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Gresham History Museums new exhibit depicts the people and places that shaped the city

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK -  The Gresham History Museum, in downtown Gresham, will reopen on Saturday, July 7.

It’s been said that home is where your story begins.

And for the generations who have always called Gresham “home,” as well as those who do now, that story is about to unfold at the Gresham History Museum.

After a six-month closure for repairs and renovation, the museum is reopening Saturday, July 7, with a new exhibit showcasing Gresham’s past through historical documents and everyday artifacts. For some, it will be a trip down memory lane. For others, the exhibit brings to life how the area once known as “Campground” blossomed into the fourth largest city in Oregon.

“Gresham Welcomes You” is a story told through vignettes highlighting the people, places and events that shaped the city. Aged photos show early graduating classes from Gresham High School, along with old trophies and school memorabilia. Visitors will find photographs of Gresham’s unique landmarks, such as Zim’s 12-Mile Corner and the former Multnomah County Fairgrounds, as well as signage from the former Rexall drug store and other businesses founded by Gresham’s pioneer families.

It’s all the pieces that made the whole.

“It’s all about the historical markers that add to where we are now as a city,” said Amanda Tillstrom, collections manager for the museum. “It’s the agriculture, the county fair, all the festivals held here — all the things that contribute to our identity.”

The artifacts on display all came from Gresham businesses and families, Tillstrom said. A circa 1940s barber chair was once bolted to the floor of the Bon Ton Barber Shop on Main Avenue. The 1920s cash register was a focal point in the Metzger Feed Store. All are part of an extensive array of museum artifacts that have been in storage for several years.

“In our collection we have wonderful maps that show how the street names have changed,” Tillstrom said. “All of them say ‘Gresham Welcomes You’ because they were handed out by the chamber of commerce. I just thought that was such a sweet way to name the exhibit because we are welcoming people to Gresham.”

The exhibit may be a chronology of Gresham’s story, but the building the museum calls home is historical in its own right. Built in 1912, the classic brick structure on Main Avenue was previously known as the Carnegie Library. It served as the city’s only public library until January 1990, when the current Gresham Library on Northwest Third Street and Miller Avenue opened. Book moving day in December 1989 involved a long line of volunteers weaving through city streets, passing books hand-to-hand to the new location. The museum is also on the National Register of Historical Places.

During its six-month closure, the museum underwent interior and exterior renovation. Mortar around the enormous windows, which had deteriorated and caused the casings to leak, was repaired, as was some of the exterior brick work. Construction to raise the ceiling inside the building yielded previously unknown electrical wiring, which allowed not only additional lighting but also an opportunity to enhance the building’s historical authenticity.

A new research room houses reference books, including everything from antique cookbooks and local high school yearbooks to file cabinets of newspaper stories and historical photographs. And a soon-to-open children’s book corner will revive the building’s original use as a library, with scheduled story times and pint-size furniture.

Tillstrom said physical improvements to the museum were the result of two generous benefactors who carried soft spots for the preservation of Gresham’s history. Jack Malcom, a longtime Gresham business owner and philanthropist, left $27,000 to the museum upon his death in 2009. Pat Stone, who died in early 2010, was the former curator of the museum and driving force behind the Gresham Historical Society. Her bequeath of 48 percent of her estate has allowed for continuing maintenance on the museum building as well as the safe-keeping of historical society artifacts.

The exhibit offers the opportunity to learn the history of where you are, Tillstrom said, but hardly through a textbook presentation.

“The history of Gresham encompasses everything,” Tillstrom said. “It’s education, industry, home life, culture — everything we’ve gone through in our lives can be seen here. The vignettes are cultural touchstones. It’s things that people remember, but even if you didn’t grow up here, these items have resonance with people.”

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