Photographs on the walls show images not common at Oregon heritage museums: faces of Black loggers and their families living and working in rural Wallowa County.
Those images, along with other historical artifacts, fill the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, a tiny museum in downtown Joseph that will soon expand onto the site of the old logging town for which it was named, continuing to elevate a piece of Oregon history that was long obscured.
The appointment-only museum occupies an unassuming storefront across the street from a buzzy pizza restaurant and popular chocolate shop, smack in the middle of a popular tourist town at the base of the Wallowa Mountains.
The museum was created by founder Gwendolyn Trice, who started it as a deeply personal inquiry into her heritage in northeast Oregon. Trice’s father, who was Black, came to Maxville with his family when the logging camp first opened in 1923 and remained in the region after its closure 10 years later.
Maxville was a segregated company town of about 400 loggers and their families, Trice said, of which about an eighth were Black. Though not usually enforced, Black exclusion laws were still on the books in Oregon in 1926, illustrating some of the deeply held racism at the time that her family and others in the state have continued to face in the century since.
Trice said Black families from Maxville were not welcome in neighboring white communities, and Black children were taught to never look white people in the eyes. Crosses were burned on the hills overlooking the Black homes “as a gentle reminder” of that institutionalized racism, she said.
That racism persisted for those who stuck around after the logging town was disbanded in 1933: When Trice was growing up in La Grande in the early 1970s, she was told she could only aspire to be a janitor or a nurse and often found herself cleaning up after her white friends instead of playing with them.
“All the stories are not bright and shiny pennies,” she said, though that doesn’t mean they’re not worth telling. “Right now we need to talk about home spaces, rural counties, people of color who have contributed and lived in our spaces for generations.”
Trice said her parents didn’t talk much about the past when she was growing up — neither the logging days in Maxville nor their time living in the Jim Crow south. There was a sense they had moved on, she said, that the past was something unpleasant they didn’t need to think about anymore.
Of course, she went in another direction.
After high school, Trice left rural Oregon for Seattle, where she lived for 30 years before returning home and beginning her investigation into her heritage. That journey led to the founding of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center in 2008 and the downtown Joseph museum in 2015.
This summer, she announced the heritage center had purchased the land that used to be Maxville, where she plans to set up additional educational opportunities for the local community, in addition to the little downtown Joseph museum.
“We want to make it vibrant and interpretive for everybody that shows in our space,” she said. “They shouldn’t come with any preconceived notions or ideas. They should have interest and open the door and walk in.”
The work Trice does is influenced more by her father and her rural upbringing than by modern social justice movements, she said, acting in service of the local community and in the spirit of the land on which they live.
Her initial journey to learn about Maxville stemmed from her curiosity about her family’s past, a deeply emotional process that was featured in a 2009 documentary, “The Logger’s Daughter,” produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“My dad provided opportunities for kids across every culture, he never taught us to be separate in how we think of the land around us, the wildlife and the people that we live with,” Trice said. “It’s really about lifting up all the voices in the community, and I think that a lot of the work that I do here embodies that.”
Working through the traumas of the past can be challenging, she said, but the work has also come with great rewards — both for herself and the broader community of northeast Oregon.
“What I love that Maxville triggers in people is that they really want to get behind something that’s meaningful across different planes,” Trice said. “Let’s begin this global conversation about all the things we have in common and all the things that lift our voices and lift our hearts and lift the land and the place that we call home.”
— Jamie Hale; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB