BUCKLEY, Pierce County — At the Foothills Historical Museum, you won’t find any woolly mammoths or world-famous artifacts attached to their installations by state-of-the-art security systems. But visit the nondescript, two-story barn-red building a block off Highway 410 in Buckley, Pierce County, and you’ll be greeted by an ornate gold three-tiered chandelier hanging behind the welcome desk — lovingly restored by veterinarian Dr. Charles “Jess” Rose, the museum’s founder. (He found the chandelier covered in muck in a falling-down church that had been overtaken with cows.)
Don’t be fooled by the subdued vibe in the museum’s windowless entry room. Traipse up a narrow staircase and wander gallery rooms that depict scenes from different times over the past 100-plus years. They aren’t filled with spotlights or extensive plaques detailing each item. You can, however, walk right into the beauty parlor and marvel up-close at an old perming machine that looks more at home in a Tim Burton movie than a beauty salon.
There’s also a doctor’s office complete with a shiny silver set of old tools that might explain children’s age-old fear of doctors, and kitchens from the 1880s and 1920s (oh, to use one of the old popcorn poppers and live to tell the tale!). The first floor features a butcher shop, a hunting cabin Dr. Rose found in the woods — moved and reassembled plank by plank — and a printmaking shop with a working printing press.
Across the street, there’s an old bunkhouse and saw shop from Lester, King County, a steam donkey (a logging winch powered by steam), a blacksmith shop, and an old fire lookout relocated from the Olympic Peninsula. Most outbuildings are open during museum hours and staged, while some — like the saw shop — are always open, so visitors can amble through the extensive collection of chain saws even when the museum is closed.
These collections, and everything else Foothills Historical has to offer when it reopens in early May — it’s been closed for the past year due to the pandemic — were sourced, preserved and staged by a group of industrious volunteers headed by Martha Olsen, the museum’s 80-year-old curator who also happens to be one of the late Dr. Rose’s three daughters.
Olsen, her husband Walter, her sister Anne Gibson, and their cousin Nancy Stratton have helped build and maintain the museum from Day 1, when it ran out of an annex at White River High School where “we had no heat, but we brought things from home and we managed to put up a couple of exhibits,” Gibson says.
The collection grew as people heard they were taking donations.
“We would come here and there would be boxes just sitting on the front porch,” Olsen says.
“Bags of photographs with no labels or anything,” Gibson adds.
Community-run museums like these — places steeped in local knowledge through generations and accessible to everyone from school groups to individuals inquiring about their family history — serve important roles as guardians of community history.
But their existence has always been contingent on the passion of their volunteers and financial support from the public and their communities — that’s not unlike many of the bigger, more prestigious museums such as the Seattle Art Museum or the Burke Museum. The difference is community-run museums have a much smaller safety net and a shorter list of available resources. To compound that, the pandemic lockdown and subsequent economic downturn have further endangered their long-term sustainability.
Foothills Historical is one of about 400 heritage organizations in Washington, says Allison Campbell, heritage outreach manager for the Washington State Historical Society. The term encompasses community-run museums, historical societies, tribal museums, cultural centers, historic house museums or cultural centers.
Last year, as the pandemic wore on, worries about sustainability motivated the Washington State Historical Society to survey these organizations about who they are and what they need in terms of support, consultation and technical training.
“My big concern is these historical societies with no staff have been closed for a year now and they’ve gotten almost zero COVID relief money because that was all designed around preserving paid jobs, so they weren’t eligible,” Campbell says.
Out of 177 responses to the survey, Campbell found that 64% of heritage organizations don’t have any paid full-time staff and operate solely with paid part-time staff or through volunteer support.
Foothills Historical falls in the latter category.
The museum was founded in July 1981 by Dr. Rose and his wife Maxine. “They were real history buffs. They came from people who had homesteaded and had that kind of family life. And they saved everything,” Olsen said.
Now, as the museum approaches its 40th anniversary, a board of seven people oversees about 15 volunteers and a shoestring operating budget of $12,000 that relies on community donations and help from the city.
“Buckley is fairly representative of local museums in Washington, they’re sheerly run and kept afloat by the love and passion and hard work of volunteers,” says Campbell.
All for the community
The original goal of Foothills Historical, Olsen says, was to preserve artifacts and show how people from Buckley and the surrounding area — towns like Enumclaw, Wilkeson, Carbonado and Burnett — worked and lived.
Over the years, its collection has grown in step with the communities it serves — especially as the group has outlasted other heritage organizations and taken in displaced items. When the Historical Society in Wilkeson shut, members donated their archive of more than 1,000 historical photos to the Foothills Museum. There’s also the statue of stick figure Mr. Zip, created and hand-painted by a Buckley resident in the early 1960s to help people get used to the idea of ZIP codes when they were first introduced. When Mr. Zip’s former home at the Tacoma post office was renovated, he was sent to Foothills Historical. There’s also a beautiful wood piano from the Women’s Musical and Literary Club — the oldest continuous women’s organization in Washington, founded in 1897 — that made its way from Buckley to Tacoma and Nisqually before finally settling at Foothills Historical.
“There’s an incredible amount of community trust when small museums take on small items donated from families. The trust is just vital,” Campbell says.
Even today, Olsen regularly takes calls from people hoping she’ll be interested in their items.
With her incredible memory, she has filed away dozens of stories about the provenance of the museum’s various artifacts. Despite her eye for interesting vintage items and penchant for storytelling, neither Olsen nor her sister is trained in museology; they both worked as nurses. Stratton, their cousin, was an elementary school teacher. She now helps put together exhibits and is cataloging and organizing the museum’s large clothing collection. Walter Olsen worked as a district engineer for Weyerhaeuser and jokes he’s the main “lightbulb changer.”
Board treasurer Jean Contreras is a genealogist, but none of the other volunteers are formally trained. Olsen and Gibson have taken preservation classes and they do their best to catalog and store things properly. Most purchases the museum makes are preservation-based: archival storage for clothing and quilts, an online database to digitize their collections. A real dream would be to have someone scan and digitize the complete Buckley Banner newspaper archives from 1892 to the 1970s.
“I spoke with a woman from the University of Washington, and she said it would be $10,000 to do,” Gibson says.
“And that was a while ago, too,” quipped Stratton.
The issues this small museum faces are like many of its size. Of the organizations Campbell surveyed, only 36% said they have “adequate collections storage.” Foothills is no different in that there’s never enough room for storage, and there’s never enough time to go through and properly categorize and catalog all items. Olsen is still sorting through notebooks her mother had as an original cataloging system in the 1980s. Additionally, the casual atmosphere of the museum means townsfolk regularly stop by to check in, catch up or tell stories about their lives while looking to find proof of their own family history.
“Most museums don’t give you that access — here people walk in, sit down, and it’s very relaxed,” Stratton says.
“People want to come in and look up something and then spend three hours talking. They just want somebody to listen,” Olsen adds.
Olsen doesn’t mind the listening — even when it keeps her from her work. Like her dad, she’s a history buff and she’s dedicated to making sure the people of Buckley always have access to their history.
“I just feel it’s very important to look back at our history and also see where we’re going in the future. It is a responsibility but also it’s very rewarding in so many ways,” Olsen says.
What the future holds
Campbell says it’s common for museums the same size as Foothills Historical to have an annual operating budget of less than $100,000 per year, making even one full-time staffer a cost that’s out of reach.
A new “shuttered venues” grant has provisions for museums, but to qualify, the venue must have permanent seating, a rarity for a small museum that needs to constantly shift how it uses space.
Admission to Foothills Historical is by donation only, but donations usually only account for $25 per month, with anywhere from 100 to 300 visitors.
“You can get 20 people in here and not a dollar goes in the jug,” Olsen says.
They’ve struggled with the idea of having an admission fee, but they don’t want it to be a barrier, especially to local schoolchildren.
Another issue is the age of the volunteers. At 80, Olsen hopes there will be someone willing to take the reins when she decides to retire. Volunteer recruitment and management is another major issue, especially if the dedicated group of volunteers dwindles to where running the museum isn’t sustainable anymore.
“I don’t worry too much about Foothills as they have tremendous community support. But there should be succession planning. Martha might be the only person who knows how to input new collections into the database they use, so how can we ensure that knowledge is shared and support those organizations?” Campbell says.
But there are some big things in the works for Foothills Historical. In March 2020 they applied for a hefty state-funded grant to help them build a new building, therefore expanding much-needed storage space.
The cost of a new building still seemed out of reach, so the women found an ally in Paul Weed, city administrator for Buckley who grew up in the town and remembers playing on the museum’s steam donkey as a kid.
“For me, what the museum provides is that experience to have storytelling from more than just Google. It’s that visual and written storytelling. You can see it, read it, experience it and imagine through those visual experiences that the museum provides,” Weed says.
Weed knew Buckley Hall, a nearly 6,000-square-foot building that sits directly across the street from the museum, was underutilized, so he offered it up.
“It’s a community space. What [the museum] is looking to provide we have, we just have to reimagine it,” Weed says.
It needs some renovations, but Olsen is hoping they’ll be able to move in — sharing space with the Buckley Kiwanis Food Bank — by early summer. There will be a work table where people can conduct research, room for temporary displays and a larger office for volunteers.
“One thing we really need is some 40-year-olds instead of 80-year-olds,” Olsen’s husband Walt says with a laugh.
“It’s our heritage center,” Stratton says.
Next on the wish list?
A new crop of volunteers.