Protecting the past
Down in the basement of the Gresham Historical Society, which is kept just below room temperature to protect the thousands of artifacts stored at the museum, outgoing Director Matt Holland worked to solve a mystery.
He carefully examined a bayonet, a sword-like stabbing blade that attaches to the muzzle of a rifle, that the registration for it had been lost in the decades it has spent at the museum at 410 N. Main Ave.
"I love the mysteries of history," Holland said. "It's why I got into all of this."
For identifying unknown artifacts, the first step is to look for small clues in the design that can give away information. Most types of items — from tools to dolls — have databases put together by collectors that are useful for museum personnel.
On the bayonet, Holland found one important clue on the origin of the weapon at the base of the blade — four interlocking circles forming a blooming flower. One database search later and Holland learned the bayonet was mass produced by Japan for use during World War II.
The bayonet is just one of thousands of artifacts cared for by the Gresham Historical Society, which is dedicated to providing a center for the collection, preservation, exhibition and publication of the community's history.
"This is our cultural heritage," Holland said. "It's important to know where you come from."
Holland's tasks as director at the museum range across the board. He puts together collections, manages research requests, grows membership and completes general upkeep of the building. He grew up in Roseburg and went to school in Western New York, so he has learned a lot about Gresham's history since moving here more than two years ago.
One of his favorite time periods to dive into was the early settlement days of Gresham, when the city was a clean slate and — with a wide variety of business and industry flocking to the area — able to become anything.
But Holland, 36, is moving back to New York with his wife to be closer to her family, and his final day with the museum will be Aug. 31. The new director is expected to step in on Sept. 1.
"The city is growing, as is the museum," Holland said. "I am glad we can be a part of it all. It's been a pleasure working with the community."
Founded in 1976, the Gresham Historical Society spent its first few years bouncing around the community in borrowed spaces. Thirteen years later, the group found a permanent home in the Gresham Carnegie Library, which was being vacated for a new library nearby.
The Carnegie Library was built in 1912 and dedicated in 1913, and is one of a handful of Carnegie libraries in the region designed by Folger Johnson.
He designed the building in the English Tudor Revival style, with distinguishing herringbone brickwork and leaded glass windows. The top windows show nine distinct medallion designs, honoring the images of notable historic publishers.
In 1989, when the library's collection had outgrown the space, the city constructed a new public library a few blocks away at the corner of Northwest Third Street and Northwest Miller Avenue. Rather than let the space go to waste, the Historical Society finally had a place to call their own.
"We did an awful lot of repair work when we moved in," said Utahna Kerr, a longtime volunteer with the Historical Society.
The moment that stood out to her during the move was the famous "Book Brigade."
"We had a long line of kids stretch from here to the new library to help transfer the books," Kerr said. "Everyone who helped got a special patch, and we had so many people helping that we had to zigzag the line."
A few years later, the Gresham History Museum officially reopened its doors. Kerr, who first began helping by bringing historical items to different classrooms in the Gresham-Barlow School District to get fourth- and fifth-graders interested in the past.
"I've always been interested in history because it's a continuing story," Kerr said.
Now she serves as one of the volunteers who greet visitors to the museum, answering questions and sharing tidbits of the special secrets housed within the building.
Kerr likes to tell the story of the two clocks displayed in the building. Both were built for the Meier & Frank department stores in Portland, and were asked to be watched after by a local clock enthusiast society 20 years ago. Kerr jokes that they have become so popular that people might rebel if they were ever removed.
Another one of her favorite things in the museum is the plaque above the main entrance, which was a Works Progress Administration project completed for Gresham High School. The piece had a crack stretch from the head of the woman to her arm, and some wanted to discard it. But the Gresham Historical Society offered to take it, and a local art teacher was able to fix the damage.
Volunteers such as Kerr are what make the museum a special place to visit. They are able to provide context for what is on display for the 12 to 15 daily visitors. They add a personal touch to the history of Gresham.
"We love getting visitors, and want to make every trip to the museum special," she said.
Basement of artifacts
The Gresham Historical Society is the steward for more than 4,000 photos and thousands of artifacts, which creates a bit of a space crunch for a group that operates admirably on a shoestring budget.
The photos are easier to protect, with a digital library backing up all the originals. For the artifacts, the museum does everything it can. They have the space in the basement, keeping everything organized in special acid-free boxes and papers that are good for the sensitive items. They keep the Christmas decorations in the attic, and have an off-site location that provides even more storage.
When it comes to accepting new items at the museum, context is everything. The Gresham Historical Society wants to keep artifacts that build upon and expand understanding of the region's history.
"Items that can be directly tied to Gresham are what we are most interested in taking," Holland said. "Otherwise we try to send them to other local historical societies."
Occasionally the museum will take an item like an antique cash register if they are fairly certain an equivalent would have been used by businesses in the area. Once received, the items are registered and stored.
Donations are always welcome to the Gresham Historical Society — be it monetary or artifacts. They would love to have people schedule appointments, which can be accomplished online at https://www.greshamhistoricalsociety.org. Anyone with research questions should also reach out to the museum.
The most common donations are tools, usually from the 1950s to 1970s, which is right on the border of what is considered historic — a good rule of thumb being about 50 years.
"I will accept newer items if there is a connection to Gresham," Holland said.
An example was a gift from the Ebetsu, Japan, delegation that paid a visit to Gresham last November. The dignitaries from our sister city had a full itinerary during their visit, which included a tour and lunch at the museum.
"They gave us a beautiful pair of ornate chopsticks with Gresham and Ebetsu written in both languages," Holland said. "While that may not be part of history right now, it soon will be."
Some of the oldest items in the museum's collection are dolls dating back to the Civil War and handmade clothes from famous East Coast tailors. Holland's favorite photograph in the collection is of the C.C. Miller Blacksmith shop, which was located near what is now the corner of West Powell Boulevard and South Main Avenue. The photo, taken in 1892, shows the men who worked at the shop, surrounded by the wagon wheels they specialized in making and repairing.
"It played into the idea that Gresham was a stop on the way to Portland," Holland said. "Miller focused on wagon wheels because a lot of people needed repairs after their long journeys."
The current display, which shows off the history of downtown Gresham businesses, has a monkey wrench that also required Holland to don his detective cap. Unlike the Japanese bayonet, the clue on the wrench was much more prominent — the initials "BLW."
"We found out it belonged to the Walrad family," Holland said.
The Walrads were one of the original pioneering families in area, and the wrench most likely was used by Burton Walrad Sr., who operated a general mercantile store in the newly built Ely Building downtown.
The history museum keeps the memory of those early families alive while allowing current residents to remember where it all came from.
"The value of this place is the history," Holland said. "The community can get a sense of itself through both the good and bad parts of its history."
Gresham Historical Society
410 North Main Ave.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday
2 to 8 p.m. Friday
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Noon to 4 p.m. Sunday