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Stepping into the past

The Courthouse Historic Museum is a trove of wonders from Columbia County's past


by: DARRYL SWAN - Courthouse Historic Museum curator Les Watters flips through a binder of historic class photos on display. The schools exhibit is a current effort to catalog the rich history of Columbia County's schools. Antique blue-lensed eyeglasses, turn-of-the-century artifacts and crisp black-and-white photographs of a bustling downtown St. Helens in the midst of a shipbuilding boom are just a small part of an evolving collection at the Historic Courthouse Museum.

Now, Columbia County Museum Association members are poised to promote the museum and, they hope, drive new association membership and interest in Columbia County’s rich history.

“There are a lot of volunteers who do a lot of work, and who have done a lot of work, to pull all of this together,” said museum curator Les Watters of St. Helens.

The museum association recently received a $1,500 grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust to invest in artifact preservation, especially from water and sun damage. The grant dollars are expected to pay for enclosed shelving for photographs to lay flat that would also shield them from a sprinkler system release and, possibly, ultra-violet filters for the windows to prevent sun damage to the collection. by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - A photo of the 'first car in Columbia City' is one of hundreds of historic photographs on display at the Historic Courthouse Museum.

“Depending on the season, the sun can really come in here,” Watters said, pointing to windows near the high ceiling of the historic 1906 section of the Columbia County Courthouse, where the museum is housed on the second floor.

Watters started volunteering with the courthouse museum a year ago, he said, identifying himself as a “newcomer.” In that time, however, he has been instrumental in developing a website for the museum association, which oversees collections at the courthouse museum and partners with the Pioneer Museum in Vernonia.

The website provides a portal through which sharing of the museum exhibits outside of the museum’s limited hours has become possible. At present, the Historic Courthouse Museum is open only on Wednesdays from noon to 4 p.m.

Among the web exhibits available are 1950s footage of the Elaine by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Photographs such as this one, which show the McCormick shipyards of Sauvie Island in the background and what is believed to be the former creosote plant in the foreground, are in ample supply at the Historic Courthouse Museum in St. Helens. Lease School of Dance, video clips of strawberry picking at the Luttrell family farm in Yankton, stills and video of the aftermath of the 1962 Columbus Day storm and archives of numerous parades.

A current effort is to solicit community input on the many local schools that have existed in Columbia County. One display in the museum, for example, offers photographs for visitors to explore and, ideally, identify the people caught on film. The website similarly has a tab devoted to schools, including class photos ranging from 1913 at John Gumm School in St. Helens to the late 1940s at Scappoose High, to name a few.

“Les is doing a great job with putting out our website and all of the interesting things on that,” said Joanne Pellham, president of the museum association.

Pellham has been with the association since it was formed in 2007 as the result of a court agreement between the Historic Courthouse and Vernonia Pioneer museums regarding artifact ownership, among other contentions. During that period, the Historic Courthouse Museum had been closed between 2003 and 2010, when it reopened following inventory and reorganization efforts.

Pellham said that, with the past behind them, they’re hoping to generate new interest in Columbia County’s history and heritage.

“There’s a lot of people in my generation, or Les’ generation, who are late-fifties or sixties or seventies who are really starting to use the museum,” she said.

In addition to the two display rooms, the museum houses a research center. Though somewhat disorganized at the moment, the association is working with the few hours available to them to catalogue books in their possession and make it easier for patrons to dig into Columbia County’s past.

At a glance

What: Historic Courthouse Museum

Where: Historic Columbia County Courthouse, St. Helens

Why: Collections of artifacts and photographs from Columbia County’s past

Hours: Wednesdays, from noon to 4 p.m.

Website: www.colcomuseum.org

Phone: 971-225-3971

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