Five Lessons from a Two-Month Tour of Washington State

In mid-June, from the northern tip of Lopez Island, my family and I drove our ProjectWA-branded RV onto a Washington State Ferry to begin a two-month exploration of the Evergreen State. After reflecting on our 2000-mile adventure, I would like to share a few of the lessons we took away from the experience.

1. We can live on less. Much less.

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There’s nothing like living for two months with three other humans in a 24-foot motorhome to remind you of how little we really need to survive. With no room for excess, everything was a ration: food, water, power, clothes and personal space. In some ways, all these constraints made daily life easier. With only the color of the day’s ProjectWA t-shirt to decide on, getting dressed was pretty straightforward. Bathing not so much. I regularly wondered by what order of magnitude my water consumption fell by being limited to 3-minute showers in state parks.

As we crisscrossed the state, we learned about the constraints under which people before us lived – long before the invention of the RV. When pioneers arrived via the Oregon Trail, everything they owned was packed into a four-foot-by-nine-foot covered wagon. Before American and European settlers showed up in the Pacific Northwest, native tribes maintained a much smaller footprint. Even the large plank houses of the Makah were a lot smaller than today’s average American home.

I’m not about to compare our RV lifestyle to that of the original peoples or American pioneers. After all, our motorhome was equipped with a microwave oven. No matter how one does it, I encourage everybody to force themselves to live on less for an extended period. The world would be a different place if everybody had to deposit 25 cents after every minute in the shower.

2. Washington state’s water has changed the world.

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One look at Washington state on the map shows that water defines our existence – from the mouth to the Columbia to the upper reaches of Lake Roosevelt. This summer we learned how water dramatically changed the way of life for not only the inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest, but also the world. The Missoula Floods of the last Ice Age gave us the unique landscape we know today. David Thompson’s 12-day, 500-mile canoe trip down the Columbia River in 1811 helped create a global economy by completing a trade route across North America to Asia and Europe and back.

The hundreds of dams placed along our rivers over the past century transformed agriculture in the state and created a source of electricity that helped produce the first atomic bomb at Hanford. Those same dams wiped hundreds of small towns off the map and eliminated salmon runs that had been in place for millennia. Today, some of those dams – like the Elwha River Dam – are being removed, leading to even more dramatic changes to the ecosystems surrounding them. Some of the most significant events in world history can be linked to the water that flows through Washington state.

3. Washington is incredibly diverse.

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By many measures, Washington state has to be one of the most diverse states in the U.S. During our summer tour, we saw almost every type of land formation, body of water and climate imaginable. We started and ended our trip on a ferry navigating through the many islands dotting the Salish Sea. We drove through mountain passes in the north, south, east and west – usually with snow-capped peaks towering above us. We camped on lake shores, river banks and ocean beaches. We hiked through the arid hills of the Palouse, the dry desert of central Washington and the wet trails of the Olympic Rainforest. The chore of breaking camp was always exciting because we knew we were about to travel through an area that was radically different from the one in which we’d been staying.

Though statistically not the most ethnically diverse state in the union, Washington is made up of people from every background – from the Volga Germans of Ritzville to the Makah of Neah Bay. With our road trip falling during the major parties’ election year conventions, we passed by countless yard signs reminding us of the political extremes that exist in Washington state. If you want a sense of just how diverse this country is – on every level – I strongly encourage you to travel from one side of Washington to the other.

4. This land doesn’t belong to us.

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“ProjectWA” almost seemed like a misnomer by the end of the summer. Most of what we experienced during our trip reminded us that the vast majority of this region’s heritage dates back long before 1889, when Washington became the 42nd state. U.S. citizens are newcomers here, and we have a lot to learn from the people who occupied this land for thousands of years before David Thompson took his canoe down the Columbia River. For instance, before the creation of Lake Roosevelt that flooded the Kettle Falls, Native Americans figured out how to fish sustainably – allowing large numbers of salmon to spawn upriver before the first fish was plucked from the falls every year. The Makah practiced sustainable whaling for 1500 years, using every part of a whale for subsistence, before unsustainable whaling by other cultures placed whales on the endangered species list.

Yes, there is so much to learn and be proud of from the past 200 years. But no examination of Washington state is complete without an understanding of who inhabited this region before its “discovery” just a few hundred years ago. When you’re in Northeastern Washington, look up Joe Barreca, president of the The Heritage Network. And the next time you’re on the Olympic Peninsula, pay a visit to Kirk Wachendorf at the Makah Museum in Neah Bay. What you’ll learn from them is that this land doesn’t belong to us as much as we belong to the land.

5. We should invest in a heritage economy.

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Washington state’s secondary highways are the Main Streets of so many small towns, and it seems like our ProjectWA RV drove through most of them this summer. Unless one stops and looks around, it’s easy to put all of these communities into the same category: towns that peaked sometime in the 20th century and have been in decline since losing a major industry – usually one based on a natural resource such as timber, mining, farming or fishing.

When we did stop to investigate, Team ProjectWA quickly discovered a gold mine just below the surface of these small communities: their unique heritage. Whether it’s the baptismal font installed without a drain, the insider trading that established a county, or the haunted hospital on the hill, the stories of these towns run deep. With a little creativity, like what Colfax has done with its ghost hunts, a new heritage-based economy can emerge to supplement or replace the industries that allowed these communities to thrive in years past.

Creating a heritage economy isn’t about building more museums. It requires engaging people in the community’s unique history in a way that makes them want to stick around and explore more. Doing so is of course easier said than done. Community leaders must find a new way of doing things and challenge old assumptions. In Colfax, Val Gregory turned her town’s greatest weakness, abandoned buildings, into a strength: revenue-generating ghost tours.

Given its presence in our daily lives, technology should play a role in a heritage economy. What a group of Lopez Island middle schoolers and I did with Washington State Insider is just one use of technology to showcase history and drive exploration. Spokane Historical, created by EWU students, is a great mobile app and website that tells the stories of Spokane and Eastern Washington. Lake Chelan is placing interactive kiosks around the state to grab travelers’ attention. And, we all saw how Pokémon Go got people exploring all kinds of places this summer.  Regardless of how it’s done, the key to maximizing the return on a community’s historical assets is to make its heritage relevant to a new generation.

Our ProjectWA summer will not be soon forgotten. After traveling more than 2000 miles around this state, my family received much more than a history lesson. We became deeply connected to our home and inspired to make “old” things new again. The “Evergreen State” moniker has taken on an entirely new meaning.

Team ProjectWA

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ProjectWA Students Become the Teachers

Yes, ProjectWA is about connecting history and place. For five Lopez Island Middle School students, their teacher, and me, it’s been about so much more. Fundamentally, ProjectWA has been about connecting people. Anna, Ava, Mallory, Sonnette and Shayna have made many connections this semester: with historical figures, with preservation advocates, and with each other. Today, they connected with the 4th Grade Lopez Elementary Social Studies class.

As their final ProjectWA assignment, our students were to write a blog post on one of this year’s Most Endangered Historic Properties. They learned quite a bit in the process: different approaches to research, how to interview an expert, and how to write a compelling call-to-action. The final articles are great. Mr. Rovente and I wanted the kids to go a step further – by turning those written works into presentations.  Lori Swanson, the Lopez Island Elementary social studies teacher, agreed to provide the audience for those presentations: twenty fourth-graders, whose final topic of the year is Washington State History.

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It was gratifying to watch the ProjectWA students become the teachers. The fourth graders were engaged throughout, and their questions for the middle schoolers were great. After every presentation, the younger kids got a chance to connect history and place the old-fashion way – with stickers and laminated maps of Washington State. Apps are cool, but stickers make everything more fun.

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With the student presentations complete, this semester’s ProjectWA class has come to an end. Now it’s time for me to go to school. For the next two months, my family and I will travel all around Washington State, checking out as many of the students’ app locations as possible. We’re also in search of other historic places, so we’re inviting people to send us suggested locations for us to research and then incorporate into the Washington State Insider app.

I’m incredibly proud of what Anna, Ava, Mallory, Shayna and Sonnette accomplished this semester. I’d like to thank them – and their awesome teacher, Anthony Rovente, for taking on something that had never been done before. We all learned a ton. I know there’s a lot more to learn.

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Stone Houses

By Sonnette R., Lopez Island Middle School Student

During the Great Depression, Clint Dobson, a businessman in LaCrosse, Washington, built several houses out of basalt stone because he didn’t have enough money for other materials. The stone houses were built between 1934 and 1936 from rocks out of the fields in Lacrosse. These buildings are very unique for this time period, and they attract many tourists and photographers.

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The basalt stones in the Lacrosse fields were created by the repeated flooding from Lake Missoula over thousands of years. This shaped the area of Lacrosse, including nearby Palouse Falls.

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According to Lacrosse local, Peggy Bryan, “the unique geological events of the Missoula floods combined with the unique construction of these depression-era basalt stone structures provide an important and historically significant preservation opportunity that is well worth pursuing.” Protecting this historical monument would provide “a great educational opportunity.”

The LaCrosse community’s goal is to have a Missoula Floods/Ice Age museum in the old gas station that was made out of stone. According to Bryan, this would “add value to our community, both economically and culturally.”

LaCrosse Stone Station

LaCrosse Community Pride is working with the WSU School of Design and Construction’s Rural Communities Design Initiative on this project. Community input was facilitated and conceptual designs have been developed for the incorporation of a visitor center in the museum. There are five other rock structures on the property that could provide many opportunities, including artist retreats, a farming museum, local gift shops, tasting rooms, and bed and breakfasts, among others.

Originally, the stone houses were used as rental units by local farmhands, workers, and railroad crews. Clint Dobson operated the service station and repair shop for many years until Hank Pile took over, operating the station and houses until the 1960s.

Today two houses, three cabins, and the service station are still standing. The buildings are important because they bring visitors to the area. Lacrosse Community Pride is focused on preventing these structures from being torn down.

To learn more about the LaCrosse Stone Houses, find them in the Washington State Insider app (available mid-June 2016). When you visit, you’ll earn points that will get you a discount at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

 

“Maybe not a gas station… but always a museum.”

Last week I paid a visit to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma to give Erich Ebel a preview of the Washington State Insider app, which is set to launch by mid-June. Erich is the Marketing and Communications Director for the Washington State Historical Society, who manages the History Museum. They have agreed to give discounted admission to Washington State Insider app users who have collected points by visiting historic places around the state.

Erich had just returned from a whirlwind trip around the state, passing through many of the same places that my family and I plan to visit during our ProjectWA summer tour. After visiting dozens of small towns across Western and Eastern Washington, Erich was struck by the one thing they all had in common. “Every town, no matter how small, has a museum,” he said. “Maybe not a gas station or a stoplight, but always a museum.”

WA State History Museum

Erich is absolutely right about this. My home, Lopez Island, with a population of only 2,400, has no stoplights or sidewalks. But it has a great museum. This phenomenon makes a statement about the priorities of smaller communities; and it is why, according to Erich, “people are gravitating toward heritage tourism.”

Museums of all sizes are critical to reminding us of our history. If our cultural heritage is to be preserved, though, we need more than museums to curb the advances of shorter-term commercial interests that can be antithetical to historic preservation. In Woodinville, the City Council wants to tear down the town’s original schoolhouse to make room for a parking garage. In Kent, the last barn standing – representing the area’s agricultural roots – will likely be torn down if the City Council’s current plan to widen the Green River is implemented. During my trip last week I visited both the Woodinville Schoolhouse and the Dvorak Barn in Kent. Losing them would be a massive loss for each community.

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Left: Rick Chatterton, Board President, Woodinville Heritage Society | Right: Nancy and Chuck Simpson, long-time Kent residents

The groups fighting for the protection of these endangered properties are not necessarily advocating for keeping these old buildings in their original state. They recognize that economies, industries and demographics change. Instead of creating relics that have no apparent use in today’s communities, they would like to see these buildings preserved and used as community gathering places of some kind. History and modern life don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

It is this integration of yesterday and today that is driving the development of the Washington State Insider app. 80% of Americans walk around with smartphones today. Let’s find a way to capitalize on that trend in a way that helps raise awareness of and preserves our cultural heritage.

Over the next week, students from Lopez Island Middle School will be posting stories about the Most Endangered Properties of Washington State that they want to see preserved. Those places, along with nearly 70 other locations around the state, will also be found in the Washington State Insider app, available for iPhones and Android devices.

From George Vancouver to Kurt Cobain

We’re a little more than one month into Project WA. I’m pretty sure I’ve learned more about Washington State history in the past four weeks than I learned in the previous four decades. My fellow students, Anna, Ava, Mallory, Shayna and Sonnette; and our teacher, Mr. Rovente, have uncovered some pretty interesting stories along the way – from George Vancouver’s long-lost anchor to life and death of Kurt Cobain.

A big challenge for any student of history is finding a deeper meaning behind people, places and events. To avoid simply generating random trivia, Mr. Rovente and I constantly challenge the kids to ask themselves: Why is this significant? As we told the group on the first day of class, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. To that end, ProjectWA is more a search of Why than it is the search for Who, What, Where and When.

I think our students are beginning to appreciate that they’ll learn a lot more than Northwest History in this class. To start the semester, we simply required them to turn in short reports for each region of Washington State. Last week, much to the students’ chagrin, we added weekly presentations to that. Now they’re learning the art of storytelling and public speaking.

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To give the kids a sense of accomplishment along the way, we’re having them place pins on the big Washington State map every time they finish a region. So far, we’ve covered The Islands, Peninsula and Coast, and Seattle regions. The upper left quadrant of the map is looking pretty good. Next up: The North Cascades.

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History by Students, for Students

ProjectWA is a quest to build interest in Washington State history by crowdsourcing historical information from across the state to live in a smartphone app. In 2016, students from Lopez Island School are researching and documenting the people, places and events they view as the most interesting in Washington State history. The students are publishing articles to this website and creating a companion mobile app called Washington State Insider, which is free for anybody to download. The app, built and donated to this program by 468 Communications, has a game component that can be used for fundraising. Users of the app can collect points every time they physically visit a place that’s listed in the app. For every point collected, 468 Communications will donate $1 to the purchase of new Washington State History textbooks for Lopez Island School District.

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