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Monday, November 28, 2011 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
State's rural artifacts turned into history website
By Nancy Bartley
Seattle Times staff reporter
There are postcards of historic floods, when waves lapped at the front doors of a barbershop and bakery; formal portraits of town residents from more than 100 years ago; photos of a town before irrigation transformed it.
From basements and attics, garage sales and thrift stores come clues to histories of the state's smallest communities. In years past, those clues may have been lost, or at best, in the possession of one person.
A Westport librarian, who now works for the Washington State Library, had an idea that led to preserving rural communities' buried treasure in a way it can be shared by all.
Gary Bortel was tired of students taking Washington state history classes, stampeding to his desk every year and asking the same question their parents probably asked: What do you have on the Whitman Massacre?
Bortel knew there was more to state history than that oft-told story about how Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife and other missionaries were killed in 1847 by Native Americans who had suffered devastating losses from measles outbreaks after Whitman's wagon train arrived in the Pacific Northwest.
Instead of offering students information about the Whitmans, Bortel gave them a small booklet on Westport history by a local author and found not only was it popular, it disappeared.
There was only one solution: Digitize historic documents and photographs and put them on a website so they could be accessed by everyone, and encourage citizens to retrieve their personal artifacts so they could be photographed.
Now employed by the state library, Bortel mentioned his idea to colleagues. Evan Robb got the $50,000 annual grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Service and in 2006, he launched the state's Rural Heritage project, with the goal of preserving pieces of history that might otherwise be lost.
Since the state's smallest libraries often have the smallest budgets and staff, those were the ones that could benefit most from Rural Heritage funding, said Robb, now the Rural Heritage director. For the past five years, libraries in communities with a population of 25,000 or less have applied to Rural Heritage for grants up to $10,000 for their historic preservation projects. Rural Heritage provides training in digitization, software to link the library's newest finds to the Rural Heritage website and specialized equipment for archive-quality scanning.
Twenty-five libraries across the state now have historic documents online and seven more — including one in north-central Washington that has photos by legendary photographer Asahel Curtis — are working on their collections.
In the Eastern Washington town of Grandview, the project has made it possible to train a staff member, Ruth Dirk, to become a digital archivist. She has preserved hundreds of images showing development from before Grandview had an irrigation system, when "there were no trees and you could see forever."
Some of the photos had been in the city vault, others came from citizens who wanted them shared, but wanted to retain the original images.
There are photos of parades, with banners festooned across the street and advertising in store windows; giant stalks of corn (which made Ripley's Believe it or Not) featured in the local paper; and houses — one surrounded by turkeys, including some roosting on the roof. There's also a photo of the Euclid Bridge, collapsing over the Yakima River in 1956.
Children, many who were born in Grandview, working on reports now get local history information from the site, Dirk said. "They probably wouldn't have read the book but they had no problem doing this Web search."
One of Dirk's finds was an album of Asahel Curtis photos that had been stored in the Grandview City Hall vault.
Not long ago, a library in Oroville, Okanogan County, in the North Central Regional Library system, made a similar discovery. The five-county library system had just received a Rural Heritage grant when an Ames, Iowa, woman happened to contact the Oroville Library branches, offering an album of Asahel Curtis photos of the Oroville area.
She had found the album at a garage sale and thought it might be of interest to the library. All she required was the $15 in postage to send it in.
It came just at the time when the library was looking for the kind of photos of orchards and irrigation projects the album contained, said Dan Howard, project director for the North Central Library system.
Howard doesn't yet know if the 60-some photos are originals or copies. Curtis, who was a Seattle-based photographer known for photographing a wide geographic area from the Klondike to San Francisco, was interested in orchards. The find was thrilling, Howard said.
One of Robb's thrilling finds were glass-plate images stored in a bowling-ball box in a Benton County attic. When he put those on a scanner, he found an image of women sewing as they sat on a porch of a home with lace curtains in the window. What emerged was "Mrs. Alpin's Sewing Club, 1903."
Another glass plate contained the image of a girl and boy in a sun bonnet and a hat standing outdoors.
Years ago most photos were posed and formal so, researchers regard candid images of residents dressed in their everyday clothes doing routine activities as a find. By digitizing them with an archival quality scanner it's possible to enlarge small details for close examination, Robb said. By focusing on one small area of a photo and enlarging it, you can read a sign in a car window advertising an upcoming rodeo, or window ads showing the price of butter, for example.
At the Whitman County Library, a resident brought in postcards of the Palouse River Flood of 1910 showing waves of rushing water tumbling through town. There are photos of the long-gone but once thriving town of Elberton, which once was a railroad stop and had a sawmill. And photos of a tiny community called Hay, along the Snake River, said Patti Cammack, who's in charge of the project.
"Some of these older folks have photos stored in boxes in attics and garages and they're losing the ability to be good because they are not stored in acid-free boxes," Cammack said.
The library now has 2,000 images in its rural-heritage project. "It's something a lot of people are really interested in," she said.
Rural Heritage in Ellensburg preserved the photos of Fred L. Breckon, the town photographer who photographed all the residents of the town in a sort of visual census.
Said Bortel: "It would be really great if eventually Washington Rural Heritage would be not only able to digitize images but to get more and more local histories. It would be nice if those resources were available to everyone before they are lost."
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BartleyNews.
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