Maturango helps mark China Lake milestone

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Maturango helps mark China Lake milestoneThe Maturango Museum, circa 1963, while it was still located on base. — U.S. Navy photo

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As the chief stewards of the natural, historical and cultural records of the Indian Wells Valley, Maturango Museum and staff will be among the local organizations kicking off the 75th anniversary of the Navy at China Lake at the April 28 Community Day celebration.

The China Lake front gate will relax restrictions on public access on that day to allow residents to experience the displays, exhibits and activities relating to the anniversary observance. Maturango Museum is working with the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert to create a timeline that will give spectators a sense of where the Navy-related achievements fit into our history. That and more can be viewed at the east end of the Blandy Avenue block party.

The histories of the naval installation and the civilian community have been intertwined ever since the Naval Ordnance Test Station began operations in November 1943. Maturango’s Executive Director Debbie Benson is a prime example of someone who lives in the overlap of the two realms.

The daughter of China Lake legend Bud Sewell, Debbie was born in the base dispensary and grew up in a neighborhood of children whose parents worked together.

“Because we had known each other our whole lives, my graduating high school class is still close to this day,” said Benson.

“I associate a lot of that close-knit spirit to our roots on the base. It was like being brought up in a homey think-tank. Our parents were coming up with and testing all these marvelous ideas.

“We didn’t know everything about what they were doing, but we knew we were a part of something exciting — something that tied us all together.”

Like so many of her classmates, Benson moved away, only to return to her home town to work and raise her family on the other side of the fence. Now, as the museum director, she has a job that encompasses overseeing a living record of the valley — where China Lake plays a prominent role in the modern history.

“Of course, we have a very long history of human inhabitants in our valley,” said Benson. The petroglyphs and artifacts left behind by the indigenous inhabitants — who predate current settlements by thousands of years — are a big part of the museum’s mission.

But ironically, the establishment of the base, and the security surrounding that 1.1-million-acre footprint, have helped with the discovery and preservation of that part of the historical record.

“Outside of the main reasons for the base being here, you can see that this is a special environment,” she said. Discoveries over the years include a mammoth tusk, fossils and even a deeply-buried sea shell — possibly carried here in the craw of an ancient bird.

“We know that this was part of a major waterway at one point, so it’s pretty staggering to consider how much the environment has changed,” she said.

Around 1962 Rhea Blenman, Sylvia Winslow and a group of supporters started the museum to preserve not only the history-making developments at China Lake, but also other diverse aspects of our history and culture.

“We preserve a great deal of the history and the people of our valley — including the early families who were quite literally moved off the base in order to accommodate our test ranges,” she said.

“They had homesteads they walked away from, and it’s part of our job to preserve that history as well.”

The tools and assets left behind by these more recent families can reportedly be found among the more ancient artifacts on the base.

In 1986 the museum relocated to its current location. Although homage to China Lake can be found in countless exhibits, the bulk of the weapons developed on base are now housed next door at the newly relocated China Lake Museum Foundation.

A notable exception is the most famous of these systems — the Sidewinder missile, inspired by the heat-seeking desert snake of the same name.

In addition to hosting tens of thousands of visitors each year, Maturango sends docents into local schools to educate children about our unique valley.

“Even though I think most of us can feel the ways that our community is growing and changing, I think the upcoming celebration is a reminder that we are still a very small community that can pull together,” said Benson.

“Growing up here, we had a strong sense of community — partly because we were so isolated. But one thing that you learn when you move away is how much we actually have here in terms of education and relationships.

“I look forward to celebrating all of those things as a community.”

Story First Published: 2018-04-13