HISTORY Heirloom Giveaway by Barbara Henry

North Coast Journal


Heirloom giveaway

by Barbara Henry

HIDDEN IN CARDBOARD BOXES in a musty garage, an odd mixture of the mundane and the bizarre has waited for decades for the creation of a Humboldt County Historical Society museum.

That day will never arrive, the society's board has come to realize. But, there is no reason the county's other museums cannot benefit from the slowly accumulated collection, the society's board ruled in May. So, on July 14, it deaccessioned -- museum jargon for giving away -- nearly 90 items.

With big grins, lots of jokes and covetous eyes, representatives of museums from Trinidad to Ferndale circled tables for potential prime museum specimens.

Several people commented that it felt "just like Christmas" -- only this time you chose your own gifts.

Aiming to be "as fair as possible," Matina Kilkenny, the society's supervisor of research and collections, had everyone draw a number to determine first choice. Once everyone had made their first selection, it was on to round two, and so on. But, before the choosing began, society members had a few statements to make. First, this is only the beginning, more of these events are planned as the society continues sorting through its garage.

Also, collections committee co-chairman Don Tuttle noted that once the museums take an item, it can never be given to a private collection. All museum representatives were required to sign a statement to that effect.

Then, it was on to the viewing of the tables in the woodshed and the kitchen of the society's headquarters at the Helen Barnum House in Eureka. Mundane items included a knife and fork set, a cow bell and an early 20th century light bulb.

The odder curios included a cigarette lighter made from a World War II shell, coral allegedly taken "from the king's yacht in Honolulu" and a stash of beech nuts from Ohio in a glass vial.

First choice went to Jerry Lesandro of the Ferndale Museum. He snapped up number 584, a black metal twine holder as big as a man's fist. It is just the thing for the museum's kitchen display, he said.

In other rounds, he would add a pocket watch with Roman numerals, a wooden chopping bowl and a butter stamp.

Later, society past president Arlene Hartin would remark, "You can sure see the farming (interest) coming out here," as she looked at the Ferndale pile.

The second choice went to the county's newest museum, the recently restored Phillips House in Arcata. Museum representative Mary McNelis grabbed an engraved coffee urn believed to have been made in the 1870s. It is "to the period" of the house, said fellow museum representative Carolyn Fernandez, describing how the house is furnished as if its former residents "had just stepped out" for a minute or two.

In third place came Bruce Pettit of the Trinidad Museum. Home to the "only natural harbor on the North Coast in the 1800s," Trinidad seeks items reflecting its association with fishing, whaling and the gold rush, Pettit said. His first choice was a sailer's box made of wood and the baleen of a whale.

Then came the Clarke Memorial Museum, Blue Lake Museum, and the Fortuna Depot Museum.

The pile at the Clarke table included the light bulb, an eyeglass case and an apothecary set. Also of interest to curator-director Claudia Israel were accessories for clothing. The Clarke Museum, known for its nationally significant collection of Native American baskets, also has an extensive collection of clothing. Staff members are always on the lookout for items to complete an outfit, she said.

Before the deaccessioning day, the society had given the Clarke Museum its fabrics. Society members took note of specialization among the museums and held back some items for them. Thus, the Ferndale Museum received a beaver pelt hat worn by the late Mattole area rancher Joe Russ when he was a state senator in the 1870s. The Russ family, well-known in Ferndale history, owned among other things, Ferndale's Fern Cottage.

Also to Ferndale went a slice of history captured on a flour sack. The sack was a thank you gift to the good citizens of Ferndale for their contribution of $45 to the Belgian famine relief effort in 1914. With money collected nationally the U.S. government bought flour and sent it to Belgium. The Belgians, in return, sent the empty bags back embroidered with the flags of the two countries. A Ferndale family received one of those bags and later donated it to the society. Blue Lake and Fortuna couldn't send representatives to the July event, so society members chose for them based on the lists the museums submitted. The eclectic Fortuna museum, housed in an old railroad depot, received a candle mold, a player piano roll and a postal scale. Museum staff also expressed an interest in the day's most-joked-about item, the green-eyed fly pendant earrings.

Former society archivist Sharon Marble Loetz, representing Blue Lake, picked up Chinese artifacts because of Blue Lake's association with the railroad. The former archivist, who calls herself "a natural sock sorter," was a key player in the deaccessioning process. She worked with each of the area's museums to determine what they might like. She recalls that deacces-sioning was a goal of past president Edie Butler. Longtime society member and collections co-chairman Peter Palmquist says the idea goes back even further, perhaps a decade.

"We've had to fight that battle a number of times," he recalled, saying it was hard for the society to give up the concept of a museum.

When the society first formed in 1947, its goals were the preservation of "original historical materials of northern California" and "the establishment of a suitable place for the collection and exhibition of museum materials ...," a 1954 society document notes.

"It was appropriate at the time, but after the Clarke (Museum) came in (to being) it became inappropriate," current society president Marylee Rohde said, adding, "You didn't have room for two large museums... ."

It is a standard problem for a historical society, says Palmquist. "If it's all things, then it duplicates many other buildings."

After the deaccessioning process is complete, the society will be left with several thousand historic photographs, about 100 maps, 400 books and hundreds of pamphlets, or what the museum trade calls ephemera. They include dance programs and playbills. The book collection ranges from 1880s voter registration documents to the notebooks of the late local historian Martha Roscoe.

It has been a good year for the society. Last August it moved from the cramped quarters in the Carnegie Building to the gracious Barnum home, built in 1902. Members plan to make the home a repository for historic documents. They would like to dedicate a fund-raising campaign for a fireproof vault for original documents.

But, for now, members are busy enough just saying goodbye.

For collections co-chairman Palmquist, the photos are hard to let go. The society will keep local photos, plus any outside-the-area ones of local interest.

Executive director Walter McConnell will miss the pile of sheet music slated for a later deaccession. For society president Rohde it will be the nautical items. Her great-grandfather was the first ships' rigger on the bay.

And, the list goes on. There is an old school bell, a sewing machine and even a wooden grave marker for a 45-year-old man who fought in the wars against the Native Americans.

"As an indication of how this process continues, we have yet to decide what to do with (the grave marker)," research and collections supervisor Kilkenny said. But for the lucky items selected from the first event, their days in the dim garage have ended.

Society members couldn't be happier, and so are the museum people. "I've got some great things. I'm happy," Trinidad Museum representative Pettit declared as he headed out the door.

What's a keeper?

WHAT CAN YOU POSSIBLY SAVE OUT OF grandma's attic -- or your own closet -- that may be of interest to future generations?

Think of creating a picture of a life, says Claudia Israel, director-curator of the Clarke Memorial Museum.

"We want to have objects that tell a story, a story about history," she said. A few years ago the museum acquired the traveling outfits of the late Helen Barnum, former owner of the Eureka Inn and an avid cruise ship traveler. For the Clarke, the clothing only told part of the story. Museum staff augmented the outfits with souvenir ship models, a scrapbook from Barnum's first cruise and a label-coated suitcase Israel grabbed out of the family's rummage sale.

What's crucial to a successful collection is detailed documentation about the items, Israel notes.

A speaker at a training session she attended a few years ago put it thus, "Without registration (or documentation), you don't have a collection, you have a bunch of old things, you have a bunch old stuff."

"So," Israel asks rhetorically, "what kind of story can you tell? Who used it. When they used it. Where they used it. There are some things that of course speak alone, but it enriches the story when you have, oh, for example, some newspaper clippings."

Israel often mixes three dimensional objects with photographs and letters. "That's kind of my signature now. I do a lot of combining the three dimensional with two dimensional because it tells a richer, fuller story," she said. If Israel were collecting today's creations for a future museum, she would look to T-shirts and natural fabric clothing to tell today's stories. She knows a museum curator who hunts T-shirts at fairs.

"I think something that would be really interesting if one had the space would be tennis shoes. Tennis shoes have become fashion statements.

"Something else that would be interesting to collect would be posters," she adds. "People do collect posters, but it's selecting the right ones."

Lunch boxes were hot items to collect a while back, she said, but then so many people were investing in them that the value eventually went down. "Sometimes you can guess wrong," she said.

Israel confesses to being a "magpie collector," but she is trying to wean herself from the addiction.

"Some people seem to be magnets for things and the only way you cure it is to not go out and look," she says with a wry grin.

In addition to stacks of aluminum trays and a Timex watch display case, her personal collection includes an old gas pump from Ferndale. "It's not one of the ones with the pretty gas tops, but it takes five or six men to move it," she says.

Israel said she believes everyone collects something. She tells of man she once knew who lived in a brand new home with all new furniture. Squirreled away up in the attic were his old blue books, exam books from his school days.

"He told me that he'd go up sometimes and just sit and look at the old blue books. That was his contact with his past."

Barbara Henry, a former reporter for The Daily World, Aberdeen, Wash., is a free-lance writer living in Manila.

See also:

Humboldt County Historical Society Web site

Ferndale Museum Web site

Trinidad Museum Society Web site

Clarke Memorial Museum Web site


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