Stuffed in the attic

Winter's work at the Hood River County Museum

There was the 1840s-era beaver top hat. Then there was the pre-electricity slide projector, complete with oil lamp. And also there was the letter -- a brittle but eloquently written correspondence from a sister to her long-lost brother, dated 1792.

But the coup de grace was the purple dress.

"When we found that up in storage . . . " Connie Nice's voice trails off as she pulls the dress carefully from its storage box at the Hood River County Historical Museum, where she is museum coordinator.

"My, that is so gorgeous," says musuem volunteer Florence Neal as board chair Georgia Linn helps to arrange it on a hanger. The ladies stand around gazing at the dress, their chatter silenced for a moment. The dress is made from thick purple velvet, which looks practically brand new. Its fitted jacket top buttons down the front to a tiny waist, then blooms out in a full skirt. Besides the style, only its disintegrating cream-colored lace accents allude to the vintage of the dress.

Connie pulls a type-written note out of the dress box. "Worn by Roberta Kendall Fox at White House reception when her father was member of President Jackson's cabinet as Postmaster General," the note reads. Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving two terms beginning in 1828.

The purple dress is part of what Connie calls the "winter of treasures." She and about 10 volunteers have spent the museum's off-season -- it closed Oct. 31 and will re-open March 23 -- reorganizing and inventorying every item under its roof.

The process is the final step in a museum renovation that began 10 years ago with fundraising to add on to the building, located on Port Marina Drive. Along with adding more exhibit space, one of the main purposes for the addition was to create much-needed archive storage. And, thanks to grants from the Hood River Lions Club and the Oregon Heritage Commission, the new storage space has been outfitted with electronic, moveable storage shelves that rise from the floor to the 12-foot ceiling.

The new, modern archive space has been a long time coming for the museum's collection, which has been growing since a group of settlers in 1907 organized the Hood River Pioneer Association, the predecessor of the Hood River County Historical Society. For years the collection floated from storage area to storage area. For a time around 1950, it was housed in a county building that had once been the post office. Later, the collection was exhibited in a basement room at the courthouse.

When the museum opened in 1978, unexhibited artifacts were stored in the building's attic, which filled quickly as the collection continued to grow.

Since Pioneer Association and Historical Society members began collecting artifacts in the early 1900s, they were recorded in a database that evolved from hand-written records to a typewritten catalog started in 1949 to a computerized inventory begun in the 1990s. Despite the challenge of maintaining accurate records, the museum volunteers have done a remarkably good job of it over the years.

"The system was really good," says Patricia Cornett, who has been involved with the museum for 13 years. "But pretty soon we had so much stuff it just overwhelmed the system."

When the new shelving was installed, Connie and museum board members and volunteers decided it was time to do a major inventory.

"We decided, while we've got our hands on every item as we're moving it to the new storage area, why don't we do it right?" Connie says. So the day after the museum closed, she and her volunteers went to work. Along with hauling artifacts from the attic, they emptied the display cases and spread everything around the museum so they could go through each and every item. Volunteer Nancy Facteau learned how to work a digital camera and began photographing each item, which is then checked against the museum database.

According to Connie, about 70 percent of the artifacts match up with the correct information already in the database. For the rest, she and the others search for any information they can find.

"Sometimes we search for a week and don't find anything," Connie says. Such was the case with the purple dress; aside from the note attached to it, there was no other information on who donated it or when -- much less who the lucky lady was who wore it to the White House nearly 200 years ago. For the dress and other such artifacts, Connie is doing what she calls an ongoing "hand search."

"It could be that it had a tag (with more information) on it that fell off during an exhibit," she says. So she continues to search in hopes that information will turn up that had simply been misplaced.

The digital photographs that go with each item will be a huge help for Connie and her volunteer staff -- and will help preserve artifacts.

"Now, when we search for something on the computer, we can see what we're looking for without having to actually handle the artifact," she says. "Each time an artifact is handled, you risk doing damage to it."

Connie and the volunteers work every Tuesday and Thursday morning at the museum. Although the task initially seemed daunting, the volunteers are now loathe to miss a day for fear of missing out on the latest find.

Florence Neal missed a day during the holidays when bad weather kept her home.

"That's the day we found the letter," says Dottie Gilbertson.

"Oh, darn," Florence says, wrinkling her forehead in disappointment. "I wish I hadn't missed that."

Nearly every day they find something unusual.

"We get a lot of `Can you name this?' around here," Nancy says.

Connie and the volunteers are already ahead of where they hoped to be. "We've got a lot of very faithful, loyal volunteers," Connie says. "There's no way we could have done this without them."

But there's no way the museum volunteers would have let it happen without them.

"There are treasures here," Patricia says. "After 13 years, I'm still finding things I didn't know were here."

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