South Sound historians have a historic meeting

No one in a room full of South Sound historians could remember a meeting quite like the one convened Saturday at the Schmidt House in Tumwater.

I’m calling it a South Sound history summit, a gathering of 20 professional and citizen historians dedicated to keeping the history of Thurston County people and places alive for future generations to enjoy.

The setting for the daylong conference was fitting: the 1904 home built for Olympia Brewing Co. founder Leopold Schmidt, his wife, Johanna, and five sons. The owner of the home, the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, hosted the event, punctuating the foundation’s renewed interest in preserving South Sound history through free, monthly history talks at the Schmidt House, summer weekly tours of the foundation’s Tumwater Falls Park, and an ongoing effort to create an archive of Schmidt family and brewery history that is accessible to the public.

“This day is historic,” remarked retired state Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander, an Olympia native whose love of local history rivals his love of law. “I don’t think there’s ever been a gathering like this.”

Foundation employee and Tumwater historian Don Trosper pulled the summit together, making sure all areas of north and south county were represented. “Will all the egos fit in the room?” he asked jokingly. My experience with historians, including half the people in the room Saturday, is that they are more selfless than egotistical, often willing to share with me the knowledge they have gleaned about local history, happy to see it reappear in Soundings columns I write for The Olympian.

We all had a chance to introduce ourselves. I echoed the words of Olympia-based author Heather Lockman, who once told me: “I’m not a historian — I’m just someone who writes about history.”

The morning session included a show-and-tell presentation by author and museum volunteer Karen Johnson. She has been hired by the Olympia Tumwater Foundation as a curator of the tens of thousands of photos, documents, postcards, letters and artifacts stored in the Schmidt House basement, offering glimpses into the family brewery business and the lives of family members.

“There’s a big dump of information in the basement,” she said. “My goal is to organize it and make it accessible to the public.” Sounds like there’s a book in the basement, waiting to be written.

Johnson showed us some of the gems from her research: A 1940 letter from Helen Keller, who had an intimate relationship with the Schmidt family, a 1742 book on beer-making called “London and Country Brewer,” a beer bottle label that dates back to the days of the original brewery, Capital Brewing Co. (1886-1902), and a gold medal diploma for beer-brewing earned at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland.

“The thing I spend most of my time on is trying not to get distracted,” Johnson said of the task at hand.

While love of history was the glue that held the summit together, there was a sense of community pride and autonomy and an urban-rural divide that came through at times.. South Sound history buffs aren’t interested in a countywide museum headquartered in Olympia. Lacey has its own museum and dreams of a new one to mark its 50th birthday party next year. Tumwater, the region’s oldest community, has a connection to its history that surfaces through the foundation’s efforts and attempts to breathe life into the old Olympia brewhouse on the banks of the Deschutes River.

That leaves Olympia as the odd city out. The capital city doesn’t have a museum, and it’s about to see the state dismantle the State Capital Museum, which has served as a de facto community museum for decades. “Community support for a museum in Olympia atrophied because the state took on the responsibility,” noted Dave Nicandri, former director of the Washington State Historical Society.

“I think it’s very sad we don’t have a museum in downtown Olympia,” Alexander said. “If the State Capital Museum closes, that just exacerbates the need for an Olympia Museum.” The retired judge and a few other local history buffs have formed a museum exploratory committee to look at possible sites, with the Carnegie Building, former home of the Olympia Library, high on many people’s lists. But identifying sites brings with it the question of how to pay for a bricks and mortar museum, and how to fund a museum operations and maintenance budget.

Preserving the history and cultural heritage of communities is not a high priority of federal, state and local governments, Olympia maritime historian and author Chuck Fowler said. He recommended some new approaches for linking citizens to their history.

“Let’s take our exhibits to the people,” Fowler suggested, referring to displays in hotel lobbies, public buildings and other public places. He also voiced support for online virtual museums where exhibits and photographs are just a click away. The Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum website is a good example of how this can help fill the local history void.

Despite all the challenges to keeping history alive in South Sound, the group agreed on two things: There’s power in numbers, and the group will meet again.