Historical Society grows without museum
More than six years after packing up its museum and putting the artifacts in storage, the Jefferson County Historical Society is still waiting for the day it can set up a new museum in the former Westside Elementary.
A community-based committee, led by the Bean Foundation's president, George Neilson, has plans to turn the school building into a community center that will provide space for the museum and several other community organizations, but the planning and due diligence phase of the project has been extensive, is still not complete, and may be set back again by the recent proposal by an anonymous donor to build a massive sports complex in Madras.
"The sports complex has the potential to change the Westside project. We need to study that. Does that (sports complex) change how the Westside project is sustainable?" Neilson said.
The Kids Club, the Jefferson County School District, and the High Desert ESD are all currently running programs in the Westside building, but Neilson said those activities can continue during the planning and study phase without substantial renovations, because they are the same type of use the building was made for, whereas the museum's use of the building would be different.
"The activities that are contemplated constitute a change of use and that would trigger building codes," Neilson said.
Asked whether the museum would be able to open in the next year, Neilson said, "I hope that would be achievable."
In the meantime, the historical society has kept itself in the public eye with an impressive assortment of outreach activities evenly distributed throughout the year. In fact, according to board member Jerry Ramsey, the society's membership has grown in recent years to about 300 members.
"I think that we, as a historical society that doesn't have a museum, have done a good job of promoting our history. We try to be out there so that people can see what our history is all about," said Lottie Holcomb, the society's president.
History pubs have been some of the most popular events offered by the society since the museum's closure, averaging about 100 attendees.
"The idea for the history pubs really came from Portland," Ramsey said. "They started history pubs at the various McMenamins, which is sensible because McMenamins is based upon a dedication to history."
History pubs are lectures on historical topics in an informal setting where attendees can socialize before and after the talk and enjoy food and alcoholic beverages as they listen.
The next history pub is coming right up, on Friday, Feb. 22. The subject will be the history of the Madras Pioneer and the presenter will be the newspaper's current publisher, Tony Ahern.
The event will take place at the library's Rodriguez Annex and will include a slide show, finger food, and a no-host bar. Admission is free, with a suggested $5 donation to cover the cost of the appetizers.
Another effective outreach tool for the historical society has been its semiannual publication, The Agate, which is usually distributed as an insert in the Madras Pioneer and which includes a simple form for people to fill out and send in to join the society.
The next issue of The Agate will come out at the end of March and will feature a story by Dan Chamness about the mines of Ashwood and another from a former Central Oregon resident about his experience as the farrier of Rashneeshpuram.
The September Agate will be a special issue devoted to the history of irrigation in Jefferson County. The historical society is inviting the public to contribute their recollections, family stories, or relevant family heirlooms to the irrigation issue.
In early April, the JCHS will put on its annual dinner at the Jefferson County Senior Center. The speaker this year will be Carol Leone, recently retired after a 16-year tenure as director of the Museum at Warm Springs. The title of the talk is "Looking at the Museum from the Inside Out," and the topic will be her personal experiences working in a museum.
Many of the historical society's activities are centered around the personal interests of its board members, lending a surprising variety to the society's events.
Board Member Dan Chamness is a longtime hiking enthusiast who has organized several History Hikes that highlight places of local historical interest. This summer, he will lead a hike on the Campbell Grade, one of the oldest existing roads in the county, which leads from the Agency Plains down into the Deschutes River canyon. The Campbell Grade was superimposed on a Native American route and was at one time the main route from the Agency Plains to the Warm Springs Reservation. The hike is about 5 miles long. Chamness will arrange a sag wagon in case anyone wants to ride part of the way.
Another JCHS board member, Jim Carroll, is a member of the Model T Bums, a local antique car club. He and his friends have taken groups on tours in their antique cars out to places such as the historic Hay Creek Ranch. This year, they will offer several tours, including one to the World War II-era "triangle" used for gunnery practice near Henderson Flat.
The Model T club also helps out with tours of the old homestead buildings the society maintains at the edge of the fairgrounds property during the Jefferson County Fair.
"At fair time, we keep the old buildings open and give tours through them. The Model T club provides transportation from the middle of the fairgrounds and that's a major attraction. Who's going to refuse to ride in a Model T? We see hundreds of people, all told," said Ramsey.
Dave Campbell, a historical society board member and a descendant of an early homesteading family, shares his love of old machinery by putting on a threshing bee each August with the help of family and friends. Preparation begins in March or April with the planting of a heritage variety of dryland wheat on a plot adjacent to the fairgrounds.
The Saturday of the Jefferson County Fair, Campbell, his brother John Campbell, Madras FFA, and others will bind and bundle the wheat with a horse-drawn binder as it was done in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The threshing bee will follow soon after, on Aug. 1, and include the use of vintage equipment and a display of machines from the early 1900s, as well as vintage vehicles.
Last year, they had a chainsaw, washing machine and icemaker on display. The event culminates in a picnic featuring homemade ice cream and Dutch oven desserts under the giant poplar trees at the fairgrounds.
By using methods and equipment from the early 1900s, the threshing bee brings to life the early history of Jefferson County, including sometimes the hard years of drought in the 1920s.
"They had a classic, very realistic, Madras dryland crop failure last year," said Jerry Ramsey, noting that the crop burned up in the dry heat of summer. Fortunately, local farmer Phil Fine donated a field of dryland wheat and the threshing bee went on as planned and was well received.
Retired teacher Margee O'Brien puts her experience to good use each school year by visiting third-graders at Buff and Metolius elementaries dressed as a pioneer woman. Dave Campbell accompanies her, arriving in his vintage car. In character as local homesteaders, they tell the kids what life was like in the early 1900s and show artifacts from that period.
The society's outreach even extends to the Redmond airport, where for about five years it has mounted twice-yearly displays on Jefferson County history, alternating with Deschutes and Crook counties and the Museum at Warm Springs.
"Ours have been really high-quality exhibits on the county centennial, logging, weather, the eclipse, and more. The current exhibit is on Willow Creek and the next one will be on one-room country schools. All have used historic photos from our files," said Ramsey.
The historical society also maintains a website, www.jeffcohistorical.org, and a Facebook page.
Though the society has done a great job of staying in the public eye for the past six years, Ramsey anticipates there will be a cost to not having a museum all these years.
"I think the real test for us, when we finally get the museum in view and start planning it and getting it set up is to recreate our volunteer base. We have not really cultivated our volunteer base or exploited it, and people who like to volunteer want to be exploited," he said.
And while the JCHS is still committed to opening a museum in the Westside building, it has held off jumping in with both feet because of the continuing uncertainty.
"We are eager to get on with the planning and putting together the new museum, but we are, for obvious reasons, not willing to formally begin that planning process or spend a lot of money on it, until we know for sure that the Westside renovation project is officially open and running," Ramsey said.