At 10 years old, Leo Coyan is the youngest docent at the Alpine County Museum – and possibly in the entire state of California.
So how did a kid who loves video games but isn’t especially fond of history get started as a docent? “He just started doing it,” his grandmother Wanda Coyan explains. “I would see him taking people all around the museum and showing them things. Now he watches to see people getting out of their cars, and he’ll go out and greets them.”
You might say Leo has grown up at the museum, although he’s still not quite full-grown. His grandmother is museum curator and his father is a frequent visitor. So it should come as no surprise that one day Leo opened the drawer of the big front desk, pinned a “Volunteer” button on his T-shirt, and began leading visitors on tours.
He starts visitors out at the old wooden jail, demonstrating the squeak of the prisoner’s bed by bouncing lightly on the edge of the old metal bedframe.
Next comes a visit to the old hay thresher. “Hold this up and don’t stick your hands inside,” he admonishes, as he opens a panel. Then he demonstrates how the vintage machine works by turning a handle on the side.
The old snowplow and antique fire hose reel are next. Then it’s off to the stamp mill, where I learn that the old diesel engine that turns the stamps is a “sipper,” because the heavy flywheel is so big and only a small amount of fuel is required to keep it turning.
Off in the carriage shed, the old red fire engine takes on new meaning as Leo explains: “My poppy used to drive this one” – he thinks it was in the 1940s. “You know how on today’s cars the speedometer goes up to 120? Well, on this one, it only goes up to 80 on the gauge. So 20 miles an hour – that was normal speed for this engine.”
At the old Basque bread oven, Leo opens the metal door and encourages a visitor to “stick your head inside.” Sure enough, that solves the riddle of the sandy dome on top. It’s not a solid heap of sand at all, but merely a covering that follows the natural curve inside the oven.
“Watch your step,” he cautions as we reach the old schoolhouse stairs. Sure enough, that first plank is loose. Inside, he points out drawings on the walls made by long-ago children, and demonstrates how to pull the rope to ring the old school bell.
As for how Leo has learned so much about the artifacts he demonstrates, well, he read the plaques. “And I listened to my grandmother and to Rick Dustman and other people who come up to the museum.”
I confess I saw things on Leo’s tour that I’ve never seen before in the hundreds of times I’ve wandered the museum. And Leo’s excitement was just plain contagious.
Not long ago, a happy visitor offered Leo two fresh dollar bills in appreciation for his wonderful tour. “He said thank you very much,” Wanda recalls, “and went over and put the money directly in the donation box.”