Robert Robertson peered from behind the jail house bars while Judy Simmons took his photo. Maybe it would help, she said, if he opened the door and stepped forward into more light.
Robertson slid the door open and stood in the metal frame. Simmons said that was better.
Robertson was one of several visitors Saturday to the jail and other exhibits at the Umatilla Museum’s open house to celebrate a cleaner look and new displays. That small jail cell in the former police station held memories for Robertson.
“I’m the last guy that got to stay in the jail,” Robertson said, but that was 20 years and a different life ago.
He had to do 21 days, probably for “noncompliance,” he said, then the city found the jail was “unfit for human life.” Even so, the city let him finish his sentence.
During work days the police let him out to wash patrol cars or lend muscle to other city work, he said. Weekends, however, were all inside the jail.
Golf played on a small black-and-white TV the cops set outside the jail’s two cells, he said, and the bunk mattress was the same as when he was there. And there was the food.
“Swanson TV dinners,” Robertson said. “They used to feed us TV dinners three times a day. I didn’t eat TV dinners for a long time after that.”
Simmons said Robertson was a key reason for the open house. She is a member and volunteer of the Umatilla Museum & Historical Foundation, the nonprofit that took on the task of recording the community’s 156 years of history. Robertson popped into the museum last year, Simmons said, glanced around and announced it looked like nothing had ever changed.
“That lit a fire under us,” she said.
Fellow museum and foundation member Sam Nobles said for years people brought in old items to the museum, but much of that piled up. He and others worked to separate the junk from the historical and tidy up the place.
Old military uniforms on wire hangers now are in shadow boxes on a wall, they arranged displays to allow for more walking room, and they dedicated one room to the development of McNary Dam.
Simmons and Nobles said plans are afoot to show the Chinese and Latino influence on the community, as well as tell the story of the 1916 city election, when voters elected all women into the offices of mayor, treasurer, recorder and every seat on the council.
Larry Carrick and Chris Crabtree of Hermiston checked out the museum, which used to be home to Umatilla’s city hall, police department and more. They praised the cleaner appearance and the effort to tell the local history. Carrick, a retired barber, said all three of his children graduated high school in Umatilla.
“We need a museum here,” he said. “There’s so much people have never seen.”
The museum drew about 200 people last year. Admission is free. Simmons said the foundation is working on updating promotional materials to draw more visitors and volunteers.
Robertson looked around a bit more before he headed out. The place, he said, has a much better look now.