Volunteers aim to revitalize Umatilla Museum

The Umatilla Museum, 911 Sixth St., is now open for its 2011 season. Board members are looking for more volunteers to help operate the facility.

“Visit Umatilla’s Past” is the slogan of the Umatilla Museum, and volunteers are working to revitalize the facility and make that experience available to more people.

The new direction is thanks to the foundation’s board — president Steve Sturges, vice president Marge Nelson, treasurer Larry Nelson and secretary Don Eppenbach — and momentum to revitalize the struggling facility.

“This museum is not only dedicated to the history of the town and the heritage that comes with it but also letting people know about the history,” Larry Nelson said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people come through and don’t even know we have a museum. These aren’t just people driving through. These are people who live here.”

Founded in 1974 by a group of volunteers, the Umatilla Museum and Historical Foundation has collected items and operated a museum for decades, although the location has changed.

“When the museum started, it was in people’s garages and it moved around,” Sturges said. “They finally got this building and moved in here in 1996, where it’s been since.”

The museum sits at 911 Sixth St. in a building was was formerly the home of city hall and the police department. Two old jail cells continue to be one of the building’s most popular attractions.

“The kids love it,” Marge Nelson said. “They come in here and we shut the door and take their picture.”

The museum’s popularity has continued with school visits and travelers, but over time, the operational hours of the facility became unpredictable, dictated by the schedules of the foundation’s volunteers. With a new board and revitalized interest, however, the Nelsons hope to bring the museum back to regular hours and back into the lives of tourists and Umatilla residents.

Current museum exhibits start with how the land around Umatilla was formed and travel through Lewis and Clark, Umatilla Landing and the construction of the McNary Dam. Exhibits of American Indian artifacts, handmade clothing, kitchen appliances and items salvaged from the time when Umatilla housed 22 saloons also grace the museum’s displays.

“Everything we have has been donated,” Marge Nelson said. “We have a lot of neat, neat things. You just have to look around. Every time I come in, I read and learn a little more. This place is full of the way things were.”

Not all of the museum’s exhibits document ancient history, however, For students and other young visitors, the interactive typewriter stations come in second only to the jail cells.

“The kids come in and they love typing away on the typewriters,” Marge Nelson said. “Most of them have never seen one. They’ve grown up with computers.”

The new board also plans to begin rotating exhibits so residents can come in multiple times a year and see something new.

“We have a basement full of items that we can’t get into because there’s no where to put it,” Sturges said. “There’s a lot of history here.”

To help with the group’s plans, the foundation has requested a $5,000 grant from the city’s transient room tax. The grant would help pay for the facility’s largest expenses — utilities and insurance — as well as to install new building signs, replace faltering light fixtures and provide seed money for fundraisers.

Council members deferred the request to the Transient Room Tax Committee and will consider the committee’s recommendation at the council’s June meeting. Council members did have some questions about the facility as well.

“I’ve been in the museum, and I really enjoyed it. The only complaint I’ve ever heard is that it’s never open,” council woman Cindy Roxbury said. “How are you going to address that?”

The Umatilla Museum opened its 2011 season on May 1. Larry Nelson said the board plans to have the museum open from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday until October. The museum will also be available on weekends and afternoons by appointment.

“Our plan is to make it available,” Nelson said. “Give us a call, give us 20 minutes to get here, and we’ll be open.”

For more information or to schedule a special tour of the Umatilla Museum, call the Nelsons at 541-922-4641.

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