At the North Olympic History Center in Port Angeles, many decades of paintings by local artists are stored in a climate-controlled building, which was the former Lincoln School’s gymnasium. (Emily Matthiessen/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

At the North Olympic History Center in Port Angeles, many decades of paintings by local artists are stored in a climate-controlled building, which was the former Lincoln School’s gymnasium. (Emily Matthiessen/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

North Olympic Historical Center executive director explains its role

Artifacts demonstrate region’s diversity

PORT ANGELES — The motto of the North Olympic History Center is “We connect the future, through the present, with the past.”

As the center’s only paid employee, executive director David Brownell plays a pivotal role in keeping that connection going.

“The history of the Olympic Peninsula is incredibly ancient,” said Brownell, who took over the position last summer.

“The ‘Olcott’-type archaeological sites, including the Manis Mastodon site in Sequim, are clear evidence of human activity on the Peninsula since the last ice age,” he added.

“I believe that the combination of new technology and better incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge and qualitative data from the tribes of the Olympic Peninsula will lead to a much deeper and holistic understanding of the Olympic Peninsula landscape during our lifetimes,” he said.

Brownell’s predecessor Kathy Estes retired after 33 years.

“I’m not sure if I can match her longevity, but this is my dream job,” said Brownell, whose first day was Aug. 16.

“And I certainly have plenty to keep me busy.

“In addition to outreach and education, I am the center’s administrator, secretary, grant specialist, and, when necessary, maintenance custodian,” he said.

The campus

NOHC’s campus at 933 W. Ninth St. in Port Angeles consists of three buildings and grounds, bought in 1991. They include the old Lincoln School, the Research Library and the Artifact Storage Facility.

Built in 1916 and operated until 1978, the Lincoln School building was vacant and destined to be razed when purchased by the Clallam County Historical Society, which is now North Olympic History Center.

Brownell said the original intention was to turn the structure into a museum.

The windows of the school are now decorated with paintings of children peering out, and flowers and murals have been painted on the outside — all by Dona Cloud, an artist and history center volunteer.

Antiques that the center sells during fundraisers are laid out on tables in one part of the multi-story building, which is full of juxtapositions of different eras.

Lincoln’s bust now resides in the Research Library, where Brownell said he and center advocates “greatly encourage community members to get involved and learn more about our history.”

The library contains photographs, maps, obituaries and records of oral stories.

“We’ve got tons of materials from the city and Port Angeles, the police department and the county itself,” Brownell said.

The center has a large collection of clothing such as military uniforms and formal dresses.

Brownell said there have been exhibits of the collection of quilts, now rolled and stored in archival plastic, and he’s hoping to do that again.

“Just from an artistic standpoint, they are amazing,” he said. “But when you consider the number of hours that went into making all these … and a lot of them are tied into different families that have been here since the 1800s.”

There is also an art storage area, with work by primarily North Olympic Peninsula artists such as Minerva Troy and Esther Webster, Brownell said.

“(There’s) a little bit of everything,” he said, “(in) many different styles.”

A small room contains multiple pianos and many stone tools as well as stacks of exquisitely woven baskets.

The Artifact Storage Facility, which once housed the school gym, is climate-controlled and equipped with archival storage shelving on rails. It is packed with objects from the past, as well as a huge trove of local newspapers.

Brownell said the newspapers will be scanned by volunteers and put online as part of a project funded by a the Clallam County Heritage Advisory Board grant, which he will detail for the community at a Peninsula College Studium Generale on June 2.

“We are converting our collections catalog to a searchable web-based system using PastPerfect museum software,” he said. “This ‘virtual museum’ will allow anyone with internet access to search our extensive collection of historic documents, photos and artifacts from the North Olympic Peninsula.”

After converting the center’s existing catalog records, Brownell said the organization will digitize its collection of historic newspapers and periodicals, as well as video and audio recordings and add them to NOHC’s online resources.

The center currently has a dozen volunteers, and Brownell said he would like to at least double that.

“We would love help with our Cloud project as we get things kicked into high gear this winter/spring,” he said.

Volunteer opportunities, as well as an application form, are available at

Personal history

Brownell has been obsessed with history since he was a child.

“We spent a lot of time moving around due to my father’s career,” both in the United States and Europe, he said. “Living overseas, especially in Italy, really catalyzed my interest in history.”

Brownell earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Hanover College, Ind., and a master’s in public history, with a specialization in archiving and records management from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, in 2011.

He worked for the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a research coordinator from 2011-2015.

Brownell began working for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe as a cultural resources specialist in 2015 and became the tribal historic preservation officer in 2018.

“I got to Sequim and I immediately fell in love with it,” he said.

It was in Sequim that he met and married his wife, Emma.

Brownell said Emma is a tribal citizen of Jamestown. There is property that has been in the family since the tribe purchased Jamestown in 1874.

“We got married down there on the Jamestown Beach,” he said.

Brownell said he’s fascinated with the natural history and ethnobotany of the Salish Sea. He recommends Nancy Turner’s publications.

Studying history matters for the future, he said.

“We are at a nexus as a society — the rapid development of new and improved technology, as well as increased access to data and real-time information have challenged many established institutions and systems.

“This challenge is a great opportunity for our society to examine who we are and where we are going, in order to create a more equitable and inclusive community,” he added.

“A critical component of this is empowering individual citizens to better understand and preserve their own history, and the history of their communities.”

Past, present

Although the North Olympic History Center does not have a physical museum at the moment, Brownell said he’s happy to provide guided tours of the collections to small, masked groups.

“We also have many vintage items for sale that are available for private shopping tours; the proceeds from all sales help support the center,” he said.

“Anyone interested in joining as a member of the center can find the membership application on our website.”

Community programs are coming up.

“Learning our Landscape” is a collaboration between NOHC and the Jamestown Tribe that will be held as a series of free presentations on Zoom.

Two “Document Preservation Workshops” are planned this year. They will focus on archival “best standards” and preservation of old photos, documents and other materials.

In “History Hikes,” a partnership with the Jefferson County Historical Society, guided tours of local sites of historic significance will be offered. They will include the qatáy prairie in Port Townsend, Fort Flagler, Indian Island and Chemakum Creek.

“As an avid hiker, I am really looking forward to this program,” Brownell said.

For more information, see


Emily Matthiessen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at

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