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Bringing history to life
Union County Museum helps us remember the old days, good and bad
UNION — Both how history is written and how museums present our past is sometimes determined by how we like to remember ourselves.
But not all of our past is pretty.
As hosts at the Union County Museum can affirm, many of those coming to see the exhibits, relics, and photos of Union County’s past want to see glimpses of their own pioneer families as they were. The museum is rich with displays, archives, genealogy, yearbooks, and general insights into our ancestors, but occasionally visitors see something they may not want to see.
Included in that past is the strength of the local klaverns of the Ku Klux Klan, and the well-documented injustices toward the Chinese and Americans Indians.
Standing at the case containing relics of the Chinese past in the area, curator Blanche Kohler says, “We didn’t treat the Chinese well.” On the case is an article in a folder visitors may read about the 1887 massacre of 34 Chinese miners 40 miles northeast of Enterprise. In La Grande in 1893, vigilantes burned what was known as Chinatown, an area where the library and dental school are now located, and the Chinese were forcibly expelled.
According to Lee C. Johnson in “A Brief History of Union County, Oregon,” “Similar violence was shown to the Chinese in the Cove region, but those around Union were not molested.”
Of yokes and songbooks
The Union County Museum display includes a yoke worn across the shoulders of a Chinese laborer who would have hauled stones for 10 cents a rod for building stone fences. According to Kohler, the yoke was found buried in manure in a shed near the Union railroad junction on the Lowell Hutchinson Land and was donated to the museum by Niola and Vance Pumphrey in 1999.
The case also contains the songbook owned by the Chinese man who operated the laundry that extended over Catherine Creek in Union. “The Chinese people were a part of our communities,” Kohler says, “and not only as laborers. The early settlers highly regarded the Chinese for their use of medicines.” The museum display includes some items used by local Chinese herbalists.
Atop the display case is a jacket that was worn by Hop Lee, a Chinese laborer in the late 1800s, possibly on the railroads, in the Summerville area. Hop Lee proudly wore his military badge, which visitors to the museum can see still on his jacket. The items came from the Summerville McKenzie estate.
Although they came a little later, equally notorious to the vigilantes who terrorized the Chinese were the region’s active Klansmen.
The museum has a small display of Ku Klux Klan material, including a hooded robe from a local Klansman from the early part of the 1900s as well as a photo of a the Klan marching down Elgin’s main street circa 1919. Also on display is a document from the “La Grande Klan Number 14 Realm of Oregon” with all of the terminology used by the members, which numbered more than 300 members.
Also available to see is a copy of an application to join the Klan, asking such questions as, “Do you believe in the principles of PURE Americanism? Do you believe in White Supremacy?”
The museum sells copies of “Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s” by David Horowitz, an annotated collection of the minutes of the “thriving Ku Klux Klan in La Grande, Oregon, between 1922 and 1924.”
Kohler says she has been asked why the museum includes the past some people would like to forget, and she says she always tells them, “This was a part of our history.”
The museum has a display of wares and arts of American Indians as well, with enlarged photographs of people of the Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla.
Like the Chinese immigrants and the Jews, Catholics and blacks who were targets of the Klan, the tribes would suffer from the bigotry of some of the white settlers and their descendants and be displaced from regions they had inhabited long before any of the “PURE Americans” had arrived.
The past, good and bad, can’t be eradicated, and the Union County Museum keeps it alive.
Located at 333 S. Main in Union, the museum is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.