CASHUP DAVIS INTRODUCED me to the small-town museum. He was an eccentric Palouse homesteader who inexplicably built a grand hotel atop Steptoe Butte in 1888. I’m writing a book and producing a documentary about Cashup. Experts said, “No need to go to the museums — it’s all online.” But I wanted immersion.

So, I went into nearly every small-town museum in the Palouse — usually empty, often musty, volunteers always thrilled to see me. I found a lot of material not on those websites. And when I hosted town meetings asking locals for material, they delivered.

Then I knew: There’s something special about small-town museums.

Cover story: Nothing captures a small town’s character, soul and past like its museum — but their futures face serious modern-day perils

Mapping our small-town museums 

The COVID-19 shutdown has hit small-town museums hard, forcing cancellation of vital fundraising events. Bainbridge Island’s museum canceled its July 19 cruise around the island aboard the Virginia V. Because its annual tennis tournament is outdoors, there’s hope it’ll proceed Aug. 11.

In Oakesdale, the annual July Mill Days celebration was canceled. That’s an event Mayor Dennis Palmer helped revive six years ago, primarily to generate traffic and donations for the town’s museum. Canceling means they won’t get the $300 from the beer garden. Even so, “I told them I am gonna open the museum every Saturday,” anyway, Palmer says (he’ll follow COVID-19 protocols). He worries about the future of his town’s museumwhere he bought many of the items out of his own pocket.

“My dream is that, if I ever won the Lotto, I’d build a two-story museum,” he says. Until then, he’ll keep the doors open even if he has to staff it himself.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You get people from Spokane or wherever, and they have no idea what a sheep shearer is.” Or a shock of wheat. Or peas or barley or oats. But Palmer proudly explains them all.

I went to 11 small-town museums. There are Dennis Palmers at each one.