A few weeks ago I posted a silly photograph on my social media. In it, I wore a dusty old work shirt, a dirty ball cap, a head lamp, and a neck gator pulled up over my nose in a make-shift mask. I captioned it, “miner or museum docent?” While the photograph served to make light of a (long) day at work here at the Stanley museum, I felt like an explorer as I wandered around our upstairs artifact storage. Though the work isn’t entirely enjoyable, as there’s little light, lots of spiders, a few bats (one noisy one in particular earned himself a name), and other pests common to artifact storage, I was continually surprised by how the history seemed to come alive as I interacted with the objects.
I read the “Bible” of Stanley history, Stanley-Sawtooth Country, before I came to work at the museum. While the book itself is a gem simply for the way Esther Yarber and Edna McGown told stories about the “oldtimers” here in “God’s own country,” reading about the history of Stanley and holding the tools that helped to establish it are two very different experiences. I read about different mining operations in the area, but I felt a connection to the history as my associate and I placed rock hammers, hobo lanterns, and a flimsy helmet into our new mining case. I skimmed through the story of Charley Langer, but I felt choked up when I read the letter from the Regional Forester who remarked that Langer’s “…sacrifice is enshrined indelibly in our hearts, to lead us on to better things, to inspire us to greater accomplishment…” The history is still the same, but interacting with the physical remnants of history has forged a personal connection to the past for me.
My connection to history hasn’t been limited to objects inside the museum, either. A trip up the Yankee Fork and a walk past the old Franklin cabin hammers home our museum’s theme of “rugged places, rugged people.” Looking into dilapidated buildings and reading gravestones reminds me of the fortitude necessary to survive up here in the early days of Stanley. I doubt I could have endured long, bitter winters inside a drafty cabin, or losing my family to an outbreak of disease. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed trekking to an outhouse in -40 weather or having to kickstart my washing machine because the town didn’t have electricity. Spending time around artifacts and homesteads has given me a healthy respect for the brave souls who determined to make a life in this hard country.
That, I believe, is why little museums like ours exist. While some people may walk through our battered screen door and only see an odd collection of old housewares, mining tools, fur traps, and forest service equipment, a closer look will reveal the story of the people who made this rugged country their home. Because of this, I believe it is vital to maintain these anchor points of history- we need a physical manifestation of the story we tell to make it relevant. Visitors to the museum can imagine themselves cooking on the woodstove, storing groceries in the ice house, and entertaining friends in the living room. For those who dig a little deeper and exercise their imaginations, artifacts and historic structures can take on a life of their own. In this way, our museum is not simply a building where we house old things, or even an educational experience, but instead becomes a way for people to better understand themselves and their world by creating connections to the past.
Aimee Rollins, Docent