved in many Valley projects at the turn of the century, he made his biggest fortune in the Valley’s raisin industry, she says.

Kearney remained a bachelor all his life and was often a very solitary person. At the same time, she says, he also was a very prominent “high society” figure on the social ladder in Europe as well as the United States.

He was known to have kept in close contact with many high-ranking foreign and domestic government officials, while also saving enough time for his numerous lady friends who kept him informed of the latest high-society gossip, Sharon says.

All in all, Kearney was a very shrewd and astute businessman, “a very real definition of a self-made man.”

The mansion itself was built around 1901 and was then just a small part of Kearney’s 240-acre (later reduced) “Chateau Fresno Park,” which included magnificent rose gardens and numerous other architectural works needed to run the estate and surrounding vineyards.

Kearney, at the time of his death, was in the process of having a beautiful “chateau” or large country home built in the center of the park. He had arranged plans in which part of the estate would be used as an agricultural college after his death, with the chateau as the administration building for the campus.

But over the years, various parts of the estate were torn down by Fresno County and in 1962, the historical society, through the efforts of numerous volunteers and members, managed to save the mansion itself from being demolished.

A tour inside the mansion reveals a mixture of French Renaissance architecture with typical Victorian-style classical details. Included in the tour are stops through the estate office, Kearney’s private office, his private bedroom, the servants’ quarters and the dining room, among others.

Kearney Park is located just off palm-lined Kearney Boulevard, which at one time was Kearney’s private driveway to the estate.

A drive through the park reveals an abundance of free-roaming squirrels and birds making the park their home. The serenity of the park, added to the sight of the overwhelming bunya-bunya and palm trees and the smell of the surrounding vineyards, make Kearney Park and the mansion an attractive, irresistible host to about 10,000 visitors a year.

The upkeep of the Kearney Mansion is just one of the society’s many projects, and it’s the people involved in these projects that make it all worthwhile, Sharon says.

“That’s really one of the greatest rewards and why, when one is exhausted and it begins to get too much, that you stay with it. It’s because of all of the people: the wonderful people who give so much of themselves all the time for the society and the mansion, and you meet so many fascinating people with wonderful stories to tell in this line of work.

“You never know, literally, who’s going to be on the other side of the phone when you pick it up!” she says excitedly.

Sharon has been associated with the society one way or another since the late 1960s. She put aside a teaching career in 1975, however, to contribute even more of her time to the museum and society projects.

It looks like that sacrifice will being paying off this month, as the museum undergoes a thorough interior restoration. She says she is proud and very happy to be part of that venture.

When Sharon isn’t busy tour-guiding at the museum and tending to society matters, she likes to travel (she’s been through Europe three times), she enjoys reading about California history, watching foreign films and playing the piano.

And what about her dreams of the future?

Her love of children may someday lead her to resume a career in teaching. But until then, she says, she will continue to devote her time to her love of history and the architectural heritage of the San Joaquin Valley. For Sharon Hiigel, a glimpse into the future is only a glimpse into the past.

Story for Breakaway by BRIAN COVERT