Fifteen Months on “Dear Oregon”: Professional Time Travel During a Pandemic

June 15, 2021

By Erin Brasell

Over the past fifteen months, 37 authors contributed to OHS’s blog, “Dear Oregon,” while navigating life during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In celebration of their work, we’re highlighting some of the top posts since March 2020.

Exactly fifteen months ago this week, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) temporarily closed to the public for the first time to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Fifteen months is not such a long time ago, but for many, it’s felt like a lifetime. It has been a time of uncertainty, rapid change, fear, and loss as Oregonians joined the world in navigating the global pandemic. At OHS, it has also been a time of reflection and reevaluation, where staff rapidly shifted efforts to further OHS’s mission of preserving Oregon history and making it accessible as folks have spent much more time at home and online.

Part of those efforts included increasing the frequency of our blog posts on Dear Oregon. In the past fifteen months (or lifetime), 37 authors published 77 posts that include behind the scenes features, highlights of OHS collections, efforts to maintain personal connections during long stretches of social distancing, and important reflections that reinforce how knowing Oregon history is important to understanding our rapidly changing world. The blog would not be possible without the expertise and the combined decades of experience of OHS staff members — I feel privileged and humbled to call them colleagues.

Oregon Historical Society blog, “Dear Oregon,” landing page.
In response to statewide stay-at-home orders beginning in March 2020 and social-distancing measures that remain at the time of this blog post, OHS staff members rapidly shifted efforts to make Oregon history accessible as folks spent much more time at home and online. In fifteen months, we published 77 posts on “Dear Oregon.”

This month we also celebrate milestones such as Oregon being on track to meet the national goal of having 70 percent of its adults receiving their first vaccination by July 4. These incremental steps toward a post-COVID life bring hope. We are hopeful for reconnections with friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors after being at the mercy of unstable internet connections and unpredictability for over a year. For me, June means seeing and hugging my parents for the first time in over eighteen months — a time when I very much look forward to downshifting and appreciating every minute of togetherness.

Dear Oregon will also downshift to a summer schedule, moving from weekly posts to every other Tuesday. This will allow OHS staff members some much-needed time to enjoy the longer, sunnier days and to recharge and prepare for exciting, new projects to come. To celebrate that work and to give readers lots of Oregon history to enjoy during our relaxed publishing schedule, we’d like to share the top seven most visited blog posts since March 2020:

#7: “History is who we are and why we are the way we are” by Eliza E. Canty-Jones

In this blog post, Oregon Historical Quarterly editor and Director of Community Engagement Eliza E. Canty-Jones presented OHS resources that highlight the work of Black scholars, activists, and community leaders who have shared their experiences, insights, and analyses about racism, white supremacy, violence, community organizing, and resistance. Those people she has listened to, worked with, and learned from over the course of over fifteen years working at OHS. Their insights and scholarship help us understand our past with the hope of creating “a present and future that is more equitable for all.”

KPTV news footage still of protestors marching against police who placed opossums in front of a Black-owned business in 1981. OHS Research Library
In 1981, two police officers admitted that they had placed four dead possums in front of the Burger Barn, a popular Black-owned, late-night hangout at 3962 Northeast Union Avenue. The incident escalated into a major confrontation and had a long-term effect on police relationships with the community. This still from KPTV news footage held in our library collection shows protestors marching at a rally after the possum incident. OHS Research Library.

#6: Preserving History: Caring for the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt by Helen Fedchak

In October 2020, OHS placed the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt on exhibit in collaboration with Portland Textile Month. The quilt dates to 1974, when a group of fifteen women sewed the quilt to honor the heritage and contributions of the Black community in U.S. history. In this blog post, OHS Curator of Collections Helen Fedchak describes the many exhibitions in which the quilt has appeared and how OHS ensures the preservation of this and other textiles in its museum collection. On October 11, 2020, vandals removed the quilt from the building and discarded it a few blocks away in the rain. The quilt is now undergoing conservation work to mitigate the damage.

Franc Gigante and Nicole Yasuhara install Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt, September 2020.
OHS Exhibit Production Manager Franc Gigante and OHS Deputy Museum Director Nicole Yasuhara install the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt in the pavilion at the Oregon Historical Society in September 2020.

#5: Let’s Bake a (Historical) Cake by Katie Mayer

When the OHS closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, OHS Technical Services Librarian Katie Mayer found herself alone in her house with a batch of cookies. While her colleagues at OHS typically reaped the benefits of her baking habit, this task that once provided comfort became unexpectedly emblematic of the strangeness and grief of the time. Although accessing popular food supplies at that point in the pandemic, such as flour and yeast, was often a stress and a chore, the act of cooking and baking also brought comfort and communion. She pitched the idea of a baking experiment to her colleagues, using a historical recipe from the OHS Research Library collections — with a surprise ingredient — and eleven joined in. In this post, Mayer shares the recipe, some tips, and a slideshow of the 12 cakes OHS staff members baked.

Chocolate nut cake baked by Matthew Cowan, OHS Archivist for Photography and Moving Images.
Matthew Cowan, OHS Archivist for Photography and Moving Images, baked this chocolate nut cake from a recipe in the 1912 “Practical Cook Book,” compiled by the Women’s Auxiliary to Pacific College, Newberg, Oregon. Twelve members of the OHS staff tested the recipe as part of a cooking experiment to pass the time and keep connected during the pandemic.

#4: From Whence Did it Come and to Where Did it Go?: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Oregon by Erin Brasell

While Oregonians practiced physical distancing while waiting for the state’s stay-at-home orders to ease, public health experts warned that moving too quickly could have serious implications in terms of COVID-19’s spread — and resulting deaths. Historians are well positioned to echo these warnings, especially when analyzing the 1918 influenza pandemic (which occurred during World War I) and Oregon’s response to COVID-19. Managing Editor for the Oregon Historical Quarterly (OHQ) Erin Brasell reflected on past OHQ articles that helped to provide historical context for the 1918 influenza pandemic, including an illustrated timeline that helps make connections to Oregon’s COVID-19 response.

Benson Polytechnic S.A.T.C. third section wearing flu masks, October 27, 1918. National Archives and Records Administration.
On October 8, 1918, the “Oregonian” reported on four cases of influenza and “six others of suspicious character” at Benson Polytechnic School in Portland, Oregon. This first outbreak in the city prompted the school to put its 300 Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) students in quarantine. Members of the Benson Polytechnic S.A.T.C third section are pictured in this photograph wearing masks on October 27, 1918. Photograph courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

#3: Breaking News: Footage of the Mount St. Helens Eruption and Aftermath by Matthew Cowan

On the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, OHS Archivist for Photography and Moving Images Matthew Cowan highlighted selected clips from news footage held in OHS’s research library collections. OHS’s moving image collection consists of film and video tape that ranges in date from approximately 1905 until present day, including footage of Mount St. Helens erupting and its aftermath in May 1980.

Still from KATU news footage, May 18, 1918. OHS Research Library, MI# 04875.
On Sunday May 18, 1980, after several weeks of seismic activity, Mount St. Helens erupted at 8:32am, and the north face of the mountain collapsed. The OHS Research Library’s Moving Image Collection holds many hours of footage documenting the eruption and its aftermath. This still is from a KATU news segment on May 18, 1980. OHS Research Library, MI# 04875.

#2: Power of the Vote: A Brief History of Voting Rights in America by Eliza E. Canty-Jones

The year 2020 marked the sesquicentennial of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. OHS marked that anniversary with the opening of a powerful exhibition, Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment, which considers the deeply intertwined histories of citizenship, racism, and the local and national struggles for woman suffrage. In honor of that work, Eliza E. Canty-Jones offered a brief overview of some significant events in the history of voting rights in Oregon and the United States. The exhibit opening day was scheduled for the same day OHS closed to the public due to COVID-19, but it remains on view in our museum through December 5, 2021.

Margaret Fay Whittemore and Mary Gertrude Fendall in September 23, 1916, woman suffrage campaign in Pendleton, Oregon. Library of Congress, 159019.
A banner with the slogan, “We Demand an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution Infranchising Women,” adorns a car carrying Margaret Fay Whittemore (left) and Mary Gertrude Fendall (right) during a September 23, 1916, woman suffrage campaign in Pendleton, Oregon. Whittemore was a Congressional Union-National Woman’s Party organizer for election campaigns in Washington State in 1914 and 1916. Library of Congress, 159019.

#1: Beached Whale Blow-up: Commemorating the Anniversary of the Florence Exploding Whale by Matthew Cowan

On November 12, 1970, KATU reporter Paul Linnman described “a stinking whale of a problem” on the coast near Florence, Oregon. There, Oregon State Highway Department crews hauled boxes of explosives to the remains of a beached whale with the hope that the ocean and scavengers would clean up the pieces. Linnman and cameraman Doug Brazil captured the explosion on film from about a quarter of a mile away, and decades later, it became a viral internet hit with an estimated 350 million views. In this post, Matthew Cowan described the event and shared details about the original KATU news film footage held in OHS’s research library collections. OHS hosted a conversation between Linnman, Brazil, and OHS Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk on the 50th anniversary of the explosion on November 12, 2020, which is available to watch on our YouTube channel.

Spectators wait for whale explosion, Florence, Oregon, November 12, 1970. OHS Research Library, MI 11196.
Spectators sit on the beach near Florence, Oregon, on November 12, 1970, to witness the Oregon State Highway Division blow up a beached whale. The event is documented in KATU 16mm news film held in the Oregon Historical Society’s research library collections. All images in this post are from the collection OHS Research Library, MI 11196, “Beached Whale - Blow-Up - Florence, Oregon” – KATU 16mm News Film Collection.

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