Days of future passed: Bend museum celebrates rebirth

Nothing brings an area’s history to life for young and old like a museum full of telling photos, interesting objects and fond memories – and nothing brings a smile to an old pioneer’s face like a celebration to mark such a museum’s new lease on life.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable, the transition you’ll see inside,” Deschutes County Historical Society President (and former county commissioner) Barry Slaughter told about 100 people gathered Sunday afternoon on the lawn of the Deschutes Historical Museum, now well over halfway through a $1.8 million renovation.

While there’s still more work to do on spiffing up the interior exhibits – not to mention a cleaning of the exterior walls, made of a native volcanic stone called tuff – the “grand reopening” marked a great deal of progress made inside, from top to bottom of the 87-year-old Reid School, which was donated by the Bend-La Pine School District and opened as a museum on July 4, 1980. Slaughter was master of ceremonies that summer day, too. And he noted that it snowed in Bend the night before that gathering as well – a telling sign of Bend’s year-round weather unpredictability.

After Slaughter noted dignitaries in the audience and received a gift basket from the Bend Chamber of Commerce and Royal Blend Coffee Co., everyone on hand assembled in front of the building for a group photo and ribbon-cutting by county Commissioner Tom DeWolf, wielding an oversized pair of golden scissors.

Asked which project was more fun to manage – the museum or his previous job overseeing construction of the new Bend Public Library’s construction – George Goshert smiled and said diplomatically: “They were both unique.” DeWolf noted how volunteers also had saved the school’s old gym, across Idaho Avenue, as the new home of the Boys & Girls Club, and that a similar fund-raising drive is under way to restore the Tower Theatre, farther up Wall Street.

“This is an important day in the history of Deschutes County,” DeWolf said. “This really is a brand new building.” And despite the recent hubbub over a proposed Old Town National Register Historic District, the man in the middle of that controversy, city-county planner Michael Houser, even drew a round of applause upon introduction. (Maybe being accompanied by his wife, Kareena, and their baby helped.)

From an elevator to air conditioning to redone bathrooms, big changes abound

Kirby Nagelhout Construction oversaw the remodeling, the key features of which included updated bathrooms, new thermal pane windows and an elevator that will help senior or less abled visitors more easily visit the upper two floors. Alpine Glass installed replicas of the original black-framed windows and the original maple floors have been refinished, along with a new maple reception desk. A new kitchen is in place and a new heating and air conditioning system will bring visitors and volunteer staff alike added comfort.

The project began last summer and originally was due for completion last fall, but workers found more than just a great set of mementos (from empty lime barrels to Edison light bulbs, milk cartons and metal advertisements) beneath the old wooden floor. They also found dry rot that made for a bigger job.

A curator from the High Desert Museum, Bob Boyd, has begun helping to bring the museum’s exhibits up to date. “We see it as cooperation, instead of competition,” said Susan Harless, who has helped write grant proposals for Bend’s museum. While the High Desert Museum presents a more regional perspective, the historical museum looks more at the local tale that history tells.

Becky Johnson, whose late husband, Sam, played a key role in the region’s history – and made many anonymous gifts to the museum – gave a little speech herself before she got to cut a second ribbon, near the new elevator.

“Outside of rebuilding the toilets, putting in an elevator was a big step forward,” Johnson said. “These old buildings have a lot to say to us.” She decried an era “when someone wants to tear down another old building, because it’s easier,” but added, “It’s the people that make things go.” She urged those listening to push schools to teach more history: “If we’re not teaching history in the public schools, what are we doing to the heritage?”

There were several hosts and hostesses for the hundreds of visitors, among them Lois Gumpert, born in Prineville the same year Reid School opened. She entertained one and all by playing tunes on a newly tuned piano built in Chicago around 1856, well before Bend came to be.

Project halfway done, but museum can stay open rest of the way

Two phases of the four-phase restoration project are now complete. The first involved a sprucing up of the grounds, including a walkway paved with bricks inscribed with donors’ names. The big interior work was the second phase, but the rest of the work, such as the room-by-room display renovations, won’t require any museum closures, said Susan Harless, who wrote the successful request for a $250,000 “challenge grant” from the Meyer Memorial Trust.

Historical society board member John Frye said the flooring by the front and rear entrances had to be replaced when an inspection beneath the structure found dry rot in the timbers from years of water damage. Harless said they worked hard to match the new flooring to the old maple floors, brought up by train in 1914, three years after the railroad arrived in Bend.

The new lobby area, with striking new photo displays on the walls, is far less cluttered; the large wooden sign from the old Pilot Butte Inn, for example, has been moved to a second-floor display room. The 1907 Holsman motor-buggy hasn’t reappeared in the second-floor landing, either. And Frank Pennock of Deschutes River Woods looked in vain for “the rifle Maupin used to shoot Chief Paulina.”

Stories of old were swapped and shared on the relatively warm winter afternoon. “That’s Clyde,” Della Tennant said, pointing out her father-in-law, Clyde McKay, in a photo of George Harriman driving the “Golden Spike” on Railroad Day in the fall of 1911.

There were a few folks in cowboy hats – far fewer than one might have seen a few decades back. One of them was Mahlon Couch, 79, who was born “out on Couch Market Road” and has given items to the museum over the years, including a 1922 saddle. After a life of cattle ranching and logging, what does he think of the way Bend has grown? “I think it’s the pits,” he said. (Editor’s note: He actually used a word that rhymes with “pits,” but you never know who’s reading on the Internet.)

Another cowboy hat was worn by Perry Herford, 82, the historical society president in 1985 and ’93, who noted the labor of love that brought the museum into being in 1980 and has kept it going until the new round of restoration. With interior paint matched to the color of one of six layers scraped from the walls and ceiling lights that are replicas of those used in early-day schools, Herford said the place “still has the ambience of the old school.”

“We were all volunteers – no one got a penny,” Herford said.

Bend `is still a small town,’ native reminds us

Ed Jackson, who did the “Yesterday” column in The Bulletin for 15 years, noted that a worker fell through a hole on an upper floor and was killed during construction of the school. “Sam Johnson used to do a lot for this place, anonymously,” Jackson said. And the late state representative is still giving, in a way, through his widow and, according to a sign out front, through donations from the Samuel S. Johnson Trust. Other entities who helped make the renovation happen included the Bend Foundation, the city of Bend and the Oregon Lottery (through funding by the Central Oregon Community Investment Board).

As she left the party with a friend, Bend native Jackie Plath, 72 – who left her hometown for five years after high school but has been here ever since – gave her verdict on the renovation of the old school she once attended: “It’s great!” Plath said she was especially glad to see the old gym restored for the Boys & Girls Club. “This is where we had all the dances,” she said, pointing to the large brick structure, still filled with the sounds of youth at play.

And while any Bend native can find something about the city of today to be less than thrilled about, Plath voiced a viewpoint rarely heard any more: “It’s still a small town.”

In a “fast-growing city” where the traffic lights downtown still flash red or yellow after 10 p.m., that’s a perspective worth remembering once in a while.