BILL VIRGIN seattlepi.com
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Tuesday, September 26, 2006             

A hands-on look at the past

By BILL VIRGIN
P-I COLUMNIST

Jerry Senner might be talking about the silver and gold mines that used to dot the mountains in eastern Snohomish County. Or he might be referring to the narrow-gauge logging railroads that used to lace those mountains as they took timber to the dozens of mills in the county. Or he could be making reference to the farms that carpeted the lowland landscape.

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  Zoom Grant M. Haller / P-I
  Jerry Senner, left, and Steve Rizzo, a volunteer, work on a pair of orphan tractors from the 1940s for display in the Western Heritage Center Interactive Museum at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe.

Or maybe he's talking about them all when he says, "Nobody remembers."

What nobody remembers is where milk came from before it came from the grocery store, that wood was in some other form before it wound up as furniture at Ikea, and that minerals and gems weren't manufactured in the jewelry store.

Senner would like to see that people do remember, even as urbanization and technology continue to push those most basic of industries out of Western Washington, to across the mountains, to other states or into the history books.

Senner is the driving force behind the Western Heritage Center Interactive Museum, which got a public preview during the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe. He hopes to have the museum permanently up and running in its remodeled and expanded building at a corner of the fairgrounds by Thanksgiving. Senner, who grew up on a dairy farm in Monroe and later ran one near Elma with his wife, now does construction and excavation work in Snohomish County.

The goal of the museum is to preserve and tell the history of four basic industries -- mining, logging, farming and transportation (primarily water and narrow-gauge logging railroads).

Those four are well-chosen. There are still operating sawmills in Western Washington, although timber generally now reaches what mills remain by truck. Little remains of mining beyond the occasional sand-and-gravel operation.

  photo
  Zoom Grant M. Haller / P-I
  A pile of wrenches waits for wall space at the Western Heritage Center Interactive Museum at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe.

Farming is still holding on -- sort of. Both King and Snohomish counties had their peak years for number of farms in 1945 -- King at nearly 6,500, Snohomish at about 6,260. Even as of 1954, King County ranked second only to Yakima County for the number of farms.

But the decline was on. By 2002 (the most recent farm census data available), the number of farms in Snohomish County was down to 1,574, and that was down 13 percent from five years before. King County had just 1,548, down 15 percent in a five-year span. And if you're surprised that the number is that high, remember that these are small operations; the average farm size was 27 acres in King County, 44 in Snohomish. (The 2002 average for Yakima County was 450 acres; over in wheat country, Whitman County's average was 1,222 acres.)

With that sort of evaporating presence in population centers, it's not surprising that the museum's display (which Senner says represents a fraction of the artifacts he has collected) set up at the fair drew a lot of curious visitors armed with a host of "What's that?" type questions -- even at an agriculture-intense gathering such as the Evergreen State Fair.

Senner hopes to answer those questions through displays, preferably ones that move (his hope is to link computers to machines, so that visitors can read what the device does, then touch a screen to see it in operation). It's a trick he learned from his experience with an antique-tractor club he helped found in the early 1980s and years of displaying them.

"A static display doesn't really cut it," he says. "People walk by and say, 'That's nice.' If I started it up, you'd have 100 people then." A simulated mine shaft is also planned for the museum.

The collected tractors and tools are more than opportunities for education and exercises in nostalgia. They're also a testament to the ingenuity of those early farmers, loggers and miners. At the fair, Senner rigged up a drill press that operated not on electricity but from a belt connected to the drive shaft of an idling tractor.

But to answer the questions of the curious, the museum first has to preserve the artifacts of those early basic industries, which Senner hopes to do with the museum. "A lot of this old equipment is rotting to the ground," he says.

It's not just the physical equipment that's being preserved, but the stories and lives that go with them. "Every time one of these old-timers pass away, they take a whole library with them," Senner says.

There's even an important philosophical principle being preserved and advanced here, one too broad to be encompassed even in something as lofty as a mission statement.

The Western Heritage Center says it will "celebrate the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, honoring the rural technologies which shaped and continue to shape life in the communities of these valleys."

A lot of people are being asked to make decisions about industries that they have little awareness of, much less any direct contact or experience with.

Debating the future of those industries, and the course of the next Industrial Revolution, is tough without knowing that there was a first Industrial Revolution, what it produced for us, what it took to produce that revolution -- and who did the actual producing.

Webtowns
More headlines and info from Monroe.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or billvirgin@seattlepi.com. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.