History rolls on in a Steilacoom wagon shop

It used to be that if you visited the late Nathaniel Orr’s former wagon shop, a simple structure built in the 1870s, you had to make sure you didn’t close its wide and heavy doors too hard.

“The only thing holding the glass in was gravity,” explained Steilacoom Historical Museum Association (SHMA) member and volunteer Russ Cable this week. The SHMA owns the old wagon shop, along with Orr’s former residence, the Bair Drug and Hardware Store, and an apple orchard — all located in the heart of Steilacoom’s hillside town center. “If you slammed the door, all the glass would have fallen out because they were just standing vertically.”

Drafty windows weren’t the only problems. The wagon shop’s roof was also in disrepair, and water leaked during every rain fall.

Thanks in part to a $5,000 grant awarded by Pierce County to SHMA in 2008, visitors will appreciate the building’s new windows and roof. “We just let this go as long as we could,” said Cable. “The grant came right at the right time.”

According to SHMA’s Web site, Orr’s workshop started on the bottom floor of his two-story home. When Orr married and had children, a stand-alone workshop was built on his property. It was in this building that Orr made everything from wagons to tables to coffins to washing machines. Today, visitors can drop by the wagon shop on most weekends to take a look at Orr’s old wagons, buggies, and sleighs or sift through hundreds of farm tools and woodworking devices.

In 2008, Pierce County awarded $194,162.68 to 15 organizations for a variety of historic preservation projects such as artifact conservation at Fort Nisqually, newspaper clipping preservation at the Tacoma Public Library, a monument for Allen C. Mason Plaza, and SHMA’s wagon shop project.

However, a series of budget cuts and staff cuts to the county’s Planning and Land Services (PALS) Department (historic preservation is a division of PALS) have all but gutted the county’s historic preservation program.

Since 2006, PALS has eliminated 26 full-time positions, according to its director, Chuck Kleeberg. In 2009, the department participated in nine days of unpaid furloughs. In October 2009, Kleeberg presented a budget for this year that called for less spending in the area of historic preservation: $100,000 would be spent on historical document maintenance in 2010, compared to $496,200 budgeted in 2009. Similarly, the budget proposal eliminated funding for a part-time employee to write grants seeking money for historic preservation projects. In the end, County Council adopted a budget that cut $1.9 million from PALS. At the end of last year, the county laid off its part-time historic preservation officer. Already this year, a budget amendment slashed $50,000 for historical document maintenance.

For now, the grant program two years ago was a one-time event.

Still, SHMA took advantage of that opportunity. The organization wrote and submitted a proposal to repair the shop’s roof and windows.

Two-thousand-year-old cedar logs from the Olympic Peninsula were purchased, cut into bolts, and shipped to Steilacoom. On summer weekends in 2008 and 2009, museum volunteers showed visitors how to split the bolts into shakes. If you volunteered to split a shake, you could sign it with a black marker. The crumbling, weather-worn shakes were removed, and new ones were installed over three days last summer.

For the windows, the museum received a range of estimates to restore two large windows and eight smaller windows. The damage was too severe: the original glass panes had separated from their original frames, and restoring the original windows and frames was too cost-prohibitive. Instead, the museum neatly catalogued and stored the original materials and secured estimates for a total replacement.

In the end, SHMA spent $31,827.35 on the whole project. The county’s $5,000 grant helped pay for the bill.

On Tuesday, Pierce County’s Landmarks Preservation Commission met at the museum to hold its monthly commission meeting and see first-hand how its grant dollars were spent. SHMA board of trustees member Buzz Brake, wearing coveralls and a wide-brimmed cap, demonstrated how scores of cedar bolts were split to make the shakes that were used to replace the roof. “You can’t get cedar like this down here anymore,” said Brake.

For more information, visit steilacoomhistorical.org/WagonShop.html.

Steilacoom Historical Museum Association member member Buzz Brake demonstrates how to split cedar bolts. The museum received a grant from Pierce County to repair the roof and windows on the 1870s Nathaniel Orr wagon shop. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and a 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.