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Museum melds curios, style

Robert Newell's rebuilt house shows off pioneer life and inaugural fashions

As a man of many interests and accomplishments, Robert 'Doc' Newell wouldn't be surprised that the museum in his honor is equally multifaceted.

Located next to Champoeg State Heritage Area on the banks of the Willamette River, the Robert Newell House Museum contains an in-depth collection of pioneer and American Indian artifacts, as well as a collection of 28 inaugural gowns worn by Oregon governors' wives.

After settling in the Willamette Valley, the Ohio native made quick work of helping to form Oregon's government (Newell was speaker of the House in 1847) and establishing the state's first newspaper, The Oregon Spectator. An advocate for regional American Indian tribes, Newell later lived in Washington, D.C., as a representative for the Nez Perce.

The museum that lauds Newell's life and the state he embraced is a restoration of the original Newell House, built in 1852.

The first floor of the structure is meant to represent life in the 1860s Ñ at least the one that was led by a man of Newell's prosperous position. Features and signage in the master bedroom, guest room, parlor and kitchen accurately reflect the activities that might have taken place in each (with the tasteful exception of those that led to Newell's 16 children).

Virginia Burgh is a member of Oregon's Daughters of the American Revolution, the group responsible for the restoration and operation of the museum. During a tour of the museum, she points out the 'courting wheel,' where young women spun wool while suitors put their own spin on things. Burgh says that modern moppets also are surprised to learn the lengthy list of obligations that children in the 1860s were expected to fulfill.

'In addition to their farm chores, children were expected to make goods to sell at the general store, such as knitted socks and straw hats,' she says. A bizarre, decorative wreath crafted from human hair is an example of the crafts that youngsters might have fashioned.

Upstairs, visitors will find examples of the handiwork produced by both settlers and Indians. Sumptuous quilts and handmade lace crafted on the Oregon Trail are a fascinating juxtaposition to the wide range of baskets, tools and decorative pieces made by Northwest tribes, including the Klickitat, Chinook and Quinault peoples.

It's interesting to see how the artistry of each tribe varied according to the materials available to them, such as reeds versus grasses, and shells versus beads.

Across the hall, the inaugural gowns hold court, regally displayed on forms that are locked behind glass. The looks are arranged chronologically, beginning with the elaborate gown worn by Governor Abernathy's wife in 1845 and ending with the lavender dress that Dolores Atiyeh wore in 1979.

Perhaps most surprising is how formal gowns segued into fairly casual dresses over the course of 130-plus years. A polyester dress with a matching shirt jacket was Patricia Straub's wash-and-wear look of choice in 1975.

One former dress owner disputes the museum's claim that the gown was worn to her husband's inauguration. 'My mother made that gown,' says Antoinette Hatfield, wife of Mark Hatfield, former Oregon governor and U.S. senator. 'I wore that dress to an Oregon centennial celebration. Vice President Nixon was there, and it was held in the U.S. Bank lobby.' The celadon-colored dress is hand-embroidered in ivory thread and studded with rhinestones. The dress also is the only maternity style in the collection.