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Adrift in history

MAy 4, 2011

The History Museum of Hood River County has a rich collection of historic photos, many dating back more than 100 years. The images depict the life and times of the valley, dating back to when it was first clear cut by settlers and replanted with farms and fruit trees.

Drawer upon drawer of fading black-and-white images are, in many cases, all that is left of the memories of this unique county and its people.

And in those drawers, a five-minute search for something specific can easily turn into a few hours of grazing; adrift in history, thumbing through alphabetized files of old prints, of places not far away, but so very different than they are today.

It was that same intrigue that planted a seed several years ago in Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz.

"I was walking down at the waterfront and it started to pour," Babitz explained. "I went into the museum to get out of the rain. They had binders upstairs with copies of photos. I spent the entire afternoon looking through them. I've always loved old photos, and it's more fun to look at them when you recognize the area … Fast-forward several years; I saw some historic photos online and I thought about how much easier it was to examine the details digitally than it was by flipping through them in binders."

Babitz, a top-notch technophile, paid a visit to Connie Nice, museum director, earlier this year to inquire about digitizing the museum's entire collection of historic images and articles. A small part of the collection was already digitized, but there are thousands more, many the only ones of their kind, slowly aging away in the museum's drawers and filing cabinets.

Using a high-resolution scanner acquired by the museum last year through grant funding, Babitz and museum staff quickly got started on a project to scan, tag and store digital copies of every photo the museum has in its archives.

"The History Museum has over 5,000 images in its collection, but only a small portion is accessible to the public," Babitz noted. "This program is all about access; about allowing the public to see materials that are too fragile to be on regular display, allowing people who can't come to the museum access to material from their computers, and sharing these photographs in an educational context that honors our heritage."

As part of the digitization project, Babitz created a daily photo blog to increase awareness of the effort and share regular bits of interesting history with the public.

At the website and blog, www.historichoodriver.com, a new historic image is posted at 7 a.m. every weekday. Since it was launched last month, images have ranged from an early 1900 Fourth of July parade in downtown Hood River, climbers in 1935 atop Mount Hood at the former summit lookout station, the Condit Hydro project under construction in 1913 and a late 1800s image of Henry Coe's Sherman Street farmhouse and strawberry farm.

"The museum is so excited to be working with Arthur on getting this project up and going," Nice said. "Making the museum's photographic images accessible and available to the public in this manner is a great way to expose people to our unique and rich history, as well as providing a deeper understanding of the museum's mission and purpose."

Being the dutiful citizen that he is, Babitz volunteered much of his time working with the museum to get the project and blog up and running.

"Right now I'm doing the selection, writing and posting of images," he explained. "The plan is for me to set the tone and work out the kinks; then turn it over to museum staff."

A great quality of www.historichoodriver.com is the blog capabilities built into the site. A new image is posted each weekday, with as much historical information and context is available with the image. The blog allows people to post information they know about the image, helping fill in missing pieces of the history.

"I've really been having fun choosing the photos and trying to guess how people will react," Babitz said. "In a few cases I've gotten some important historic detail which really helps interpret the image. One example is from a picture of the intersection of Second and Oak in about 1900. People from the Hood River Weather chat room started discussing the bracket on the electric pole. What was it, why was it there, what did it mean? I hadn't even noticed the bracket, but this encouraged me to look through the collection to find additional views.

"I found a few images which solved the mystery: At about 1900 there was a large apothecary symbol hung from that bracket to advertise the pharmacy on that corner (now a toy store). Details of the bracket tell us the sign had an electric light in it. I've since found evidence that many of the signs at about the same time period were lit, which really changes our view of what Hood River looked like during that era. Dirt street and horse-drawn carriages; but at night all the signs were lit up."

To spark further intrigue and dialogue, "Mystery Monday" and "Fun Friday" will be a weekly routine; the first will follow a theme of unanswered questions or missing information and the latter will be images less about history and more about fun.

Babitz and The History Museum are hoping the project will spark public interest in the images and history the museum currently holds, and will inspire people to share their own historical images to be added to the museum's new and growing digital collection.

"It is the desire of the museum staff and board that this unique outreach method will develop great interactive dialogue regarding our local history, and generate knowledge of particular events, places and locations that can be updated in the museums' collection database," Nice noted.

Once completed, Nice said the museum plans to have an online service where the entire collection of images can be searched and viewed.

The museum announced last week that it will receive about $15,000 from the Google Data Centers Grants Fund of the Tides Foundation for the project. The money will be used to purchase specialized equipment and pay a staff member for about 500 hours of work the remainder of the project is expected to take.

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