RUMMAGING THROUGH HISTORY
Submerged between thousands of relics in a claustrophobic section of the Wilsonville Public Library attic — with music layering over the monotonous drone from the nearby cooling and heating system — Creston Smith grabs an object, examines it and logs it into a Microsoft Word document.
Recent items include a notebook from a defunct local business that sold kaleidoscopes, an old edition of Life Magazine and a document detailing the history of Wilsonville autoways.
The room is hot and dusty, and congestion sometimes plugs Smith's ears during the nine-hour work day — visitors are few and far between. Nevertheless, Smith enjoys cataloguing, learning about the evolution of economies and cultures and separating historic jewels from minutia. And working for the Wilsonville-Boones Ferry Historical Society (WBFHS), that's precisely his job description.
"It takes a lot of patience to go through this stuff. I'm glad I have that," he says. "I like archives. It's just interesting what you find."
Via a $12,360 Metro Community Enhancement Program grant given to the historical society and approved by Wilsonville City Council in June, Smith was hired to organize a collection of bygone items set aside decades ago but never fully organized. Along with about 200 hours of Smith's labor, the grant money also goes toward refurbishing current historical landmarks and buying archival materials like sleeves for photographs.
Wilsonville City Councillor Charlotte Lehan says the project will help document the city's history, preserve historic material and provide assurance for those contemplating donation that their material won't be damaged.
"This is a part of protecting Wilsonville's history and the history of the area," Lehan says. "We are losing a lot of that recent history because people don't know that someone is interested in saving it and don't know where to donate it."
WBFHS President Steve Van Wechel envisions the collection filling out a historical center one day. And organizing the archives is the first step toward accomplishing that aspiration.
"Ultimately we would like to have a heritage historical center akin to what Tualatin has, to be able to put stuff on display and be a center for local history," Van Wechel says. "That may well be down the road. We need a lot more money in the bank and a lot better membership."
Smith is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and developed a zest for history from his grandparents, who shared stories about the early 20th century on the Warm Springs Reserva-
After dabbling in broadcast and print journalism, Smith organized the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Cultural and Heritage Department's archives between 2014 and 2017 — developing a database for tribal audio recordings and digitizing sound recordings and photographs, among other tasks. Earlier this year, he completed an intensive two-week program at the Western Archive Institute at San Diego State University.
Upon applying for the temporary position with the historical society, Smith knew nothing about Wilsonville but wanted to continue garnering archival experience.
And he was enthused to learn that it was Alphonso Boone, grandson of revolutionary-era pioneer and explorer Daniel Boone, who established Boones Ferry across the Willamette River to Wilsonville. As a child, Smith watched the "Daniel Boone" television series.
"Once I start breaking it down more I want to learn more about the history of Wilsonville," Smith says.
In the first week on the job, he organized shelves and boxes of items such as photographs, audio recordings, maps and blueprints into distinct sections. The majority of his work, though, will consist of cataloguing and labeling.
Van Wechel and Smith agree that one of the most challenging aspects of the project is to decipher between material that is relevant to the City's past and material that is not, most of which would be culled from the collection. The task is subjective but Van Wechel says the material must at least be identifiably related to Wilsonville but not necessarily significant to the City's evolution. Historical society members assist Smith with this task.
"I want to know what the picture is, the people in it and the building in it so I can reference it and put it in place," Van Wechel says. "It does need to have some relevance to the local area."
Some of Smith's favorite items include a 50th wedding anniversary congratulatory letter sent by Bill and Hillary Clinton to Emery and Alice Aden — who owned a store in town and donated a significant portion of the archival materials — boxes of piggy banks including one that dispenses money when a toy doctor removes a tooth from a patient, one family's entire family's genealogy and a WWll-era food ration book.
For Van Wechel, blueprints of the now defunct Dammasch Hospital (a state-run hospital built in the mid-20th century), photos of people skating on a frozen Willamette River, remnants from an old fishing store in Wilsonville, the jacket famous author Walt Morey wore when he visited children at the Wilsonville Library and aerial photos of a newly completed Interstate-5 were most intriguing.
Smith attended Wilsonville's 50th birthday and block party in August and local residents already treated him like a historical maven.
"I'm working on the archives but I don't think I'm a historian just yet," he says. "Everyone thinks you know everything about everything."
When he finds time, Smith plans to tour the city to look at the landscapes that are regularly referenced in the attic materials. And he plans to work for free for a couple weeks once his hours are up if he hasn't finished cataloguing. He's currently staying with cousins, who live in Vancouver, Damascus and other local areas.
"I don't want to end in the middle of logging all the sections and categories," he says. "I don't want to leave until I get to the end of it."
Van Wechel says Smith's alloted 200 hours of work won't nearly be enough. The full extent of the project, which could include gathering metadata for each item, digitization and continuing to figure out which materials should be kept, could take closer to 2,000 hours than 200. And the items will continue to be housed in the library until the society finds a new home.
"To go through everything and do a deep analysis, it just takes a lot of time," he says.
Once archival work is complete, Lehan would like to see a revolving display of historical items placed in a venue such as the historic Tauchman House in Boones Ferry Park and a spot for businesses and community members to access such material. And she says the archival project is complementary to the city's mandate that it must be allowed to take pictures of local buildings before demolishment.
"It was very evident we had failed in this regard when we were doing that monument at the piazza in Villebois. We could not find a picture of Dammish Hospital (which was located on the Villebois site) at the ground level," Lehan says. "That's a 400,000-square-foot building that sat there for 30 years and we don't have a photo of it? That's not right."
For Van Wechel, the archival project is important because history colors our present, informs our future and strengthens communal bonds.
"History is who we are. If we don't know who we are, you can't have roots — can't be stable in your community," Van Wechel says. "Our past affects all of us. It's nice to have a handle (on it) and understand what it was back then. And it's simply interesting."