It began innocently enough. I visited MAC history curator Marsha Rooney over coffee last fall to catch up on news both personal and professional. The meeting wasn't unusual; we've known each other for a decade, after all, and worked together for half that time. She told me about an exhibition she was planning, something that would tap the wealth of objects and images in the MAC's permanent collection to tell the story of how Spokane became Spokane. But she really wanted to get to the stories behind the objects, she said, to find a way to tell the story of the city through the stories of its people.
Stories of people? Hmm, said I. That sounds like what I do.
Before I finished my latte, I was signed up to be part of the Spokane Timeline project team, helping develop the exhibition that opens Saturday, May 14. When I got back to my office that day, I had e-mail waiting for me with details of the work done so far and an agenda for the next meeting.
You gotta hand it to Marsha. She knows to land a volunteer.
Stories are the way we tell other people who we are. They're the tool we use to construct an identity for ourselves, to create a narrative flow that organizes the chaos and randomness of daily living into something more understandable.
As a writer, I'm comfortable using words to tell a story; that's what I know how to do. A museum tells stories not just with words but through objects and images. But how do you enliven these things to tell their own stories? That was the challenge faced by the Spokane Timeline project team.
Early on, team members searched the MAC's holdings of artifacts, paintings, documents and photographs, looking for items that could tell the story of the city. They found some fantastic pieces, but then came the next hurdle: finding the stories behind the objects and images. Sometimes, we had great artifacts but no information about the people who owned or used them; other times, we knew about interesting people but lacked anything to illustrate their stories.
Throughout the winter, the team kept working, honing the overall outline. Traditionally, the authors of history have been the victors, the survivors, the people who achieved power and fame. Their stories are important, of course, but the team sought to round out that narrative by finding the perspective of those whose contributions received little notice, those who had little or no power. We focused on 40 people whose stories tell something about the shaping of Spokane into the city we know today. Slowly the narrative emerged.
Spokane Timeline includes the stories of people you'd expect, like James Glover, who purchased homestead claims on the land that would become downtown Spokane and opened the settlement's first store; J. J. Browne, another of the city's earliest success stories; and architect Kirtland K. Cutter, who designed so many of Spokane's landmark buildings. But some of the most interesting stories belong to people you've probably never heard of.
For example, there's John Schoenberger, who left Bavaria for America because he wanted to "see what was over there." He lived in New York and Minnesota before coming to Cheney in 1888. At first, he rented a farm between Cheney and Spangle, sharing the proceeds with the farm owner while also working as a carpenter around Spangle. Soon after, he opened a sawmill on Latah (Hangman) Creek, a few miles north of Spangle. His timing proved fortuitous, because his mill provided lumber to rebuild the city of Spokane following the fire of 1889. Schoenberger's sons joined the business and the company expanded, operating seven different sawmills at various times before selling the last mill.
Wealth drawn from the precious metals of the Coeur d'Alene Mining District in North Idaho helped the city of Spokane boom around the turn of the 20th century and gave us colorful characters like Jacob "Dutch Jake" Goetz. Along with his business partner, Harry Baer, Goetz came to the city after grubstaking (financing) prospector Noah Kellogg, who located the vein of galena ore that would become the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mine. The partners opened a saloon and gambling house in 1885, lost it in the fire of 1889, and soon built the Coeur d'Alene Theater (later, Hotel), on the southwest corner of Front (now Spokane Falls Boulevard) and Howard. Goetz believed in what he called the "Four B's" of western business - bed, board, booze and betting - and these mainstays served him well. Located directly across the street from City Hall and the police station, his hotel featured a theater, a dance hall, dazzling decor and scantily clad women dealing cards. On display is a cannon that Goetz would fire from the roof of his hotel on the Fourth of July.
Although Goetz was well respected in the business community, the reality of life for the women who serviced the rough-and-tumble transient crowd was far from glamorous. Abbie Widner worked as a prostitute at another local hotel and she sent letters to her boyfriend in Seattle expressing her desire to quit the life of a "sporting" woman. "Kid, I am tired of this life I am living," she wrote in 1905. "I have made this week $39.50, so I am not doing bad if I don't have it stolen from me, but every time a man touches me, if I had a dagger in my hand I would stab him to the heart. But I won't always be a sport, so help me God I won't, if I have to wash for a living.... Sweetheart, some day we are going to be happy."
Long before Spokane was Spokane, the falls of the river served as a meeting place, a place of commerce, and a place of beauty for the native people who lived nearby. Now the land around the falls is home to 200,000 people, and yet it remains a place to meet, to do business, and to admire the natural world. Through the stories of these 40 people, Spokane Timeline strives to reveal something about how Spokane has been transformed over the years. There can be no single, definitive story of a city, of course, but the team's goal was to make this one representative. Does it succeed? Only you, the visitor, can say for sure.
Publication date: 05/12/05