Back in the day, you could walk into a Walla Walla restaurant, pick up a menu and order cinnamon toast for 15 cents and an omelette for 45 cents.
Fashionable ladies wore hats when they strolled past the brick buildings downtown.
Those days are gone but relics remain. From mid March through summer, a few of those hats and menus plus myriad other things from the area’s past will be on display at the Kirkman House Museum.
One of the unusual features of the Walla Walla Memorabilia exhibit is that many of the artifacts are paper items, rare memories of the past and so notoriously difficult to preserve that museums don’t end up with many of them.
Some of the artifacts are owned by the museum and some have been collected by local individuals and loaned for the exhibit.
Carolyn Priest, a Kirkman House board member, has an extensive collection of items, including a notebook binder of receipts from businesses that are part of the area’s history. The exhibit is being put together by Priest and researcher Susan Monahan.
They’ve collected old photographs, postcards, hats from Walla Walla milliners and other items of local everyday life. Priest said the exhibit is the result of many people coming to the museum and asking questions, trying to trace a family or figure out where a certain building or business had been located. Answers to these kinds of questions can be found in old photos, maps and other displays.
Several black-and-white photographs of downtown Walla Walla show buildings that were demolished or burned down and turned to dust long ago. Among them is the Stencil Building that stood on the southeast corner of Main and Third, next door to the Baumeister Building and a block from the former Roxy Theater.
“We want to get people interested, it’s important know where you have been,” Priest said.
She has long been a collector, dedicated to preserving a history that can so easily be razed, sold off at flea markets or hauled off to a landfill. Special to her are old buildings; it grieves her to have seen so many of the homes and businesses demolished.
“We can save some of these buildings and not tear them down,” she said. “When it’s gone you can’t get it back.”
Still, there is a thirst among many people interested in the preservation of our history — from buildings to post cards — to use them as educational tools to learn about day-to-day life in bygone times.
Not too long ago, she took a tour of a house museum in San Francisco. “A large number of the group were very knowledgeable about houses of that time period, so there’s a whole cadre out there,” Priest said.
With the increasing interest in tracing family histories, museums get more requests for historical information. Staff at Kirkman House are working to redo the library of histories of prominent local families.
So what items from our present day lives will be in museums a century from now?
Consider that Priest and her husband were in school before computers. She was a chemistry major and he was an engineer so they got a good laugh when they found a slide rule at an antique store not too long ago.
“How much of this computer stuff will be in museums, the original programs and hardware?” Priest wondered. Computers, program software, cameras and other things change so rapidly, it’s hard to know what just needs to be recycled and what should end up in a museum.
“With all the cameras that are changing, now you can see all the old cameras on display,” she said.
Priest has considered what the future will bring, what is historic now, and what will simply be older and farther removed from the current generation. Bits and pieces of our experience and daily lives will be preserved, lost or in many cases misunderstood by those who come later.
An example of normal daily life in the 1800s, for example, is that a lot of manufacturing done in little towns, such as flour mills, was done to support local needs.
“People grew everything in their backyard,” she said. Not so much anymore. And everything continues to evolve.
“These are changing times whether we realize it or not,” Priest said.