IT’S EASY TO SEE the pride in Sherrie Evans’ face as she stands next to a coal-mining exhibit in Black Diamond’s town museum. The coal miner in the old blurry photo, shown standing outside the famed Mine 11, which, in the early 1900s, was the biggest coal mine in the United States, is Gomer Evans Sr. Not only is Sherrie his granddaughter; she also helps run the small-town museum.

“I’m a coal-miner’s granddaughter,” Evans enjoys saying.

The Backstory: Small-town museums exhibit uncommon devotion in an era of historic challenges 

Mapping our small-town museums 

Nearly 300 miles away, in Oakesdale in Eastern Washington, Mayor Dennis Palmer, with a mischievous grin, stumbles onto a newspaper clipping of himself during his Korean War furlough. It’s glued into Jack Salmon’s scrapbook, which was donated to the town’s McCoy Valley Museum after Jack passed on. “During that leave,” Palmer remembers, “I told my girlfriend she could date other boys.”

Harry Brandt gets to reveal his father’s little-known heroism during WWII by creating a display of family letters and photos in the tiny Tekoa Museum & Library near the Idaho border he helps run. “My dad never liked to talk about his war experience,” Brandt says.

That’s the beauty of small-town museums. They’re like shared family albums. Rather than each family storing memories in attics or barns and losing them to time, they bring their collective history to local museums. They are the physical manifestation of a town’s character and soul.

“Only the local museum is going to focus on the local history,” says Gary N. Smith, president of The Summerlee Foundation and an authority on small-town museums. “And they’re happy to see visitors.”

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BUT SMALL-TOWN MUSEUMS are facing threats:

• All the signatures in the guest books stopped cold in early March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit — and with them, museum fundraising. (At the time this story was written, most of the state’s small-town museums were closed; I visited 11 of them, about half prepandemic. Please check the museums’ websites for more information.)

• The digital age threatens to make brick-and-mortar museums less necessary.

• Small towns have aging populations.

• And some small towns themselves are struggling to survive.

A display at the DuPont Historical Museum documents the history of DuPont as a planned community — first as a company town, from 1909 until the 1970s. Beginning in 1994, the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company developed Northwest Landing on land purchased from DuPont. (Jeff Burnside)
A display at the DuPont Historical Museum documents the history of DuPont as a planned community — first as a company town, from 1909 until the 1970s. Beginning in 1994, the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company developed Northwest Landing on land purchased from DuPont. (Jeff Burnside)

Much of the historic value of small-town museums is in the photos. Dog-eared. Blurry. Notes scribbled on the back, or sometimes right on the photo. They’ve been mostly digitized in high resolution, uploaded to history websites, and made instantly available to researchers and others worldwide. That means the images can live on forever, but it also translates into less need to visit the museums.

“But the artifacts are still supreme,” says Smith.

You can’t really digitize artifacts such as chunks of coal like those found in the Black Diamond museum, or the Native American baskets displayed in many small-town museums, the Hudson’s Bay blanket in the DuPont Historical Museum, the large 1930s sign from the Tekoa Baptist Church or the historic buildings like the Acheson cabin on Fox Island.

Besides, the very act of thumbing through a 100-year-old family photo album is a distinct, fuller experience than clicking on a computer screen.

“I love getting outside of the cities and looking at these smaller places,” says Smith, “just for the sheer variety of what you’ll see, compared to the museums we know and love in the cities.” He recalls phoning one small-town museum when it was closed. “They said, ‘Give me 20 minutes, and I’ll be there to open it up for you.’ ”

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THERE ARE MORE than 80 small towns or counties (defined as having a population of 40,000 or fewer) in Washington that operate general-interest museums.

The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum has a level of sophistication that belies its modest size. Sure, they preserve memorabilia. But, “Our role is a little bit more active,” examining social issues old and new in the museum, says executive director Brianna Kosowitz. “Getting people to think about how they live their lives and how they can use the past and history and apply it to right now.”

A wrist band and matching luggage tag from Ichiro Nagatani, one of many Japanese American residents of Bainbridge Island who were incarcerated during World War II. These tags are part of a display at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. (Jeff Burnside)
A wrist band and matching luggage tag from Ichiro Nagatani, one of many Japanese American residents of Bainbridge Island who were incarcerated during World War II. These tags are part of a display at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. (Jeff Burnside)

Bainbridge has exhibits exploring the Japanese American Exclusion during WWII (some of the American concentration camp survivors are museum docents), the island’s timber and shipbuilding origins, and its love affair with ferries. But it also has explored the island’s outsized role in punk rock and grunge music, in an exhibit called “Fearless Music.” A past exhibit examined “love in the berry fields,” when, generations ago on the island, Filipino men often married Native American women who were then told to eschew their heritage. The museum had recordings from daughters and grandchildren who rediscovered their own Native American roots.

Even today, the museum curators are seeing history unfolding right in front of them, collecting stories of Bainbridge Islanders coping with the pandemic, and gathering signs and masks for a future exhibit.

Kosowitz came from The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and loves running a smaller, nimble museum. The Bainbridge museum has five paid staff members, a broad network of support and an annual budget of nearly $400,000. Yet, she says, “Volunteers keep you alive.”

Compared to the Bainbridge museum, most others are, frankly, quaint. They have stacks of old stuff, ranging from souvenirs from local hotels long-vanished to letterman jackets from the high school. A few display vintage MJB coffee cans or old Kodak cameras — nostalgic relics that could have existed in any small town, not just theirs.

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“But sometimes it’s kind of fun just to have something — like an old silk hat,” says Carol Estep, president of the DuPont museum board. “While that hat was probably never used in DuPont — it could have been.”

DUPONT, IN PIERCE COUNTY, has a unique history. While there are many company towns in America, DuPont has been one three times over. All were distinct eras, beginning with the first white settlement in Puget Sound, Fort Nisqually, founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1833.

In 1906, the DuPont Company bought 5 square miles of land to build an entire town from scratch in order to manufacture black powder for dynamite.

A vintage stick of dynamite (minus explosive material) from the E.I. DuPont de Nemours plant is displayed at the DuPont Historical Museum. (Jeff Burnside)
A vintage stick of dynamite (minus explosive material) from the E.I. DuPont de Nemours plant is displayed at the DuPont Historical Museum. (Jeff Burnside)

When innovation eventually forced black powder dynamite to fade, Weyerhaeuser bought the land from DuPont. It wanted to build a massive operation loading timber onto ships. But in the mid-1970s, when regulators wouldn’t permit a deep-water port, and the timber market tanked, Weyerhaeuser pivoted to real estate, building a massive mixed-use planned community called Northwest Landing adjacent to the historic village built by DuPont. Three companies, dominating the area in different eras, created three sequential histories stuffed into one museum.

DuPont has gone from boom to bust multiple times, reinvigorated each time by the arrival of a new corporation. But more likely for small towns, the boom years give way to protracted difficult times and, perversely, add fodder for the museums.

Black Diamond exploded into existence in the 1880s after the discovery of coal there, but then faced tough times when the mines closed. Oakesdale, Tekoa, Palouse, Rosalia and Colfax were bustling farming centers of the Palouse, where a reputation for high-yield soil made it famous the world over. But these days, some farm towns struggle to stay vibrant, reflected in lack of funding for museums.

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The Whitman County Historical Society leads its coalition to try to do what adequate funding cannot. Its president, Greg Partch, says Whitman County is dominated by farming and lacks the retail sales tax and a potential revenue stream for its museums. “It’s a struggle,” he says. “Everywhere is a struggle.”

Oakesdale features the John F. Kelley Homestead Cabin just outside town. It was built in 1872 and is one of the oldest structures in the state; it’s also on the National Registry of Historic Places. But the Kelley Cabin is quickly deteriorating in the harsh Palouse seasons, despite proposals to move it into town, next to the museum, and refurbish it. Partch and others have been trying like the dickens to save it. But the cabin fell into the ownership of a cousin of the Kelley family, and Partch has had no luck inspiring the owner to save it. Without investment and willingness, it might not last much longer. “Couple more winters, maybe,” says Partch.

Oakesdale Mayor Dennis Palmer unlocks the lonely McCoy Valley Museum. The museum was founded by the Oakesdale Historical Society in 1988 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the town. (Jeff Burnside)
Oakesdale Mayor Dennis Palmer unlocks the lonely McCoy Valley Museum. The museum was founded by the Oakesdale Historical Society in 1988 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the town. (Jeff Burnside)

Washington state also has niche museums, specializing in everything from cranberries to oysters, hydroplanes to kites, even Nutcracker items (in Leavenworth, of course). But the niche museums are generally not operated by town governments, as the general-interest history museums are.

NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY is on display in many of the state’s small-town museums, honoring the role of the people who were here many thousands of years before the first white person arrived. Baskets and carvings are the most common artifacts, some quite valuable, according to appraiser Christy Christodoulides of Duwamps Fine Art & Antique Appraisals. She says some of the most valuable, “wonderful treasures,” worth thousands of dollars, are held securely and not on display. Many exhibits pay homage to chiefs and tribes and a way of life.

The exhibits do not shy away from addressing the bloody battles with white soldiers or removal from their homelands to reservations — “telling the story in a more truthful manner,” says Christodoulides. Some museums are working with tribes and, in DuPont’s case, receiving funding from the Nisqually Tribe to help tell the first history. The tribes “want to be involved in telling their story,” Christodoulides says.

Some tribes have their own museums, most prominently the Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center. It’s a magnificent wooden building near Marysville filled with historic relics like canoes; baskets; and the original 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott that established reservations in Washington Territory, on loan from The National Archives and Records Administration. Totems, Coastal Indian artwork and massive cedar pillars dot the interior, and exhibits powerfully tell the story of the tribe’s relationship with nature and its bounty.

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The Perkins House in Colfax contains a wealth of vintage books, including original volumes of territorial law books dating to 1857. (Jeff Burnside)
The Perkins House in Colfax contains a wealth of vintage books, including original volumes of territorial law books dating to 1857. (Jeff Burnside)

Historic buildings often house the small-town museums. It’s a good fit. From cabins to schoolhouses, lighthouses to historic homes, the museum saves the building, and the building saves the museum. Colfax’s museum is in the ornate Perkins House. DuPont’s museum was built in 1912 as a butcher shop, and beginning in 1951 served as the town’s first City Hall. Black Diamond’s museum is in a renovated former railroad depot. Fox Island’s boxy warehouse museum is upstaged by the adjacent Acheson Cabin, more than 100 years old and built by the family of Lila Bell Acheson, who went on to co-found Reader’s Digest and was awarded the National Medal of Art.

“This kind of historic place almost literally breathes historical authenticity,” says a report written by Smith and produced by The Summerlee Foundation. “These kinds of places give the organization in charge of it an advantage in the quest for sustainability.”

SOMETIMES, SMALL-TOWN museums are not easy to locate. To get to Rosalia’s museum, for instance, you have to walk past the city hall staff and open an unmarked, locked door. In Tekoa, you walk through the library and into a backroom packed to the rafters with history. Almost every small-town museum has a side room stuffed with overflow items that curators can’t fit into the museum’s main area — but simply cannot bring themselves to throw away. In Tekoa, the spillover area is down creaky stairs into a musty basement — and open to the public, if you ask. On Fox Island, it’s through the back door that leads into a garage. Overflow items are caught in a netherworld between display and permanent storage.

The Battle Days Museum in Rosalia, Washington is located behind the town’s city hall. Here, a city hall clerk unlocks the museum for visitors. Credit: Jeff Burnside  (Jeff Burnside / )
The Battle Days Museum in Rosalia, Washington is located behind the town’s city hall. Here, a city hall clerk unlocks the museum for visitors. Credit: Jeff Burnside (Jeff Burnside / )

Two things consistently found in every small-town museum: the donation jar and the guest book. The cash helps the budgets a little, museum operators say. But usually not a lot. When Bainbridge dropped its $4 entry fee, attendance went up by 40%. Budgets range from, “We don’t really have a budget” to several hundred thousand per year.

Some small-town museums in King County can get funding from King County’s hotel/motel tax through the 4Culture grant program. Often, it’s significant. Black Diamond, for example, used county grant money to paint its building, add new LED lighting and put on a new roof to replace the leaky one.

The Washington State Historical Society also offers a range of funding, even though some museum volunteers privately grumble that the complexity of the application process is a deterrent, and others say they’ve never heard of the state funding program.

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The WSHS also offers training and guidance for museums and heritage organizations. And it’s currently conducting a series of online sessions about surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, according to marketing and communications director Julianna Verboort.

Securing multiple streams of funding is the top recommendation to keep small-town museums strong, says The Summerlee Foundation report in 2015, listing donations from individuals and local businesses, events, a building from the city, and tax-supported funding from the county or state. “Not only does this support provide a continual base level of funding for the museum,” the report says; “it provides confidence in other donors that the museum is permanent.”

There is one more threat to small-town museums looming. The pandemic will cause havoc with state and local government budgets. Sweeping funding cuts seem likely. “Everyone is fearing this tax will dry up,” says Smith. “Museums, libraries and parks often are the first things hit.”

The volunteers might become more important than ever to keeping small-town museums alive.