Like a torchbearer, the Clark County Historical Society and Museum has been at the forefront of keeping the southwest Washington county’s past alive for decades.
That history includes playing an important role in preserving Fort Vancouver and other significant sites and buildings; leading walking tours that, through architecture and stories, celebrate key players and locations involved in the area’s past; and presenting exhibits that honor influential women and the county’s railway history — along with many subjects in-between.
The museum’s leadership is rooted in the work of hundreds of volunteers and community partners, who’ve “endeavored to not forget where we come from and to understand who we are now and who we can be,” says Bradley Richardson, the museum’s executive director.
His comments came in September when the museum celebrated 100 years in existence. Its centennial gala drew more than 180 guests to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, an event that featured dinner, silent and live auctions, and awards.
The gala site was emblematic of the organization’s early work, as the formation in 1917 of what was then known as the Fort Vancouver Historical Society helped lead to the creation of a national historic site in Vancouver.
The society and partner organizations played key roles in the 1948 establishment of the Fort Vancouver National Monument, and the society helped expand it more than a decade later into the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, according to a panel developed for the Clark County Historical Museum’s centennial.
The fort’s first employee, chief archaeologist Louis Caywood, served as a trustee of the Fort Vancouver Restoration and Historical Society, the society’s moniker in the 1940s and ‘50s.
In addition, the fort’s first superintendent, Frank Hjort, was a society trustee, and his wife Catherine, served as treasurer during the inaugural edition in 1960 of “Clark County History,” the society’s annual publication with articles about county history.
Fast-forward to modern times. Among the museum’s significant exhibits, Richardson points to “I am Clark County,” which opened this past spring.
Developed by public history students from Washington State University Vancouver, the exhibit featured stories of place, community and identity, including people with long family histories in the county as well as more recent arrivals of varied ancestry.
Richardson describes those involved in the museum and its projects over the years as passionate and central to the organization’s success during the past century.
“It’s not easy to get to 100 as an organization,” he says. “This is something that is community driven, something people are passionate about. It’s been a project where people have dedicated time, effort and energy. To be around this long shows how the community values our story and our past.”
Pat Jollota, a Vancouver historian and former city council member who has written six books on area history and is working on a seventh, spent 22 years with the museum, in part as curator of education. She says the museum has helped Vancouver and its surroundings remain an “absolute treasure.”
“I find people like to know, want to know, about their history – the good and the bad,” she says. “They want to pass it on to other people and pass on that ownership. You’ve got to have an ownership in the place you live, and the way to get that is to learn about it. When you know it, you love it and you want to take care of it and nurture it.”
Jollota remembers the day years ago when she became acutely interested in history. Her family was living in Los Angeles, and one of her sons had a third-grade teacher who got him interested in the history of the southern California city, including an historic battle.
Jollota took her son to see a cemetery site connected to the event, but it had been made into a parking lot. Her son’s intense disappointment that the site wasn’t preserved sparked action, and Jollota took classes in preservation and history.
“It changed my whole life that one afternoon,” she says.
When she and her husband were ready to retire, Vancouver was among the cities where they considered relocating and ultimately did so because it met one of their key criteria: A respect for, and interest in preserving, its history.
Jollota says one of the museum’s many impactful offerings over the years was an exhibit on women who helped build the area, such as pioneer Esther Short – for whom Vancouver’s venerable downtown park is named – and Eva Santee, who helped expand the area’s public library system with her motto, “Library service for all.”
The exhibit also focused on Ella Wintler, a teacher who went into politics. As a state representative, she supported schools in Vancouver for sight- and hearing-impaired students and worked to improve treatment of patients with mental health challenges, among other priorities.
“That started a conversation going,” Jollota says of that exhibit.
Richardson says scores of people have served as valuable partners in preserving the county’s history. The museum’s centennial gala was an opportunity to honor a few of them: the Hidden family, whose brick-making concern helped build historically significant houses and other buildings; the Colf family, which has helped preserve many significant historic buildings; and Jollota, for uncovering “so much history,” as Richardson put it.
Richardson, who recently took the reins as the historical museum’s executive director after a stint as a volunteer, intern and then curator for a time, says it’s a dream come true to help lead an institution, housed in a former Carnegie library, that serves as “the community’s memory.”
Looking to the future, Richardson says the museum wants to maintain its core programs, such as its walking tours and exhibitions, and to grow.
Its walking tours have extended into Ridgefield, the fast-growing city north of Vancouver. Richardson also says the museum will be talking with other historical societies around the county about ways to collaborate and expand those tours.
The goal, he says, “is to reach out and serve people."