Once again, this town of hard knocks has taken a hit as thousands of irreplaceable artifacts were destroyed in the building housing the Aberdeen Museum of History.
ABERDEEN — Sometimes it seems like this city of 17,000 just keeps taking the hits.
You can find Aberdeen listed right there, on a website called, “Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places,” alongside Butte, Montana, the Packard Plant in Detroit and other economically depressed places.
But the latest hit wasn’t about the economy, although Grays Harbor County still has a 7.2 percent unemployment rate, nearly 2½ times that of King County.
The hit came from a disastrous fire last week that burned thousands of irreplaceable artifacts from the area’s hardscrabble history.
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And history matters here in this gritty town still reeling from the collapse of the logging industry, and where working-class families have lived for generations.
The fire Saturday gutted the Aberdeen Armory Building, dedicated in 1922 and touted as “a source of civic pride and activity.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard.
The two-story structure housed the Aberdeen Museum of History, a senior center and low-income assistance offices.
Dave Morris, the museum’s director, was on the way to work when he got the phone call. “The building is on fire!”
The flames were 20 or 30 feet high, he remembers. The billowing smoke reached the clouds, carrying away the ashes of thousands of historical items that fed the flames.
“We were totally helpless. All we could do was watch the fire progress and basically chew up the building,” he says.
The main floor of the museum, some 11,000 square feet, was the exhibit area.
“Gone. Gone,” says Morris when talking about those exhibits. It was a word that he repeated often.
For Nirvana fans, and on news sites, the main interest about the fire was that a display about Kurt Cobain was destroyed. The grunge superstar was born in Aberdeen and lived in the area into young adulthood.
The museum had become a stop for fans who sought to visit the places with some connection to Cobain.
But the T-shirts, drawings and memorabilia on display never actually belonged to Cobain.
The closest thing to an original Cobain artifact on display was a couch that the teenager slept on while staying for about a year in 1985 at the home of LaMont and Barbara Shillinger. They were the parents of a couple of Cobain’s friends at Aberdeen High.
Cobain would have been around 18 and had left his home after an argument with his mother, according to numerous accounts of his early years.
Morris said the couch — which looked like it would have fit in fine at some budget motel — wasn’t cordoned off, so fans could sit or lie down on it and pose for a photo.
“Gone,” says Morris.
Looking at the armory from the outside, it’s hard to imagine the devastation inside.
The white concrete walls are intact. The building, after all, was constructed as an armory, and over the years was used by 12 different National Guard companies and battalions.
But drone video of the fire posted on social media shows the roof collapsed and exposed an interior of charred beams and rubble.
A photo provided by the city’s fire department shows the museum’s main floor completely blackened by the fire. Blue sky shows through the building’s roof. The floor is littered with scorched lumber and rubble lying in puddles of water.
For Morris, one of the big losses in the fire was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer collection of “Hairbreadth Husky” cartoons by the late Bob McCausland. Hairbreadth was a ragged-looking dog with a punky attitude.
Beginning in 1959, McCausland drew cartoons before and after each University of Washington football game, and garnered a devout following, including former UW coach Don James.
After retirement in 1981, McCausland moved to the area and drew cartoons for The Daily World in Aberdeen.
“Gone,” says Morris about the Hairbreadth cartoons.
He goes through the disastrous list.
“All the stuff from the unions. Gone,” he says. Until the collapse of logging, Aberdeen was a traditionally blue-collar town.
In 2016, Grays Harbor County went for Trump, the first time in 90 years that it hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.
But in the museum were the relics of how in the early 1900s, this area was at the heart of the Wobblies — the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
“Longshoremen, shingle weavers, sailors, and electrical workers all struck alongside the mill hands. The immediate cause of the conflict was the low wages paid at the Harbor’s mills,” recounts the UW’s IWW History Project about a historic 1912 strike.
Sawmill workers regularly lost fingers, hands and arms to the swirling saws.
Loggers knew they could easily lose their lives. One said that there were “49 different ways to get killed in the woods.”
And wages were so low that a visitor recounted, “I have seen children — sons and daughters of the working mill hands — come to the backyard of the hotel and pick old scraps of meat and bread from the garbage cans.”
The destroyed boxes of IWW items in storage at the museum were largely uncataloged, and so what was inside them isn’t known.
The list of items lost in the armory fire continues. Burned was a historical switchboard — the kind where the operator manually connected callers by plugging phone lines into the correct circuit.
Next to the switchboard was an old photo of a young woman working it. Now elderly, she regularly attended an exercise program at the armory.
This week, both the state archives and Servpro, a fire and water cleanup and restoration company, have been lugging boxes out of the basement of the armory.
Photos and documents stored there are now under 4 feet of water from the firefighting efforts.
Even so, the damage could be worse, said Dann Sears, the museum’s archivist.
“Actually, we’re coming out pretty good on this,” he said.
Some paper materials that got wet have been frozen by Servpro, stopping any further damage. The next step is to put the paper in a chamber that turns the ice into a vapor.
The state archives was taking the heavily soaked and important materials. No vaporization chamber in this case; just simply hanging the stuff on clothes lines in a room set to 50 to 60 degrees and 50 to 60 percent humidity. It works.
The museum was insured for “replacement value of building and contents,” says Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson.
But how much monetary value to put on that old Kurt Cobain couch? Or the Hairbreadth Husky originals?
“That’s going to be the difficult part,” says Larson.
Devastating fires are part of Aberdeen’s history.
In 1903, a fire destroyed 140 buildings in the center of town.
The Great Fire of 1918 that again destroyed most of the buildings in town.
In 2002 a couple of kids set fire to the landmark Weatherwax Building on the old campus for the high school.
On the museum’s Facebook page, a woman posted, “The museum will rise again!”
You get knocked down, you just get up again, that’s the Aberdeen way.