Oregon’s Treasures: Images and film tell story of 170 years

Special Reports

Stored artifacts tell the story of Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — People may be surprised at the items they can find inside the Oregon Historical Society vault.

Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk, along with the rest of his staff, are the keepers of our beautiful state’s past, preserved with care in this giant warehouse.

Each of the items inside the vault has it’s own part in that history. A dollhouse, for example, depicts a famous Portland residence.

“It’s an exact recreation of the house that viewers might recognize from the southeast corner of the Ross Island Bridge,” explained Oregon Historical Society Director Kerry Tymchuk.

That house was owned by a lumber baron by the name of Johan Poulsen. He and a fellow lumber baron built 2 identical houses across the street from each other.

One was demolished but the other survives to this day.

“This is an exact recreation of that home,” said Tymchuk.

Thousands upon thousands of items inside the Oregon Historical Society’s vault that are cataloged as quirky, weird or historically interesting each tell a fascinating story.

One of those items: a seemingly-normal dollhouse.

“This is one of my favorite pieces,” said Kerry Tymchuk. “Viewers will remember Portland used to be a 2 newspaper town. There was the morning Oregonian and the evening or afternoon Oregon Journal.

“And when the Oregon Journal went out of business — they gave us their morgue.”

This file cabinet holds all the murders this paper covered. In each envelope — a different case.

“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them,” said Tymchuk.

Just around the corner from that cabinet, you can see another group of file cabinets — filled with index cards labeled KOIN 6.

“We are so grateful to KOIN for donating this to us because it’s a day to day inventory of what happened in Oregon history on that day.”

Each index card describes old KOIN News film and videotape, all carefully preserved and cataloged.

“You go through here and like I said, it’s history by the day,” said Tymchuk. “You get up here and you’ll find the big primary between Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in Oregon in May of ’68 — and here’s a story about a Vietnam War protest.”

A card file with archived information at the Oregon Historical Society, November 2019 (KOIN)

“So what the news stations did if they were reasonable organizations like KOIN, you would create a card index system based on subject and year,” said Matt Cowan.

Cowan oversees and cares for the vaults massive film collection, including the film from KOIN.

“For example, Robert Kennedy — before he was down in California where he was eventually assassinated — his last stop was here in Oregon,” he said. “So basically, it’s not the last known footage of Kennedy but kind of the last footage of Kennedy campaigning before he was killed.”

Old home movies are also a part of the collection.

“We have home movies of Celilo Falls disappearing that somebody just happened to go out with their 8 mm camera and just record — it’s amazing,” said Cowan.

The rarest images in the collection are kept in a separate room. Early film was made with nitrate, which is highly flammable, explosive and fragile.

Stored news film canisters at the Oregon Historical Society (KOIN)

“We have basically a concrete pillbox that it exists in, so if there ever were a fire that existed in this vault, the idea is it would be contained in this vault,” said Cowan. “It’s all before 1940, going back to as early as maybe 1905, 1906. We have Pendleton Roundup footage starting in 1911, 1912, 1913 — and it’s all kept extra cold and extra dry so the vaults themselves are the coldest storage we have here.”

There’s the silent film about Bobbie the Wonder Dog, who returned home to Silverton, Oregon after crossing the country on a 6-month, 2,500-mile journey. However, only half of the film has survived.

“The second reel was too damaged, so these are nitrate prints and the nitrate deterioration on that second reel was so much that the image itself had just worn away,” said Cowan.

The vault handles requests from around the world from people looking for historical footage — and some requests can be a bit odd.

“I just sent footage to a documentary company in Vienna in Austria that’s doing a documentary about bread and they found footage we have,” said Cowan. “Somebody here named Karl Simon who made an amazing kind of experimental video in the 70s about his relationship with a loaf of Wonderbread.”

A screen grab from a documentary about bread, from the archives of the Oregon Historical Society

Cowan also worked with Netflix producers, providing film footage for their documentary on the old Portland Maveric’s baseball team. As the project wrapped up, he made a suggestion.

“I was just, like, ‘Hey, if you’re looking for a future project, you should check out the Rajneesh Puram because we have all this tape that’s never been digitized and it would be a great project,” he said. “From there, I think, I just planted the seed and they came back to get the ball rolling.”

The film series “Wild Wild Country” became a big hit, documenting a controversial time in Oregon history: The rise and fall of Rajneesh Puram.

It’s not just moving images that are preserved here. The vault is home to thousands of still photographs including rare, hand-painted glass slides.

“We have here over 10,000 hand-colored glass slides,” Cowan said. “These would have been what, you know, starting in the 1850s, they had what were called Magic Lantern Slides.”

Each slide has a black-and-white emulsion on them and then hand-colored, either manually or with a stencil. Each glass slide is a piece of art documenting the people and places of Oregon, images and film all part of the Oregon History Center’s vault.

The Oregon Historical Society will help sponsor glass lantern slide shows titled “A History of the Mazamas and Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest.” One show will be held in January in Lake Oswego while a second presentation will take place in February in Southeast Portland.

Tymchuk said the Oregon Historical Society adds to the collection every day.

“Not a day goes by when we don’t get a phone call, letter, somebody wanting to offer us something forever to keep in trust with us for the Oregonians, the Oregon people.”

A hand-painted glass artwork at the Oregon Historical Society, November 2019 (KOIN)

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