EDITOR’S NOTE: This month’s Jefferson County history column is the third in a series of three about local history resources in the county. Last month’s column featured books that were collaboratively written or were collections of newspaper articles. This month’s column focuses on a historical look at the Jefferson County Historical Society, which has existed since the 1870s.
COLLECTING AND PRESERVING local historic resources play very important roles in promoting the understanding of our national heritage.
Letters, diaries, newspaper files and records of city and county governments that are lost or destroyed can never be restored.
Restoration of historic buildings and homes depends on records of their original features.
In Jefferson County, dedicated residents have recognized the importance of historic preservation for many years.
We are very fortunate to have the Jefferson County Historical Society staff and volunteers who work diligently to preserve artifacts and documents, reward efforts to restore and preserve local structures, and run educational programs and museum exhibits to bring history alive to community members and tourists.
The society’s mission is: “To actively discover, collect, preserve and promote the heritage of Jefferson County in the state of Washington.”
And it takes that mission very seriously.
Today’s historical society manages five facilities with a 13-member board of trustees, an executive director, a part-time staff of nine and several thousand hours of volunteer help annually.
The Jefferson Museum of Art and History, and Museum gift shop, in historic City Hall are the headquarters for the society.
The Historical Society and the Jefferson County Genealogical Society share responsibility, materials and volunteers for the Research Center on Airport Cutoff Road.
The Society partners with the State Parks system to manage the Rothschild House and the Fort Worden Commanding Officer’s Quarters Museum, and with Jefferson County to manage the Peninsula Gateway Visitor Center.
Some of the Historical Society programs include: walking tours, First Friday lectures, permanent and temporary museum exhibits, history trunks for school room use, school class visits to the Jefferson County Art and History Museum, presentation of annual historic preservation awards, and an annual Dec. 31 First Night celebration.
The Jefferson County Historical Society got off to a rather bumpy start.
The earliest record of an organized effort for historic preservation in this community is documented in an old record book, where minutes of a meeting held May 3, 1879, report that James Seavey, the Honorable Joseph A. Kuhn, Professor A. R. Hoffman and David W. Smith met at Smith’s law office in the “Fowler Stone Building” on Adams Street.
“Their purpose was to “set up an historical society for the preservation of the history of Jefferson County, Washington Territory.”
The four men continued to meet, and drew up a constitution May 31.
Fourteen charter members signed documents, by-laws were written and committees were created. Unfortunately, after four meetings, the society ceased to exist, apparently due to lack of interest.
The next attempt to organize happened 53 years later on March 9, 1932, when the local Chamber of Commerce passed the following: “THEREFORE RESOLVED, That the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce foster the organization of a Jefferson County Historical Society, the aim of which is to be the collection and preservation of records, documents, photographs, accounts of historical incidents by those who had part in them, objects of interest, and all other such information and things consistent with the keeping of archives of such an association [and] that a committee be named from Port Townsend and other parts of Jefferson County to act in the perfecting of such an organization, outline a scope of endeavor and formulate a program for carrying out that work … .”
Discussions leading to the resolution had pointed out that many of the men and women still living who had an active part in the county’s early development were reaching the ends of their lives or had already passed on, and that those “who are left should be called on in the near future for all the information they can contribute toward an accurate account of the early history of this city and county.”
A committee was formed, made up of members from the second generation from pioneer families and Lah-ka-nim, known to the community as “Prince of Wales” son of Chetzemoka (Cheech-Ma-Ham, aka Duke of York).
A meeting was held at the city library April 20. 1932. Members of the Hastings, Rothschild, Willison, Lloyd, Hill, Thiele, Maplethorpe and McCurdy families attended. Frank W. Hastings was elected as chairman and James G. McCurdy as secretary.
Paul E. Thiele and McCurdy drafted a constitution and by-laws.
McCurdy conferred with the mayor and City Council to request the permanent use of a basement room in the library for meetings and storage of artifacts.
Permission was granted, though drawbacks for storage of artifacts such as dampness and lack of adequate security were cautioned.
Memberships were solicited. Three subsequent meetings were held but, again, there was not a sustained interest and the society dissolved.
Finally, in 1947, when the centennial year of the founding of Port Townsend was approaching, there was a renewed interest in forming a historical society.
The Chamber of Commerce Pioneer Affairs committee again responded to requests from county residents and held a re-organization meeting that August, with a speaker from the Washington State Historical Society.
Temporary officers and committees were appointed.
At a subsequent meeting Sept. 10, 1947, a constitution and by-laws similar to those of 1932 were adopted. Paul Thiele was elected as chairman, D.H. Hill as executive vice president and Dorothy Jones (the library director at that time), as secretary.
A quarterly meeting schedule was adopted. All community members interested in “historical matters” were invited to join for annual dues of $2 per household.
The Society has continued from that time through the present.
On April 19, 1951, the Jefferson County Historical Society was officially certified as a nonprofit corporation by the Washington Secretary of State.
Minutes of quarterly meetings throughout the remainder of the 1940s and in 1950, indicate that there was usually a speaker invited to provide a program of historic interest at each meeting.
Until the celebration of the city centennial in May 1951, most of the business conducted pertained to gaining community support for centennial events, soliciting historic documents and artifacts for a potential museum, and establishing that museum in the former police court room of City Hall.
Meetings were held at either the city library or the recreation center.
In December 1948, the City Council granted use of the court room to the society.
In early 1950, the society funded the repair of electrical wiring.
In September, questions arose about whether the society would be given exclusive use of the room, which also had been used as an election polling place in city elections held every two years. Later that month exclusive use was granted and preparations were made to clean and paint the space.
Ruth Seavey Jackson who, by that time, was the president of the Jefferson County Historical Society, also served as the first museum director.
Enough museum items were donated by early families for there to be a full array of exhibits at the grand opening of the museum, which concurred with the first day of the Port Townsend Centennial celebration.
On May 17, 1951, the museum served as the registration point for the many descendants of city pioneers who came for the week’s Centennial festivities.
Among the items displayed were a buggy, a cannon from the grounds of the former Marine Hospital, photos of pioneers, copies of the 1871 Weekly Argus newspaper, an army helmet used at Fort Townsend, a Victorian doll collection, other antique toys, a collection of items from the Zee Tai Chinese store, James G. Swan’s notary seal and a souvenir plate featuring Joe Kuhn’s famous annual clambake.
By later that year the museum had also acquired a collection of local Native American artifacts, a “south seas sampan,” an 1891 tricycle, and tusks, teeth and a vertebra from a “mammoth mastodon” found on Protection Island.
Through the 1950s the museum collections continued to grow.
Though budgets for the historical society and the museum were tight, means were found to keep them going.
During 1956, local businesses and families were asked to make one-time grants of $15 to keep the museum open for five hours a week during the summer tourist season.
Funding sources have come and gone throughout the years, and museum open hours, and programs offered by the society have varied. But there has continued to be progress toward excellence in both facilities and programming.
Since the 1990s, museum professionals have served as the Historical Society’s executive directors.
The most recent two of these were Niki Clark, from 1994 to 2002 and, since then, Bill Tennant, who has recently announced that he will retire soon.
It is to be hoped that his replacement will continue the improvements spearheaded by Clark and Tennant.
In 1961, the research library and a military room were added to the original museum. They were housed in the old city fire hall rooms in City Hall, vacated when the new fire hall was built on Lawrence Street.
In early 2003, a former church building on Airport Way was purchased and renovated to provide space for the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Center.
It also houses records for the Jefferson County genealogical society.
More than a half a million documents and photographs are housed at the research center, providing a wonderful trove of historical information. A professional archivist and 32 volunteers from both societies provide skilled help to those seeking information.
Since the 2006 renovation of the 1892 City Hall building, the museum includes all of the first floor of Historic City Hall, and the basement — the former city jail space.
During the renovation the society offices and museum displays were housed on the second floor of the downtown Kuhn building and artifacts were stored at a variety of locations.
In 2011, construction of an addition to the research center provided for storage of museum artifacts when they are not on display, as well as additional document storage and preservation work spaces.
The contributions of community volunteers in providing the activities of the Jefferson County Historical Society cannot be overemphasized. As is the case at many institutions in Jefferson County, society volunteers are essential and appreciated.
Linnea Patrick is a historian and retired Port Townsend Public Library director.
Her Jefferson County history column, Back When, appears on the third Sunday of each month, alternating with Alice Alexander’s Clallam County history column on the first Sunday of the month.
Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her next column will appear April 15.