| 03/28/2020 | History |   

Going Back in Island Time at the San Juan Island Historical Museum

Fascinating old photos, mysterious tools, diaries with fancy script handwriting, vintage hats and more started pouring out of boxes when museum volunteers got to work archiving more than 200 boxes of San Juan Islands artifacts.

As the Museum celebrated its 50th birthday in 2017, and began to look towards the next 50 years, the Etta Egeland Resource Center building on Price Street just a mile up from the ferry landing in Friday Harbor, became the hub of exciting changes at the museum.

Farmhouse-turned-History HQ

The Resource Center, based in a 19th-century farmhouse that was formerly part of the James King Ranch, turned from a quiet room to a bustling workplace daily while these folks delved into the collection. Workers with all sorts of backgrounds were involved, and each lent their talents and experience to the project.  Longtime residents as well as newcomers joined in to learn about the island, make new friends, and tell their own stories. 

When we first took on the idea of getting the museum's archives in shape, more than twenty-five volunteers signed up to spend a couple of hours every day from January to April examining over the 200 boxes of artifacts, many unopened for decades. 

Rules of Order

The project had few rules: two hours was the limit per day for a volunteer, ideas for future projects were welcomed, and if you found something unusual or fun, you must speak up!  That last rule made the project the most enjoyable as strange objects were lifted out of a box, or someone found a vintage photo in a scrapbook, or read a passage in an old book.

Here are just a few of the items that were shared when found in the collection:

  • Hundreds of photos of people with no identification. A number of them said “Me” or “Mom” with no other indication of any other names.
  • Pig War commemorative medallion from 1972
  • Melted glass vases with the card “from the Seattle fire”
  • Several old business ledger books that had been repurposed as scrapbooks and journals
  • Hundreds of postcards collected by Islanders
  • A boxed electrical machine called an "Electrikure" from 1895 that promises medical curative powers
  • A collection of hair clips and barrettes, with an envelope of human hair marked “Mom’s hair”
  • A 1932 dictionary weighing 21 pounds

Nothing was discarded, but many items were designated to be removed from the archived collection and used in other areas.  Old National Geographics, miscellaneous books, and some items with no San Juan Island provenance will be used in other areas of the museum, while the Island treasures will be carefully preserved and safely archived. Some pieces will be repatriated to their rightful homes.

New Projects Come to Life

As we worked, this project revealed the necessity for at least twenty-five new projects, and many of these chores were embraced by some of the new volunteers, from Regina Kammer scanning the new photos into the museum’s archival software  to Ron Hanson building a database and collection of the many shipping vessels and ferries which called on the ports on San Juan Island.  Currently he is concentrating on ten ferries that ran from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Other new and potential projects:

  • Andy Zall is reviewing the existing photo collection descriptions and creating a standard methodology for descriptions and search terms, making the original 1200 photos much more user friendly to researchers. 
  • Tom Starr is working on a history of music on the Island, with an early emphasis on the Jazz Festivals. 
  • Michael Hansen is working on “Island Buildings, Then and Now”, tracing the origin, and locating photos, memorabilia, stories and facts of century-old buildings. His first project will involve the block of Spring Street between Front and First (both sides).
  • Mo Sloane is working on some landscaping ideas for the Museum grounds.
  • Lynn Weber-Roochvarg is working on rebuilding the Museum library and book collection.
  • Alan Rocohvarg is involved in bringing our workplace computers into the 21st century.

The goal of each project is to provide the community and visitors with information in a variety of methods: new historical exhibits, outreach boxes for teachers (including lesson plans), monographs and books, newspaper and magazine articles, Island family resources, informative talks for the public, and booths at events. 

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is.However, this project provided me with the most personal growth and satisfaction in all of my 40+ years of community service. And it is important to tell the history of the Island for generations to come.

Interested in participating in any of these fascinating projects or have an idea about another?  Contact me at dianamancel@gmail.com or Kevin Loftus at museum_admin@sjmuseum.org

Step Into History

During National Historical Preservation Month - and beyond - you can find history all around you during your visit to Orcas, Lopez and San Juan Islands.

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San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
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