A new Aberdeen Museum of History won’t be open this summer, but volunteers are  continuing to reorganize, restore and chronicle what remains from the June 9, 2018, fire that gutted the old museum location in the Aberdeen Armory Building.

The museum even has added a few new items such as a priceless Weatherwax family piano donated by Tom Quigg, and the state highway sign made famous by the hands of Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and donated by Wil Russoul.

The new plan approved by the city is to locate the museum in the heart of downtown in the 100 block of West Wishkah Street in the former Salvation Army retail building. The city closed the deal on the building for $350,000 on Feb. 23, but it also began to review the $1.6 million in renovations needed to remodel it for the museum.

Photo by Jetta Smith

After the fire, Westport/South Beach Historical Director John Shaw was drafted among other community members to begin to reconstitute the museum board under city ordinance. At the time of the fire, the city had been in the process of reorganizing the museum’s organizational structure.

“So basically, I, along with a number of other folks, responded to the call by the city for interested people to be on the museum board,” said Shaw, who is now the chairman. The board is responsible for the care and the custody of the collections, and for developing plans to display and interpret the history of Aberdeen.

“The city has laid out what it wants to have happen to that building before it can be used for public engagement again,” Shaw said. As of press time, the City of Aberdeen had yet to approve funding to “go forward with a plan that would open the museum at this point.” But progress is being made toward that goal.

“After three years of asking the city to allow us to re-engage with volunteers under a board-directed plan, we are starting that activity now,” Shaw said. That will include the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum group, the Grays Harbor Genealogical Society, as well as board members and other volunteers “who want to engage with the collection.”

Currently, all the remaining artifacts and exhibits are stored in a warehouse off Port Industrial Road near Home Depot. While efforts continue to create the new site, the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum have set up temporary rotating displays from the museum collection at 200 W. Market St. in downtown Aberdeen.

When the museum is restored, Shaw said its goal would be to “interpret the story of Grays Harbor overall, in addition to really focusing on Aberdeen as a city. We are working on why Aberdeen happened as a place, the Grays Harbor economy, and some of that story will come out in the redevelopment of Aberdeen.”

Prized pieces that survived the fire include a canoe carved by a Quinault Indian named Hyak and purchased by the Schafer Brothers Logging Company in the 1800s. Another is an intricately carved wooden horse that is said to have a special bottle of champagne imbedded inside. There is a charred, but intact, firefighting rig built in 1926. And, there is the massive bell from the old Congregational Church in Aberdeen that once rang out across the city. Amazingly it has retained its timbre after the fire.

“Some people who had donated items over the years were curious about whether their stuff survived,” noted George Donovan, vice chairman of the museum board. Of the collections that did survive, many may need special restoration still, along with repainting and refinishing. Donovan estimates more than 5,000 photographs are still in the hands of the Washington State Archives, many of which were water damaged.

“They have cleaned them and dried them, and now they are stored,” Donovan said. “There’s one step left. They have to rewet them and then flatten them, and then they will come back to us.”

Photo by Jetta Smith

“Our history is so rich, so spectacular,” Donovan added when asked about the Aberdeen Museum’s future. “It affected everything that happened around the state. Aberdeen, Tacoma and Longview were the logging centers that brought the industry, with shipbuilding and the fishing that came off of that.”

Both museum board members believe that support for the museum restoration shouldn’t be so politically contentious as they seek long-term funding solutions. “We’re getting back to being a museum now,” Shaw said. “But we still have kind of a limited lane with which we can work in. In fairness, Aberdeen has so many different needs for so many different things.”