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Lane County History Museum: Connecting objects and their stories

The Eugene museum, which began with a collection of pioneer memorabilia, has evolved into a more inclusive institution.

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Native Americans parade in the Oregon Trail Pageant in about 1941. The Lane County History Museum was founded in 1951 to recall the pageant, which ran from 1926 to 1950, and the area's pioneer heritage, but has recently expanded its mission. Photo courtesy: Lane County History Museum
Native Americans parade during the Oregon Trail Pageant in about 1941. The Lane County History Museum was founded in 1951 to recall the pageant, which ran from 1926 to 1950, and the area’s pioneer heritage, but has recently expanded its mission to reflect a wider swath of the county’s history. Photo courtesy: Lane County History Museum

You’ve heard about the Oregon Trail, but maybe not about the pageant that honored it. The spectacular multi-day affair, staged annually from 1926 to 1950, took place in and around Eugene and celebrated all things having to do with pioneers. Thousands of people participated in parades, as well as music festivals and re-enactment plays.  

The year after the last pageant, one of its organizers, Cal Young, founded the Lane County Pioneer Museum on the Lane County Fairgrounds. Young – besides being the University of Oregon’s first head football coach — was a son of pioneers and collected pioneer memorabilia. He started the museum with items from his collection, as well as artifacts donated by others, to remember the Oregon Trail and the Oregon Trail Pageant. 

The museum, now called the Lane County History Museum, contains more than 300,000 images of Lane County, original manuscripts, books, and maps. Besides the physical presence, the museum offers online access to archives, educational materials, and puts on events – such as History Pub Talks – that reach into the community. In 2023, it closed for 6 months to move objects around to make room for a more inviting, interactive space and for new exhibits, both permanent and temporary.


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The changes are part of the museum’s evolution from an all-pioneer focus to a more inclusive institution, as evidenced by recent shows on the history of racism in Lane County and the fight for farmworker rights. The museum is organizing an exhibit that will open Jan. 12 on artist Maude Kerns and even gathering information for a collection to document how COVID-19 affected Lane County residents.

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The homepage of the museum’s website acknowledges this shift, noting the museum “recognizes the history of injustice against the diverse peoples of our community by the perpetuation of racist ideologies and by omission from the activities and collections of our organization.

“As stewards of history-related collections, we must work to be inclusive and equitable in all aspects of our organization, or otherwise we will be complicit in systemic prejudice. Lane County History Museum is committed to uncovering local history that confronts internal biases and includes what is absent in order to expand our understanding of Lane County’s past.”

Cal Young's embroidered vest is among the Lane County History Museum's items commemorating the Oregon Trail Pageant. Photo by: Ester Barkai
Cal Young’s embroidered vest is among the Lane County History Museum’s items commemorating the Oregon Trail Pageant. Photo by: Ester Barkai

During the museum’s closure, exhibits were created to reflect this spectrum. A new exhibit about Young features a colorful embroidered vest and a pair of cowboy boots and spurs he wore from 1900 to 1951. The articles of clothing, and other materials related to Young, were already in the collection, said Interim Director Marin Aurand. But they were “dusted off and given a fresh perspective” by Robin Myers, the museum’s curator of collections. 

Myers has done a lot of dusting, so to speak. When she started to work at the museum in 2021, she was surprised to find a large attic stuffed with objects that were not “hardmarked” — in other words, not associated with any number or context. Each item was a mystery, she said. It took a whole year going through the attic to “connect objects to their stories.”  

A scissor lift had to be used to unload bigger objects out of the attic. The process was laborious but it made Myers feel closer to the people to whom these things once belonged. Whether on display or in the archives, she said, each item in the museum is tied to a story and to someone’s life. Finding the story, after it’s been disconnected from its object, is her favorite part of the job. 

When Robin Myers, curator of collections, began sorting through items in the Lane County History Museum's attic, she found a number of them had no context. Each item was a mystery, she says, and it took a year to “connect objects to their stories.” Photo by: Ester Barkai
When Robin Myers, curator of collections, began sorting through items in the Lane County History Museum’s attic, she found a number of them had no context. Each item was a mystery, she says, and it took a year to “connect objects to their stories.” Photo by: Ester Barkai

Some of the objects moved during the revamping were large: a row of wagons, for example, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including a prairie schooner like those commonly used to cross the Oregon Trail and a mud wagon made specifically for getting through muddy terrain. The wagon was used in the late 1880s and then again in the Oregon Trail Pageant. 

Myers is now working with Aurand on an exhibit that will feature letters written by artist Maude Kerns (1876-1965). The Blue Vesper: Maude Irvine Kerns will correspond to In the Realm of the Spiritual, an art exhibit of Kerns’ work that will run Jan. 12 through Feb. 9 at the Maude Kerns Art Center

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Kerns was an Oregon artist who lived in New York City during the height of the Non-Objective moment in the early 20th century, a genre related to the then-new practice of abstract art. She left New York City as it was becoming the center of the modern art world to return to Oregon, where she began the University of Oregon’s art education program, then co-founded the nearby center that bears her name.

Another groundbreaking woman recognized in an exhibit last year is Esther Mae Ralph, who in 1975 fought successfully to become Lane County’s first female sheriff’s deputy.

In 2022, Lane County History Museum collaborated with another cultural institution to exhibit Racing to Change about the legacy of racism and the Civil Rights movement, particularly in Lane County. That show was originally exhibited at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History and was co-created by them and the Oregon Black Pioneers

Aurand received a handful of complaints about Racing to Change from community members who “felt the discussion of race and racism was inherently divisive and political.” One person suggested that an exhibit highlighting the Black community was racist against white Lane County residents. But overall, Aurand said that people were “very supportive” and the negative comments received were minimal compared to the positive feedback. 

A new exhibit at the Lane County History Museum covers the struggle for farmworkers' rights. Photo courtesy: Lane County History Museum
A new exhibit at the Lane County History Museum covers the struggle for farmworkers’ rights. Photo courtesy: Lane County History Museum

After its 6-month closure, the museum reopened in September with a reception attended by about 200 people. Another reception was held in October for the new Eugene Friends of the Farm Workers exhibit; food, music and dancing reflected the Mexican-American culture of the farmworkers, said Michael Samano, head of the Ethnic Studies program at Lane Community College. He contributed a panel to the exhibit.

Samano’s father is a Mexican immigrant, and his mother is of Swedish ancestry. Self-identifying as “100 percent biracial,” he has been attending pioneer parades since he was young and also champions rights for Mexican-American field workers. Samano thinks it’s possible to honor both pioneer history and the legacy of minorities. He said he has “no problem” with pioneer celebrations, adding, “My only agenda is to be a nice neighbor.”

Labor activist Nancy Bray (at staircase) speaks at the October reception for the Eugene Friends of the Farm Workers exhibit in the Lane County History Museum. Photo courtesy: Lane County History Museum
Labor activist Nancy Bray (at staircase) speaks at the October reception for the Eugene Friends of the Farm Workers exhibit in the Lane County History Museum. Photo courtesy: Lane County History Museum

“It was really a reunion,” he said of the reception. Activists who fought for farmworkers’ rights in Lane County during the 1970s attended and spoke, including Nancy Bray, a labor and immigrant rights activist. In fact, most of the materials in the exhibit are from Bray’s personal collection, and reflect her experience locally to support the United Farm Workers movement headed nationally by Cesar Chavez. The show will be on display through this summer, with a second reception planned for April.

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The museum also reaches into the community by partnering with local businesses and the UO history department to present History Pub Talks. The talks were created about 8 years ago by UO professor Marsha Weisiger and Bob Hart, former executive director of the museum. They are held monthly, September through May, and venues have included Ninkasi Brewery, Oakshire Brewing, and WOW Hall.  

Subject matter has ranged from The War of the Worlds to comedian Dick Gregory and the Black freedom struggle; from Jesse Applegate and the Modoc Wars to the history of Willamette Valley hops and craft beer. The next History Pub is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 8, at Whirled Pies Downtown, when UO history professor Brett Rushforth tackles The French Empire Before Napoleon.

University of Oregon professor David Luebke gives a History Pub Talk in December at Whirled Pies Downtown in Eugene. An outreach by the Lane County History Museum, the talks have covered topics as diverse as Luebke's take on post-Reformation Catholics and Protestants to Jesse Applegate and the Modoc Wars. Photo by: Ester Barkai
University of Oregon professor David Luebke gives a History Pub Talk in December at Whirled Pies Downtown in Eugene. An outreach by the Lane County History Museum, the talks have covered topics as diverse as Luebke’s take on post-Reformation Catholics and Protestants to Jesse Applegate and the Modoc Wars. Photo by: Ester Barkai

Last month, David Luebke, a UO professor and historian, presented  Living Together? Catholics and Protestants in Europe After the Reformation. His talk was much in line with Samano’s “agenda” regarding neighbors getting along. He looked at how Catholics and Protestants shared places of worship in the years after the Reformation, dividing spaces inside churches to coexist. Luebke said the idea of these two groups sharing spaces “violated the stories we tell ourselves” about how towns were controlled by one religious group or the other. After the talk, Luebke noted that addressing the phenomena of people trying to get along “is always salient.”  

History Pub Talks are free of charge — unless you count drinks. Entrance to the museum, which is open Thursday through Saturday, also is free, as is access to the museum’s online educational resources and exhibits. Digital archives and audio recordings are available on the museum’s website, and so are Story Maps that tell the area’s history through photos, including Lost Towns: Wendling and a collection of historic photographs of Native Americans.   

There is a place for you online, too. Click on Share Your Story for directions.  The museum wants stories from Lane County residents about how they got along during the first year of the pandemic in 2020, because as they say, “History is best told by those who experienced it.”


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Ester Barkai is a freelance arts writer. She’s written for The Magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico and for Eugene Weekly in Eugene, Oregon. She got her start working for publications as a fashion illustrator in Los Angeles and then New York City. She has worked as an instructor teaching a variety of art history, drawing, and cultural anthropology courses.

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