The motto of the North Olympic History Center is “We connect the future, through the present, with the past.”
As the center’s only employee, new executive director David Brownell plays a pivotal role in keeping that connection going.
“The history of the Olympic Peninsula is incredibly ancient,” Brownell said. “The ‘Olcott’-type archaeological sites, including the Manis Mastodon site in Sequim, are clear evidence of human activity on the Peninsula since the last ice age.
“I believe that the combination of new technology and better incorporation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and qualitative data from the tribes of the Olympic Peninsula will lead to a much deeper and holistic understanding of the Olympic Peninsula landscape during our lifetimes.”
Brownell’s predecessor Kathy Estes retired after 33 years.
“I’m not sure if I can match her longevity, but this is my dream job,” said Brownell, whose first day was Aug. 16.
“And I certainly have plenty to keep me busy!”
Brownell is responsible for keeping the North Olympic History Center’s entire operation up and running, which to him means every day is a little different than the previous.
“In addition to outreach and education, I am the center’s administrator, secretary, grant specialist, and, when necessary, maintenance custodian,” he said.
NOHC’s campus at 933 W. Ninth St., Port Angeles, consists of three buildings and grounds, bought in 1991. They include the old Lincoln School, the Research Library and the Artifact Storage Facility.
Built in 1916 and operated until 1978, the old Lincoln School was vacant and destined to be razed when purchased by the Clallam County Historical Society (now North Olympic History Center), according to the organization’s website.
Brownell said that the original intention was to turn the school into a museum.
According to the website, “Years of neglect had taken their toll on the brick building, and volunteers have been working on both restoration and renovation since its purchase. Fundraisers and dedicated volunteers at the Center have financed and physically upgraded the building to its current level.”
The windows of the school are now decorated with paintings of children peering out, and flowers and murals are painted on the outside, by Port Townsend artist Pat Gallup. Antiques that NOHC sells during fundraisers are laid out on tables in one part of the multi-story building, which has electricity.
The building is full of juxtapositions of different eras.
Brownell said he enjoys drinking a cup of coffee outside the old school while absorbing a panoramic view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympics and the surrounding neighborhood.
Lincoln’s bust now resides in the Research Library, where Brownell said he and center advocates “greatly encourage community members to get involved and learn more about our history.”
The library contains photographs, maps, obituaries, oral stories and more.
“We’ve got tons of materials from the city and Port Angeles, the police department and the county itself,” Brownell said.
Formerly the Lincoln School Gymnasium, the Artifact Storage Facility — now climate-controlled and equipped with archival storage shelving on rails — is packed with objects from the past, as well as a huge trove of local newspapers.
Brownell said it isn’t well known that NOHC has a large collection of clothing such as military uniforms and formal dresses.
Brownell said there have been exhibits of the collection of quilts, now rolled and stored in archival plastic, and he’s hoping to do that again.
“Just from an artistic standpoint they are amazing,” he said. “But when you consider the number of hours that went into making all these … and a lot of them are tied into different families that have been here since the 1800s.”
There is also an art storage area, with primarily local North Olympic Peninsula artists like Minerva Troy and Esther Webster, Brownell said.
“(There’s) a little bit of everything,” he said, “(in) many different styles.”
A small room contains multiple pianos and many stone tools as well as stacks of exquisitely woven baskets.
Brownell said the newspapers will be scanned by volunteers and put online as part of a project funded by a the Clallam County Heritage Advisory Board grant, which he will detail for the community at a Peninsula College Studium Generale on June 2.
“We are converting our collections catalog to a searchable web-based system using PastPerfect museum software,” he said. “This ‘virtual museum’ will allow anyone with internet access to search our extensive collection of historic documents, photos, and artifacts from the North Olympic Peninsula.”
After converting the center’s existing catalog records, Brownell said the organization will digitize its collection of historic newspapers and periodicals, as well as video and audio recordings and add these to NOHC’s online resources.
The center currently has a dozen volunteers, and Brownell said he would like to at least double that.
“We would love help with our Cloud project as we get things kicked into high gear this winter/spring,” he said.
Volunteer opportunities, as well as an application form, are available at northolympichistory.org.
Brownell said that he has been obsessed with history since he was a child. “We spent a lot of time moving around due to my father’s career,” he said, both in the United States and Europe.
“Living overseas, especially in Italy, really catalyzed my interest in history.”
Brownell earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Hanover College, Ind., and a master’s degree in public history, with a specialization in archiving and records management, from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, in 2011.
He worked for the Seminole Tribe of Florida as a research coordinator from 2011-2015.
Brownell began working for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe as a cultural resources specialist in 2015 and became Tribal Historic Preservation Officer in 2018. He said that he moved from Florida to the Peninsula without ever having been in Washington state before.
“I got to Sequim and I immediately fell in love with it,” he said.
It was in Sequim that he met and married his wife, Emma.
Brownell said that Emma is a tribal citizen of Jamestown, and that her family owns the property that has been in the family since the tribe purchased Jamestown in 1874.
“We got married down there on the Jamestown beach,” he said.
Brownell said he’s fascinated with the natural history and ethnobotany of the Salish Sea, reading plenty of ethnobotanist/author Nancy Turner’s publications (“which I highly recommend,” Brownell said).
He expressed his view of history as this: “We are at a nexus as a society – the rapid development of new and improved technology, as well as increased access to data and real-time information have challenged many established institutions and systems. This challenge is a great opportunity for our society to examine who we are and where we are going, in order to create a more equitable and inclusive community.
“A critical component of this is empowering individual citizens to better understand and preserve their own history, and the history of their communities.”
Past, present at NOHC
Though the North Olympic History Center does not have a physical museum at the moment, Brownell said he’s happy to provide guided tours of the collections to small, masked groups.
“We also have many vintage items for sale that are available for private shopping tours; the proceeds from all sales help support the center,” he said. “Anyone interested in joining as a member of the center can find the membership application on our website.”
One of three offerings Brownell would like to share with the community is “Learning our Landscape,” a collaboration between NOHC and the Jamestown Tribe held as a series of free presentations on Zoom. At these virtual events, hosts use “tools of modern science, tribal ecological knowledge and history to gain a better understanding of this remarkable and resilient landscape.”
The center will also host two “Document Preservation Workshops” this year, which will focus on archival “best standards” and preservation of old photos, documents and other materials,” said Brownell.
Attendees will receive a Document Preservation Toolbox to help them get started preserving their family treasures, Brownell said. NOHC members will receive a discounted cost for the programs.
“We will also be providing these workshops to North Olympic Peninsula tribal communities,” Brownell said. “I’m excited that the NOHC will be reaching out to encourage people to capture local historical materials that could be lost to us without their efforts.”
The third opportunity will a new “History Hikes” program. This partnership with the Jefferson County Historical Society that will provide guided tours of local sites of historic significance,
including the qatáy prairie in Port Townsend, Fort Flagler, Indian Island and Chemakum Creek.
”As an avid hiker, I am really looking forward to this program,” Brownell said.
More information is available on the NOHC website at northolympichistory.org.