Guajome Regional Park is home to a unique educational destination. Spanning 55 acres of historical ranch and farmland, the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum highlights technology primarily from 1849 through 1960. Exhibits, demonstrations, and hands-on classes give community members the chance to learn about farming, metalsmithing, wagon repair, textiles, gas and steam engines, and so much more. We spoke with Museum Director Rod Groenewold to learn more.
Q&A with Museum Director Rod Groenewold
What is the history behind the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum (AGSEM)? When was it first built?
The membership of our organization started as a branch of the Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association in the late 1960s, a loose-knit antique equipment collector’s organization with branches all over the US. Just over 10 years later, our club partnered with the County of San Diego to establish a permanent museum at our current location at the South end of Guajome Regional Park. At the time the lease was negotiated, the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. The County of San Diego has been a steadfast supporter from day one and an ongoing partner in our success. We truly appreciate the support of the Board of Supervisors, especially 5th District Supervisor Bill Horn and the Department of Parks and Recreation led by Brian Albright.
What is AGSEM’s mission?
The mission of the museum is to collect and display examples of the mechanical ingenuity associated with American agriculture and industry. The museum offers educational and recreational opportunities to the public in displays, demonstrations, and programs designed to depict a timeline of invention fulfilling necessity. The museum preserves that timeline so the ingenuity and pride of these achievements will not be forgotten by future generations.
Tell us more about the grounds and property.
“The museum preserves a timeline of invention fulfilling necessity so the ingenuity and pride of these achievements will not be forgotten by future generations.”
Our site was originally home to members of the Luiseño Indian tribe and was later part of Rancho Guajome, deeded to Cave Couts and his bride Isadora Bandini-Couts in the 1840s. The museum’s leasehold is 55 acres of what historically has been ranch and farmland. 100 years ago, Southern California was predominantly rangeland and dryland crops like wheat, oats, or beans that do not require irrigation. According to the County Agriculture Department, we maintain the last parcel of wheat production in the County. In our nearly-40 years on this site, we have gone from bare ground to a fully developed facility with multiple exhibit buildings, restoration facilities, and outdoor camping and entertainment venues.
Does AGSEM have any specific programs or attractions?
Think of us as a “Museum Mall.” Museums typically adopt a very narrow focus based on a specific time period, trade, etc. A tour of our grounds may lead you to think that we collect about anything that comes our way. Separate buildings or areas on the grounds highlight farming, metalsmithing, wheelwrights/wagon repair, horology (the science of measuring time), textile arts, model railroading, gas and steam engines, and homelife 100 years ago. However, spend a little time here and you’ll find the thread that ties it all together is an innate curiosity and wonder at the wisdom, skill, and ingenuity of our predecessors. Many of our nearly-2000 members are made up of engineers, skilled tradespeople, and artisans that are attracted to our model of maintaining a working collection. The bulk of our collections are mechanical and best maintained in operation. We have always believed that preserving the operating skill and knowledge relating to our artifacts is as important as the artifacts themselves. Every part of our collection is coupled with the opportunity for internship learning alongside skilled craftsmen on an informal basis or by enrolling in one of our skills-based class offerings in blacksmithing, weaving, and clock repair, or in our School of Times Past program for school-age children.
What is your role at AGSEM?
I have been director of the museum since 1992. In its simplest definition, my job is to bring options and opportunities to my organization. At their direction, I manage all finances and business operations. As the figurehead of our organization, I represent our interest to potential donors and business partners. Most importantly, I am responsible for the care and preservation of our collection. Related to my position with the museum and recognizing our close partnership with County Parks, I am also a 5th District Representative on the County Parks Advisory Committee.
Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum | At-A-Glance
Name: Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum
Director: Rod Groenewold
Years in Position: 27
Address: 2040 N Santa Fe Ave., Vista, CA 92083
What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your role?
Honestly, the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my duties is managing growth. Our business model that encourages and empowers volunteers to take on operational areas/aspects of our operations has enabled us to sustain continued growth. Some days I’m convinced that my job is akin to herding cats when we have classes, events, and construction projects running at the same time. As chaotic as that can be, when I look at other small to mid-size museums or historical agencies, I never cease to be amazed at the talent and dedication of our volunteers. In addition to having a “can-do” volunteer force, I feel truly blessed to manage an organization with a working board. My board of 12 is elected to serve by our membership. All of them were elected by going above and beyond in their areas of interest and are trusted to lead by their fellow volunteers. I mentioned earlier that one of my primary duties was to bring opportunities to our group. The board here has always welcomed new groups and ideas. Much of our growth and prosperity has come enticing other nonprofit organizations to join us. In recent years, several other nonprofit organizations have reorganized under our corporate umbrella, including Palomar Weavers Guild, Short Track N-scale model railroaders, and the West Coast Clock & Watch Museum formerly of Bellingham, WA.
How is AGSEM maintained and funded?
A combination of working volunteers, location, and a site amenable to varied uses makes AGSEM very “un-typical.” Most museums are funded at the whim of a patron or government agency. From its beginning as a club, our museum has worked hard to pay our own way. All of our operational funds are generated by the events and classes we offer throughout the year. Our volunteers act as docents and demonstrators during events, instructors, groundskeepers. and even provide all of our food service during events. Before I moved to California to take the position here, I managed a County museum in Nebraska. It was challenging for me at first to transition from budgeting based on an annual stipend to running a museum as a business, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. During my tenure here, our operating budget has grown tenfold, and our designated gifts and giving even more. Very few museums can claim that they truly pay their own way, and we take great pride in the fact that we have from the beginning. Of course we apply for and receive grants, corporate gifts, individual, and foundation funding. These funds are dedicated to establishing new programs, collections acquisitions, facility improvements, or other one-time expenditures outside of normal operating expenses.
How many staff members work on the property? Can you tell us more about their roles?
We operate with a very lean and focused staff compared to other museums. I manage day-to-day operations with the assistance of my Curator of Collections, Ashley Jaques, who joined us as a high school intern nearly 20 years ago. Marie Smith and Megan Tessicini are part-time employees who manage our educational programming and front desk operations. A major responsibility for all staff is facilitating and coordinating volunteer efforts, since they’re our primary work force.
Director | At-A-Glance
Name: Rod Groenewold
Profession: Director of AGSEM
Hobbies and Interests: Horology/clock restoration and cycling
Favorite Spots Around Vista: The museum of course! I get to go play with my friends almost every day.
Does AGSEM offer any opportunities for school/group field trips or other large events?
We offer educational programming for all ages. Retired educator and former State of Nebraska Teacher of the Year Connie Morton is our School of Times Past (K-12 education program) schoolmarm. As Ms. Wimplewart, she gives students a real taste of what a school day in 1900 was like. Our most popular adult educational offering is blacksmithing. We offer classes and workshops from beginner to artisan level. Other popular offerings include weaving and clock repair. By joining a group here on the grounds you can attain a wealth of hands-on experience in cooking, gardening, farming, machine work, and mechanical skills. All of our volunteer groups are open to sharing their skills and making new friends. In addition to museum-sponsored events like our five annual antique consignment auctions, spring and fall farm shows and Fiber Arts Fiesta, several other groups partner with us to put on Vintage Marketplace events, Summergrass San Diego, and several gem and mineral shows. There’s
something going on here nearly every weekend, check out our website for current event listings.
Does AGSEM need volunteers? How should those interested in volunteering get involved?
The more the merrier! We’re always looking for new talent and friends. I’m always amazed what our members have to offer. Our members include inventors, business entrepreneurs, master tradesmen, and skilled artisans. One of the favorite parts of my job is visiting with my volunteers to catch up on what they’re up too. In my rounds, I’ve visited with members who have developed lubricants used in the space program, maintain sub-zero systems used in university cryogenic experiments, are award-winning textile or metalsmithing artists, and skilled musicians from one of our two house bands. Many of our members are master-level tradesmen and restorers who have restored vehicles for prestigious collections like Jay Leno’s and the Nethercutt Museum. Historic clocks, engines, wagons, and other artifacts seen in other museums and historic sites in the region have been restored by our volunteers, free of charge. The diversity of knowledge and skill in our group is almost unimaginable.
“We have always believed that preserving the operating skill and knowledge relating to our artifacts is as important as the artifacts themselves.”
Can you tell us about any upcoming events? Where can readers find out more, get tickets, etc.?
The museum is open every day, and there are special events or activities scheduled nearly every weekend. For a full listing of events, classes, and scheduled activities go to our website at www.agsem.com. Our website also has many links to related interest groups, other museums, and resources for restorers and collectors. Advance tickets, class enrollment, and camping reservations can also be made online or by calling the office at 760-941-1791.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m always surprised to meet locals who know about us but have never been here. Many have seen our equipment in movies and on television, locally at the Del Mar fair, or over at the Carlsbad Flower Fields providing wagon rides. We are so much more than our name implies, come see us!