A Conversation with Pierce County’s History Detectives

Since the beginning of September, Katie Chase and Susan Johnson, two architectural historians at Artifacts Consulting in Tacoma, have driven to nearly every pocket of rural Pierce County — former mining settlements, ghost towns, ruins of logging mills, and even an abandoned slaughterhouse — to document historic sites and buildings. Their work is a milestone survey that, when completed next spring, will give local historians, county councilmembers, urban planners, developers, and even regular residents a better understanding of the region’s history and historically significant buildings.

“We meet a lot of history geeks out there,” says Johnson. “People are very interested. They see us with the clipboard and camera and stop to ask what we are doing. They get excited. It’s nice to work on a project people are excited about.”

Earlier this year, the Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission assigned the project to Artifacts. The results will be available online via the Pierce County Library System next year. More than simply a list of old buildings, Chase and Johnson are creating a Pierce County biography of sorts. In the interim, they are providing updates on the project through an e-newsletter (if you would like to subscribe, send an e-mail to Christy Johnson at cjohnson@artifacts-inc.com ).

Yesterday’s edition of the Tacoma Daily Index included an in-depth feature on their work in the field. In today’s edition, we catch up with them for a brief interview.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: You have been going out into Pierce County to do field work for the survey since Sept. 1. What are some interesting stories, homes, buildings, or people you have come across?

SUSAN JOHNSON: I really liked the mining towns: Wilkeson, Carbonado, and Burnett. These towns have miners’ cottages of all different types. Wilkeson has a great downtown with stone buildings that were built from Wilkeson stones.

KATIE CHASE: The school in Wilkeson was terrific. Completely unexpected and up in the mountains. It is this gorgeous old building made of sandstone. This idea of a company town where you can walk down a street and — even though it has changed over time — you can still see the housing that was built at the time. Maybe there is new siding or a couple new windows, but you are able to feel, ‘OK, this is what this town was like.’ You still have that idea. Whereas some other areas you have in-fill or things are completely gone. I really enjoyed that aspect of Wilkeson.

JOHNSON: I loved the old Old Cannery in Sumner. It’s a great re-use of a building: long, straight, and very open inside, which is great for a furniture warehouse. You could see the roof structure. One of the ‘mystery photos’ from our newsletter shows the shadows of cans that were on the floor and left there when the building was vacant for a period. The concrete floor shows the imprint of cans. I don’t know if they were canning fruit or vegetable produce, but the Puyallup Valley is known for farming. That had been the use of this building most of the century. Unfortunately, most of the canneries are gone.

CHASE: It’s great because it’s an old building, you can see that it’s been around for awhile especially if you go inside, but it’s being used for a modern purpose. I loved that. Any other company could tear it down and build something new if they wanted a warehouse or a big box store. But it’s being used as a furniture warehouse. It shows that old buildings like that can be re-used. And the owners loved their building.

INDEX: What else have you discovered?

CHASE: We did see one — and we probably shouldn’t say where it was because the owner was very private about it — but we were driving around doing some reconnaissance work, and Susan spotted an old log house. It was an amazing find because it was really tucked back there behind some really old and mature trees that were probably planted when the house was built. Across the road was a barn from the 1940s. I thought it was a great juxtaposition of a 1940s barn with an old log cabin. You never see those. And the cabin was still being used as a house. It was fantastic. Also, we had this great opportunity to survey by boat around the Key Peninsula, Fox Island, and Anderson Island. A wonderful volunteer took time out of his day to take us around on his boat. It was great because we had been trying to see stuff on the peninsula by road but people have long, private driveways that we don’t want to go down, there are so many trees, and things are built to the water.

JOHNSON: It’s exciting to find remnants of history in architecture where there is some story in the county, such as labor history or ethnic settlements. In the case of Burnett, you can still tell it was a mining town. The houses still look like miners’ cottages. There was Upper Burnett — which was referred to as “Scab Town” for the workers who were breaking some of the strikes — and Lower Burnett — where the coal mining activity was located. Most of the mining activity closed down by the late 1920s. But earlier in that decade, the miners in Carbonado and Wilkeson tried to form labor unions and get higher wages. They were company towns so they were kicked out of company housing for being on strike. A bunch of them settled in South Prairie on what is now called Union Hill. They were originally housed in tents on the local landowner’s property who let them be there. Those tents evolved into houses, and there are still houses that look like miners’ cottages up on Union Hill. That’s what I mean by the inter-relationships between towns. You could say this was a mining town, but South Prairie wasn’t. Then why are there miners cottages there? Because that’s where the miners ended up.

INDEX: What are your backgrounds in historic preservation and architectural history?

JOHNSON: When I was in college, I started volunteering at, and later interned for, an historic farm in Michigan that uses draft animals. I went on to work at another historic farm before I left for the Peace Corps. So I was introduced to heritage tourism and historic preservation that way. I just didn’t know you could make a career of it. I did my time as a docent in costume interpreting the 1880s and working in barns and appreciating barns. Years later, I learned there was a field called architectural history. I went to Graduate School at the University of Oregon. I was thinking I would be a barn preservationist and work in small towns that were sort of suffering and trying to reinvigorate their economies through heritage tourism. But then I fell in love with city architecture, too. I have a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Oregon. I finished officially in 2008, but I began working before my thesis was done. So I took a year to finish my final project. I went to work for Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department researching Golden, an old gold mining settlement. I came to Artifacts in 2008 to do a statewide theatre survey.

CHASE: I majored in history and always loved buildings and houses. My dad is an appraiser so I grew up kind of looking through blueprints and having a love for history. I didn’t really know I could combine the two until I went to college. I had worked primarily in archival work. I spent a couple internships with different archival institutions. Whenever you major in history, everyone says, ‘Oh, so you want to teach.’ I didn’t want to teach — at least not right away. I started looking at jobs before I was ready to apply. Everything I was interested in was related to architectural history. I realized I needed a Masters Degree. I graduated from college in 2007 and went to graduate school at the University of Oregon. I just finished in June. So this is my very first job. Not a lot of people start in historic preservation right out of college. It’s usually something you work your way into or you discover along the way. I love it. It’s been great.

INDEX: In the end, what do you hope to do with this project?

JOHNSON: We hope to generate interest in the county’s history and maybe reinvigorate the landmarks program. For any survey or inventory, the basic aim is to get things down for posterity so that in the case of resources being lost in the future, you have a record of what was there. Also, getting people talking and getting some of the long-time residents’ stories documented. There are community history books out there, but sometimes they are limited publications and aren’t widely available. This will be sort of a county-wide history of all the stories in one place available to everybody. I think the fact that it’s being done at all is amazing and it’s great the county had money earmarked for cultural resources. I’m sure it wouldn’t be funded otherwise. It’s a hard economic time.

CHASE: There’s definitely a lot of community pride in some of the areas that don’t get as much recognition because they are small or their industry has left. In Wilkeson, for example, there is the sandstone quarry, but mining is done. They have a few businesses in town, but that’s it. Everyone is so excited to tell us as much as they can about their hometown and the surrounding area.

Graham resident and historian Lawrence D. "Andy" Anderson describes Kapowsin's early years to architectural historians Katie Chase and Susan Johnson. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Graham resident and historian Lawrence D. “Andy” Anderson describes Kapowsin’s early years to architectural historians Katie Chase and Susan Johnson. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.