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Historical societies receive financial boost from levy

Four local historical societies are jumping for joy after each received checks for $18,750 - the first payout from a five-year levy approved by voters in November.

'It's wonderful,' said Terry Huston, director of the Troutdale Historical Society, as she was getting ready to take her organization's check to the bank.

Multnomah County voters approved the levy to fund the Oregon Historical Society's museum and library, while also funding other local historical societies. Thanks to the levy, admission to the Oregon Historical Society in downtown Portland is now free to Multnomah County residents and school groups.

East Multnomah County's four historical societies - Gresham, Fairview Rockwood Wilkes, Troutdale and Crown Point - each received $18,750 checks from the Oregon Historical Society during a Thursday, July 21, presentation at the Multnomah County Building in Southeast Portland. The check is the first in what will be a total of $150,000 for each historical society over the course of the five-year levy.

'It was a very exciting day,' said Diane McKeel, who represents East County on the board of county commissioners. 'It's very big for all of the historical societies, particularly ours here in East County because the funds are so needed. History is so important, so it's important to keep those doors open and the programs running.'

The money is a huge boon for the Crown Point Country Historical Society in Corbett, said President Chuck Rollins. Last year, the society lost its museum, which had been housed in the Springdale Community Center. Now, it leases a room and office space at the Corbett Community Church while the current exhibit on irons is on display at the Corbett Country Market.

'It just really helps us toward reaching our preservation goals and us getting a building,' he said of the levy funds. 'This gives a good stable foot under us.'

The society has created a five-year plan outlining how to spend and invest the levy dollars. Money will fund collections and exhibits, a building site for a new museum, an interpretation project, savings and an annual scholarship for students taking on a history project to encourage younger generations to be interested in history.

Huston said the Troutdale Historical Society also is working on a five-year plan on how to spend the levy money. But she'd love to use some of it to apply for a grant - many grants require matching funds - to build a silo for an elevator onto the front of the Barn Museum next to the Harlow House.

'We have a whole second story, but we can't access it under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), so we can't use it other than for storage,' she said.

Opening up the second story also would more than double the barn's exhibit space.

In addition, the money will help repair the Harlow House porch and some will be set aside for future use because there's no way of knowing whether voters will renew the levy in five years, she said.

Twila Mysinger, board secretary for the Fairview Rockwood Wilkes Historical Society, said members created wish lists for its two properties - the Heslin House and Zimmerman House - as well as for the society.

Topping the lists is better lighting for first-floor exhibits at the Heslin House, replacing the roll-up shades that are not only unattractive but are not very functional - plus they move, setting off the security alarms - and creating a sidewalk to the north.

The Zimmerman House needs an upgraded heating system.

'The kitchen has no heat,' Mysinger said, adding that a natural gas stove in the dinette is extremely expensive to operate and not very safe.

Replacing plastic over the house's rugs with more attractive, durable and safer carpet runners would create a path for visitors, as well as do away with tripping hazards.

They'd also like to deconstruct the vine covered brick buttery - 'We think it is actually holding the structure up,' Mysinger said - and possibly the garage. If enough money is available, they'd also like to rebuild what once was a two-story bunkhouse to create a storage and work area.

As for the society itself, it will put at least half of the money aside. Otherwise, it will splurge on a computer and technology investments, a few folding tables for use at booths and meetings, and new shelves to better accommodate storage boxes that are too wide for the current shelves.

'We're still going to be pretty frugal about how to spend this money …. Because at the end of the five years, who knows,' Mysinger said. Besides, they're so used to crafting Band-Aid fixes for problems, they now are having to remind themselves that they can afford a long-term solution. For example, instead of waiting for a volunteer's hand-me-down computer, they just might spring for a new one.

'We still can't quite wrap our head around it,' she said.

Levy funds will help pay for extensive renovations of the Gresham History Museum, housed in the historic Carnegie Library in downtown Gresham, said Utahna Kerr, who serves on the historical society's board of directors.

'So much of the work has been put on hold until we had the money,' she said. 'We're excited about helping Gresham recognize what a jewel it has in this old building.'

A drop ceiling dating back to the 1990s will be removed and the original ceiling restored, including a possible redo of the fire sprinkler system. The southern facing room will be renovated and a research library will get new floor-to-ceiling shelves with sliding ladders.

But perhaps most exciting for Kerr is a plan for a new humidity controlled storage facility for historical documents and artifacts.

'Right now we're using the old city hall building,' she said. Gresham's old city hall on Powell Boulevard now houses a courtroom but the building is in such disrepair - leaking roof, plumbing failures, sewage pipe backups and spills - that a new courthouse is under construction in Rockwood.

Each of the historical society representatives also said they hope to use some of the money to encourage younger generations to become interested and active in their local historical societies.

'Of the 60 original charter members, only 11 are still alive,' Huston said of the Troutdale society. 'Membership is down because they're dying right and left,' Huston said.

And fewer members can mean less money for museum operations.

'Sometimes we had to pay our dues twice to pay the electric bill,' said Kerr of the Gresham Historical Society, whose member's dues help fund the museum. 'And that's not kidding.'