Milwaukie Museum receives $30K city grant for revamping exhibits, cataloging local artifacts -

Walk into the Milwaukie Museum and you’ll see a dizzying variety of historic objects from the city’s storied past, everything from original City Council gavels to an alligator skin left over from its now-defunct amusement park.

by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Milwaukie Historical Society Vice-President Greg 'Frank' Hemer looks forward to help from consultants funded with $30,000 in city funds to help organize exhibits at the Milwaukie Museum.You’ll see the nationwide influence of the 5,000-seat Milwaukie Arena, which was located where McLoughlin by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - A writing desk at the entry of the Milwaukie Museum holds a variety of artifacts from the city that goes back to the beginning of Oregon's pioneer history.Boulevard and Harrison Street now intersect, in a pair of Everlast boxing gloves autographed by 1920s cultural icon and World Heavyweight Champion William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey. In the arena’s biggest and most controversial fight Jan. 6, 1922, World Colored Heavyweight Champion Harry Wills fought Ben Tate, Dempsey’s sparring partner. The governor also had to intervene in Milwaukie by calling in the militia 1921 to raid the Frier Club, a site notorious for hosting both gambling and prohibition-era alcohol.

You’ll also see that Former “Maverick” Mayor Bill Hupp donated a clock to the Milwaukie Museum that came from the old library in downtown Portland, but no one knows how Hupp got a hold of it. All members of the Milwaukie Historical Society know is that the Multnomah County library system doesn’t want it back.

There are literally tons of other “curiosities” in this museum that was formerly the George Wise family farmhouse, built on Lake Road in 1865. Avocado-seed dolls by the dozens, racks of vintage clothing, boxes of black-and-white photos and a large collection of antique tools currently have no known connection to Milwaukie’s history specifically.

Later owners of the house, United Grocers, donated the structure to the historical society, who moved it to Adams Street with the help of many other community volunteers and a bicentennial grant. Dedication took place June 7, 1975.

Madalaine Bohl died May 17, 2009, after running the museum almost single-handedly for over a decade. With her went much of the expertise that she had been keeping in her head, although she also kept extensive records in binders that fill an entire small room. When these binders are digitized, said Milwaukie Historical Society Vice-President Greg “Frank” Hemer, much of the origins of the museum’s collections will be revealed to the world on the historical society’s website.

“It’s just so overwhelming, and we don’t know where to start, and that’s one of the things we really appreciate about having the curators,” Hemer said.

Those curators are the fruits of efforts by Hemer’s “younger generation,” now in their 40s and 50s, who have joined the swelling ranks of historical society membership in a now-or-never effort to preserve the city’s past since Bohl’s passing. Milwaukie’s City Council joined the effort this year by donating a one-time grant of $30,000 so the historical society could hire Alder LLC, a group of three people from different backgrounds. Val Charles Ballestrem, a Milwaukie resident who is the education manager at the Architectural Heritage Center, has the most experience as a historical researcher, and his partners at Alder LLC have more experience as an archivist and curator.

“It was very helpful, not only for us to choose them among more than a dozen applications, but also for us to put together something for the future,” Hemer said. With their five-year plan, they’ll also set us up for putting us in the position to figure out what grants we could get to continue the museum’s revitalization.”

by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Michelle Hemer stands in front of the Milwaukie Museum's impressive collections of period dolls, furniture and tableware.

Return of city’s ‘golden age’

Mayor Jeremy Ferguson cited Bohl’s death as the City Council’s wake-up call to focus on the museum’s historical preservation and fiscal responsibility. If the museum were to go under, Ferguson pointed out, the city would take it over, but city staffers would be ill-equipped to keep it open and reorganize its contents.

“Milwaukie has a significant place in Oregon’s history,” he said. “It felt like the right thing to do to help preserve Milwaukie’s history with all those irreplaceable documents and artifacts.”

Hemer agrees that preserving Milwaukie’s history for future generations should be every citizen’s concern. In the version of Milwaukie’s history as Hemer tells it, the city is trying to rediscover its “golden age” of vitality that it enjoyed during the 1920s through ‘50s, when the trolley line closed down. Those efforts include its economic development plans to correspond with the opening of the light-rail line in 2015.

“We want this museum to be a place that citizens can come and understand their history to serve as unifying force in pride,” Hemer said. “By our community knowing our past, it will strengthen our development moving forward.”

With 500 strong population, Milwaukie had a flourmill, sawmill and boat launch at the beginning of the 1850s. Lot Whitcomb had great vision for the bright future of Milwaukie, but the city of Portland threw ship ballasts into the river at Ross Island to make it impassable, and Milwaukie became a stopping point between Portland and Oregon City. Milwaukie nevertheless persevered on its rich agriculture.

“We sold celery all the way out to Kansas City, and we still have a truck farm and nursery to this day,” Hemer said.

In 1903, the “frontier” city became incorporated, and one of the first City Council’s first rules was against the storage of explosives, a common rule throughout the more civilized portions of the Wild West. The city constable had to buy his own badge, his own gun bullets, his own car’s gasoline and had a volunteer force. He made his salary as a percentage of taxes he collected.

Crystal Lake Park, currently the site of apartments, was a dance hall, zoo and amusement park from about 1906 through the ‘50s. In 1918, Milwaukie passed a law against dancing closer than a foot from people of the opposite sex, so people did their close dancing on the side of the dance hall that was outside of the jurisdiction of Milwaukie’s dance enforcer in Clackamas County’s side of the line. In the 1960s, under the jurisdiction of Mayor Joe Bernard, repealed this law and many others such as against walking a donkey across a city street.

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