Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Mystery of a 1950 Mural in Spokane

My wife and I like to go on what we call history walks around Spokane. We pick out a neighborhood and walk a big loop. We are looking for signs of history--old commercial buildings, ghost signs, quirky neighborhood businesses, and the abandoned staircase or exposed brick paving that indicates previous uses and eras. (Yes we are geeks--what of it?) The one fast rule of our history walks is that we always end at a neighborhood bar. Last weekend we walked the Garland district, and inside the Brown Derby Tavern we found a real treasure.

 On the west wall is a giant mural, about 4 feet high and at least 12 feet long, showing what looked to be a 1940s crowd in the tavern. They are playing shuffleboard, smoking, joking around--one lady even brought her cat. The painting is breathtaking in its folk-art beauty:

Americans today have largely forgotten how important neighborhood taverns like the Brown Derby were to the social fabric of neighborhoods. In an era of walkable neighborhoods (and small houses) the tavern served as a social center a meeting place and perhaps a relief valve. Every neighborhood had such places, and the regulars represented a broad sample of the residents. This mural, painted in 1950, captures a moment in time in such a neighborhood tavern in amazing detail.

Aren't these great caricatures?

Sexy librarian cat lady.

Seven beers, this waitress can carry!

Who are these people? Who painted them? We asked the bartender about the mural and learned some sparse details. It was painted in 1950, and the people in the mural were actual patrons. The artist, Bill Swenson painted himself into the mural twice (he is the redhead at either end). Every once in a while, we were told, someone comes in and identifies one of the figures as a grandparent, but he did not know of any written record of who is who.

Bill Swenson, self-portrait

I dug around a bit and only found only a couple of things. Bill Swenson had a single cartoon in the 1942 Spokesman Review illustrating "a Spokane air depot artist's conception of how a number of employees felt the first day after the 'Victory Shift' was inaugurated at the depot to keep operations going 24 hours a day."
Spokane Daily Chronicle, Oct. 1, 1942, page 22
 Aside from that, I did not discover much about Swenson. The 1910 census shows a William B. Swenson, aged 14, living in Spokane on Fifth Avenue. On December 13, 1941 (days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor!) then 45-year-old Swenson married Barbara Jane Van Dusen before a justice of the peace. Other than that, nothing for certain--there were a lot of William B. Swensons in the country during the 20th century.

I dropped a line to a friend who has a regular column in the Spokesman Review, Doug Clark, suggesting that he might enjoy the painting. Doug wrote a piece about the mural, but he had no better luck in finding out the identities of the people in the mural--or the muralist.

And that is the end of the line for this historical inquiry. Unless someone comes forward with more information, we will never know the identities of the wonderful characters captured in this mural.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Photo Exhibit of Fort Wright History

The Mukagawa Fort Wright Institute here in Spokane has been offering an exhibit of historical photos (and a few artifacts) from the fort at their Japanese Cultural Center. It was a very interesting exhibit, with some wonderful images. Since today was the last day, I thought I'd offer a few photos of the photos. Fort Wright has a fascinating history that you can explore on Spokane Historical. As for the exhibit, here is a hint of what you missed.

A map of the various modern property holders at the fort.
Wait, what did you think this was?

1919 view of troops on the parade grounds
Obviously, this was the best picture

Sohon drawing of the falls

Monday, September 7, 2015

Great Images of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair--and Elvis!

This is wonderfully trippy--Elvis singing amidst the 1962 Worlds Fair in Seattle.

Type your summary hereType rest of the post here

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy 4th of July, 1910

On July 4, 1910 The citizens of Spokane enjoying a "sane" 4th of July due to new ban on "high and dangerous explosives." The entire police force was on the fireworks beat, the Spokane Press reported, but it was "in the form of the less dangerous explosives." Other than a ranch hand being killed by a train in Greenacres, "no serious accidents have been reported."

What did the holiday actually mean to people back then? The editorial page gives us a glimpse into the meaning of the holiday, at least to the editors of the working-man's Spokane Press. The 4th was a chance to reflect on what they termed "The Unending Revolution." Arguing that American economic success stemmed more from historical good fortune than our "free institutions," and that we had "donated...whole territories of our precious domain to the corporations." The piece ended with a ringing call for worker solidarity.

The whole editorial page was devoted to the holiday, with cartoons, a holiday menu featuring "puree of percussion caps" and "Dynamite a la Newburgh," and a quirky, illustrated science-fiction piece "The 4th of July in 2011" which featured "an illuminated airship procession over Riverside Avenue" and an account of President Ichabod Jones recent visit to the King of England on the "international airship Sky-Terrier." The two spoke of "the former practice of parents arming small children with dynamite and gunpowder with which to blow themselves to smithereens." The entire page is hoot:

In national news, Spokanites were closely following the upcoming heavyweight fight between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries, which the paper predicted would be "the most important battle involving a colored man that has occurred in this country since the Dred Scott decision." Though the fight was to take place in Reno, the Spokane Press devoted no less than three front-page stories about the bout between the African American world champion Johnson and "The Great White Hope" Jeffries. Page 3 of the paper included more coverage, including large engraved images of the two fighters. The extensive coverage reminds us of the importance of the fight, which focused the attentions of the nation on issues of race at what was nearly the low point of post-Civil War race relations in America. (More on that fight here.)

For a more staid look July 4, 1910 in Spokane, check out that day's issue of the Spokesman-Review, a more traditional and generally conservative newspaper. Happy Fourth of July!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Interesting Vintage Film about Spokane Garry

Check this out:


This nearly 50-year-old film stands up pretty well. It has a condescending tone but is firmly pro-Indian, and tells the basic events of Garry's life story in context. It was shared to a Facebook group that I created, Spokane History Buffs.

Readers, does anyone know more about this film? What jumps out at me are the images used, including many colorized old photos and engravings of Spokane that I have never seen before. I wonder who has the originals? The film maker is credited as R. L. Pryor. A quick search reveals that he also made a 1970 film about the Spokane River. I can't discover anything more about him.

If you know any more about this fascinating film, pipe up in the comments!

Friday, May 29, 2015

James “Jimmie” Durkin: Spokane’s Legendary Liquor Tycoon

Spokane readers of this blog may have had the good fortune to visit Durkin's Liquor Bar, which opened up on Main Street last fall, approximately across from Auntie's Books. The bar is not strictly descended from the famour Durkin's Saloon of early Spokane, but it has a wonderful historic feel and some of the best craft cocktails in the city. But I digress...

I was looking for something else the other day and found this very nice blog post about Jimmie Durkin. Spokane James “Jimmie” Durkin: Spokane’s Legendary Liquor Tycoon
history experts may find little new, but for the rest of us it is a good introduction to one of the town's great characters:

Thursday, May 28, 2015

(Stolen) Idea for a Public History Project

Had I paid attention in Art History I could caption this.
So this showed up in my feed a while back: A Global Art Project Brings Paintings of Anonymous Figures out of Museums and onto the Streets. The story is about the Outings Project, which had it's genesis--well let's let the first link explain it:

While visiting the Louvre last last year, artist and filmmaker Julien de Casabianca was struck by an Ingres painting of a female prisoner tucked unceremoniously into a corner of the museum. He suddenly had an idea: what if he could somehow free her—both figuratively and literally—by reproducing her figure on a public street.

Casabianca's initial effort has morphed to worldwide street art movement, with "Outings" spotted in London, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Dallas, Chicago, Rome and more. The project encourages others to "photograph the portraits of people on museum walls, print them, and move them to streets walls." Check the Facebook page for the latest sightings.

Obviously, this is completely delightful. It is also a suggestive model for public historians. How about a public history version of this, where we paste images of famous historical figures around town? They could be anyone--presidents, civil rights leaders, American Indians. The goal would be to create temporary, guerrilla public history displays to raise the historical consciousness of the community.

 What would this look like in my own city, Spokane? I am thinking of a series of portraits around town, illustrating perhaps labor and civil rights leaders in Spokane or relevant to Spokane. The town has a rich labor history, with the Wobblies, other unions, some prominent labor actions like the Free Speech fight, etc. We could glue life-sized portraits of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Spokane Garry and Carl Maxey to downtown buildings. They could include speech bubbles describing their significance, or a digital interpretation triggered by a QR code or URL, or be just the images with no explanation for an air of mystery. Perhaps funding could be secured from a union or social justice group. There could be a guided walk on Labor Day.

Like the Outings Project, this could be a movement, in our case a movement of public historians. Who is with me?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Was an Indian Boy Lynched in the 19th-Century Spokane?

A friend drew my attention to this folk song by the local group The Blue Ribbon Tea Company. Discursive in the way that folk songs often are, the main narrative thrust is a story about a mute Indian boy who was lynched for whistling at a white woman, apparently in the 19th century. Give the song a listen, I will wait.

The boy, presumably a Spokane Indian, was what today we would call developmentally disabled. His people, though, looked at him as having a spiritual blessing. He could not speak but he did whistle, and his tribe believed he was communicating with the animals. One day, the story goes, Colonel George Wright's wife was out riding and thought the boy was whistling lasciviously at her. She told her husband and he promptly sent out some men who lynched the boy for offending his wife's honor in such a fashion.

It would be easy--and a mistake--to dismiss this tale out of hand. After all, George Wright never lived in Spokane let alone with his wife. It could not have happened as told. Yet other parts of the story ring true. It is interesting that the native informant begins by pointing out a cave that his ancestors had used for cold storage--a traditional practice in this area. It is also true that native peoples of the region valued the differently-abled as having special spiritual powers.

The story is curious enough that I reached out to the songwriter, Bill Kostelec. I met him and his charming wife Kathy at their house. Kostelec turns out to have quite a backstory, he has a PhD in religion from Emory and has taught courses in Native American Religious Traditions at Gonzaga. He and Kathy are also skilled professional photographers. Bill poured us some coffee and he told me about the song.

The story of the lynching was told to him about 20 years previously by Calvin Garry, a great-grandson of Spokane Garry and a former paratrooper who was wounded on D-Day. Bill met Garry, who he estimates was in his 70s at the time, through one of his students who was also a member of the Spokane Tribe. Bill gave Garry a ride from the reservation to the city and the elder told him some stories, including that of the lynching. Garry pointed out the cave somewhere near Nine Mile. Garry did not place the lynching at Vinegar Flats or give any specific location. "He laid the story out just the way I told it in the song," Bill said to me. There were no additional details that Bill could recall--except that after hearing the story from Garry, his Spokane student asked several elders on the Coeur D'Alene reservation if they knew the story and they did, just as Garry had told it. Garry died in 2001.

We speculated about the facts behind the story. Of course the Wright part could not be true, but maybe his name became added to a story that really occurred. A search through digitized sources does not turn up any references to the incident in print or archival sources. Could there have been an unrecorded lynching of an Indian boy in the late 19th century in this area? It is certainly possible--extrajudicial violence against native people was common in that era, as we have seen with the lynching in Cheney. Such violence often made the newspapers (in some whitewashed fashion) but it is conceivable that the murder of one native boy might not have been recorded anywhere. This is particularly true if it were the very early period, before there were newspapers in Spokane.

The title of this post is the wrong question. Maybe the real question is not whether the story can be proven "true," but rather: Why was the story was told and retold in two local tribes, perhaps for over 100 years? I have come to believe that we historians have focused too much on the wars of the period, and too little on the many acts of small-scale acts of intimidation, injustice, and violence that we just as significant in the piecemeal dispossession of the natives from their land. The story of the mute Indian boy, true or not, is a piece of that larger puzzle.

Monday, May 18, 2015

EWU Public History Students in the News

Local TV station KREM this morning ran a piece about the ghost signs (those old painted advertisements you see on the sides of brick buildings) of Spokane, featuring none other than my brilliant grad students Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld. Frank is a former student actually, but I am still taking credit for him whenever possible. Here is the whole story, with a photo album as well as the video.

The ghost sign project began as a class assignment in my course HIST 407: Research Methods in Local History. The students fanned out across the city, built a map database of ghost signs, and then researched the stories behind the signs. A blog post here describes the project. Oesterheld was my teaching assistant and Harbine was a student in that class.

This project has proven to have surprising continued residence. Oesterheld and Harbine and two other grad students (Erin Pulley and Caitlin Shain) did a poster session about the project at the National Council for Public History conference in Monterey last year. The best stories became part of the ghost signs tour on Spokane Historical. Oesterheld and Harbine went on to develop a walking tour of the signs, which they led when the Northwest Archivists Conference came to town. And now this television piece.

Oesterheld and Harbine will be leading their walking tour of the ghost signs one more time, as part of a class they are teaching for the MAC--click here to sign up: Experiencing Local History: “Spokane’s Historic Ghost Signs Walking Tour”

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bancroft Prize Winning Historian Ari Kelman coming to Spokane

Ari Kelman, the McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State University and winner of the 2014 Bancroft Prize in American History for his book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, is coming to Spokane and Cheney on May 14th and 15th.

 This is kind of a big deal.

A Misplaced Massacre has been variously described as "a complicated and beautiful narrative," "an instructive lesson in public history," and "a reopening of a dark chapter in American history." In addition to the Bancroft, the book won the Tom Watson Brown Book Award, and the Robert M. Utley Prize. Kelman is also the author of  A River and Its City:  The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans and the forthcoming Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War.

Kelman will be speaking about A Misplaced Massacre at two different times and locations:

You can catch him at 6-8 p.m. Thursday, May 14th at Spokane Falls Community College. He will be speaking in Building 24, more properly known as SN-W"EY'MN--a Salish word for "a trading place for knowledge, materials, trades and commercial goods"--Room 110. [map]

Or come out to lovely Cheney the next day, Friday the 15th, 12-2 p.m.. Kelman will speak in the Hargreaves Reading Room in the Hargreaves building. [map] 

For more information about Kelman, visit his website where you can find reviews of his books, his blog, and other writings.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

More on the 1884 Cheney Lynching

Image courtesy of  Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections,
Washington State University Libraries, Cage 1771

As I was researching my recent post and teaching activity about the lynching of an American Indian in 1884, I ran across a reference in WorldCat to a letter in the Washington State University Archives that had some additional information. Yesterday, through the efforts of EWU graduate student Joanne Percy (thanks!) I received a scan of the letter--and it changes my understanding of the whole event.

The letter was written by Charles Ratcliffe, who is listed in the 1890 Spokane City Directory as manager of Frank Brothers Implement and Fire Insurance Company in Cheney. He was writing to his sweetheart Louise Bressler in Belleville, Illinois. Writing on the day of the lynching but before the crime was committed, Charley begins sweetly enough, telling Louise that "you are the hope of my youth . . . when night comes I always think of you" and how he looks forward to the day "when you will be my dear little wife." Then comes the dark part:

Oh Louise will I tell you of the dreadful thing that happened here yesterday and what I fear is going to happen tonight. A woman riding alone between Cheney and Spokane about dark was met by two Indians and draged out of the wagon by the fiends after accomplishing their purpose left her insensible. hundreds of men turned out and today the principle was caught and is now in jail. Tonight an attempt will be made to lynch him. I sincerely hope they will although it is an awful thing to do. I saw him as he passed the office just a few minutes ago. Maybe I ought not to have told you this. but it is not worse than has been committed in Ill not many days ago. truly "the way of the transgressor is hard."

"Ill" above is short for Illinois, though after a cursory search I cannot determine what lynching is being referred to by Ratcliffe.

This unfiltered account contradicts the story as it was told at the time in the newspapers, that the unnamed Indian man was killed by a mob of masked men who from Spokane who rode into into Cheney at night and caught everyone by surprise. Ratcliffe's account, written a few hours before the lynching, shows the crime was entirely premeditated and was the talk of the town in Cheney well before it happened. Far from the act of a mob, this was community decision made by many of the men of Cheney and tolerated by the rest. The sheriff and other officers of the law would have known what was planned, and made a decision to let it happen (if they did not actually participate). The masked mob from Spokane was a story that was made up afterwards to shield the Cheney community from responsibility for the act.

This is actually a very familiar pattern for local newspaper reports of 19th century lynchings--it was done by a mob from out of town, acting in the passion of the moment, we residents of Lyncherville had nothing to do with it. Very often further research reveals that the lynching was planned in advance by leading citizens of the community and tolerated by law enforcement, as appears to be the case in Cheney as well.

Charley Radcliffe and Louise were married soon thereafter and had long lives in Cheney, where they are buried together in Fairview Cemetery.

So many questions remains about this incident. Who were the murderers? The 1896 article published a dozen years later stated: "If the names of that mob should be published it would be found that a large number of them could be readily found in the city directory of today"--a tantalizing hint, impossible to follow up on. What was done with the body of the poor victim? Would his relatives have come to collect him, or is he in the paupers section of one of Cheney's cemeteries? And most pressingly, who was he--what was his name? None of the sources bothered to record his name, though they must have known.

Though questions remain, we seem to be out of sources. I may poke around in the newspapers a bit more, but barring some newly-discovered source, we may never know the identity of the innocent man who was lynched in Cheney that day.

[You may read the entire letter here, courtesy of  Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections,
Washington State University Libraries, Cage 1771.]

Monday, March 16, 2015

Living History: The John Feathers Map Collection

Archivists and lovers of old maps, just sit back and enjoy!

 This video fascinates me on a couple of levels. It is a great story, of an unexpected find that doubles the map collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. It is also lovely to look at (if you are a map lover) particularly the last few minutes where the camera just luxuriates in the old maps. Oooooh--Sanborns!

The video is also a nice example of low-key public outreach, an approach that I wish more archives and humanities institutions would emulate. Nearly all of us who have spent a few years working in archives have some interesting stories in the "You will never believe what someone found!" vein. The rub is always the lack of resources--archivists are not trained to make videos or podcasts, and we don't have the time anyway. It is no surprise that though this video is about the Los Angeles Public Library, it was produced by the LA Review of Books, which had the staff and saw the value of producing a short film of local interest.

 Some time ago I posted about short videos being made by the Minnesota Historical Society. Who else is making similar videos?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Spokane's Pride: Oral Histories of Spokane’s LGBT community

Look what my friend and EWU colleague Laura Hodgman has created: Spokane's Pride, a website dedicated to the oral histories of LGBT Spokane.

Spokane has a reputation as a conservative town, but of course we have always had a gay population. The first gay bar in Spokane opened in the 1950s, and the first drag ball happened about a decade later. Spokane's Pride explores this history with transcribed oral interviewsa timeline that integrates LGBT Spokane history with national events. and a glossary of some commonly-used terms.

Spokane's Pride grew out of “The Queer History Project,” an earlier oral history effort conducted by Maureen “Mo” Nickerson and others. The interviews for that project were conducted in 2006-07 and deposited at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. Hodgman resumed the effort in 2012, conducting her own interviews as well as transcribing some interviews from the earlier effort. Thirty-five individuals in all were interviewed.

The stories that Hodgman, Nickerson and others have gathered are by turns inspiring, harrowing, and revealing. A unique feature of the site is the Topics section, which organizes excerpts from different interviews around some common themes such as Coming Out, Parenting, and Spokane in Perspective.

Some may be disappointed to learn that there is no audio at the site. Hodgman explained to me that due to the sensitive nature of the topics and the necessary bonds of trust between interviewers and the LGBT community, she would interview the individuals, transcribe the interviews, and then allow the interviewees to review those transcripts and make sure they were comfortable with disclosing everything they said. Hodgman and the interviewees negotiated until everyone felt comfortable before the transcript went public. This is a completely justifiable way to proceed with such a project, and the method is partially explained under the Project portion of the website.

There is something of an explosion of LGBT oral history projects right now, including the ACTUP Oral History Project, Twin Cities Gay and Lesbian Community Oral History Project, and Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles: A History of LGBTQ Life at the University of Chicago. At the exhibits at the last National Conference for Public History there was entire table of brochures and handouts for similar projects.

Spokane's Pride is very much a work in progress, with additional stories being added at a regular clip. It is a great additional to our region's digital history projects.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

In Which I am Quoted in the New York Times

So Wednesday morning I checked my email to find a message from Scott Shane, a reporter for the New York Times. Could I give him a call for a piece he is writing? On the phone Shane explained he is doing a story--building off the current Hillary Clinton email brouhaha--about how the move to digital communications will change how historians do their work. "I spoke to Dolores Kearnes Goodwin and Robert Dallek and thought I would call you for your opinion," he said.

Dear Reader, I paused to savor that sentence.

We had a fun talk. Shane had come across a blog post of mine, Open Letter to the Historians of the 22nd Century: Sorry for All the Stuff. The short version of that post is that I argue against a prevailing idea that the inevitable loss of electronic records will mean a digital dark age for future historians. Far more likely they will be overwhelmed with data. I endeavored to be as sound-bitey as possible, remaking the same points as in the blog post.

So here is the story: Awash in Information, Historians Fear Loss of Rich Material.  I knew going in that at best a snippet of what I said in our 20-30 minutes of conversation would end up in the story, and so it was:

Larry Cebula, a digital archivist for the State of Washington who teaches history at Eastern Washington University, apologized in a semiserious blog post to historians of the next century for 'all the stuff.' If Thomas Jefferson were alive, he wrote, he might be commenting on his friends’ Facebook pages and posting photographs to Instagram. 

"I think historians a century from now will view this period as a time of an explosion of records,' Mr. Cebula said. 'Even if Facebook is out of business, someone will have bought the archive."

Shane also linked to my blog post, which was nice. He did not quote the one line I really had hoped he would use, where I called Goodwin and Dallek silly for their belief that the loss of hand-written letters doomed future historians to write superficial histories. I so wanted to be quoted in The Paper of Record calling Dolores Kearnes Goodwin "silly." My academic friends on Facebook took exception to the "Mr. Cebula" part, sharing one of my favorite quotes from the Austin Powers films.

And so ends my 15 minutes of near-fame. It has been a good week, media-wise, with a flattering puff-piece in the local paper on Sunday and quoted in the New York Times on Thursday. I believe I will enjoy a double bourbon just now.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Two Upcoming American Indian Events at Gonzaga

My friend Laurie Arnold is really tearing things up at Gonzaga, where she is Director of Native American Studies. She has organized two upcoming events that look terrific:

"Clyfford Still and the Nespelem Art Colony"
March 23rd, 5:30 p.m., Jundt Museum Room 110
Micheal Holloman
Please join Native American Studies in welcoming Michael Holloman (Colville), Associate Professor of Art History at Washington State University, for a lecture and discussion about Clyfford Still and

the Nespelem Art Colony. Clyfford Still was a former Fine Arts faculty member at Washington State College (University) in the mid to late 1930’s. He was also instrumental in the development of and teaching at the Nespelem Art Colony (1937-41) located on the Colville Indian Reservation. For most Still is recognized as one of the titans of the post WWII NYC abstract expressionist movement joined by other painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. This talk, based on Holloman's new research project, uses dozens of drawings and paintings only recently made accessible at the Clyfford Still Museum to illustrate the impact the Nespelem Art Colony had on Still and other working artists who interacted for a brief time at the Colony. This event is free and open to the entire campus community, as well as to the public.

"Mythbusting! Native American History and Contemporary Issues"
April 8th, 5:30 p.m., Wolff Auditorium
Dr. Laurie Arnold
Laurie Arnold (Colville), Director of Native American Studies and Assistant Professor of History, will give the 2015 History Department Art and Craft of History Lecture. This talk will focus on Columbia Plateau tribes' experiences with new immigrants to the Plateau in the 1800s and will discuss cultural continuities present in ancestral traditions still practiced today. This event is free and open to the entire campus community, as well as to the public.