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Archivists Continue Rush To Save Surviving Photos, Records From Aberdeen Museum

Crews have been working inside a warehouse near the Olympia airport every day since a June 9 fire destroyed the Aberdeen Museum of History.

The fire was inside the Aberdeen Armory building, finished in 1921 and gifted to the city in 1981. It housed the museum and other organizations. Much was lost, including exhibits on the upper floors.

But many photos and paper records were stored in the basement. They were spared the flames, but soaked in four feet of water that pooled as firefighters turned their hoses on the building.

“It’s been a little crazy because we’ve been playing beat the clock,” said State Archivist Steve Excell.

The race is against mold, which can easily destroy historic photos, slides and negatives beyond repair.

“Each item has to be cleaned, washed, dried out and then properly identified and put away,” he said. “We have a full crew. They worked over the weekend, including Father’s Day. It’s not going to be over until it’s over, and we’re not quitting until it’s done.”

Among the items workers have been trying to save: A photo portrait of Samuel Benn, who promoted the development of the city of Aberdeen in the late 19th century; a personally-signed letter from Charles Lindbergh; a photo Lindbergh dropped over Grays Harbor from the Spirit of St. Louis; a three-foot long panorama of WWI veterans from Grays Harbor lined up in uniform.

The State Archives has posted photos of the recovery effort online.

“We have a lot of drying racks out at our warehouse,” Excell said, “and you randomly walk by and pick something up and just go ‘Oh my goodness,’ because here’s an old-growth logging operation with donkey engines, and here’s this tree that’s so big around 30 loggers can’t get their arms around it. All sorts of incredible history from the Grays Harbor area.”

Excell says employees from the Washington State Archives, along with librarians and volunteers who have at least a little experience handling historic materials, are all putting in time to rescue the materials.

These materials – the photos, slides, documents, film negatives, motion picture reels, and more – tell a story that goes deeper than big historic occasions or headline news. They tell the story of everyday life, as it was lived by people whose relatives could still be nearby.

“There are wedding pictures, there are baby christening pictures, and these are the stories of people’s lives, of people who endured hardships to build a community,” he said. “We know the firefighters are going to take care of the physical structure. We know the police officers are going to take care of the public safety, but who’s going to take care of the history? So that’s where we come in.”

Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.