Washtucna Heritage Museum

by Amy McGarry

We are kindred spirits, are we not? Those of us who grew up in small wheat farming communities in Eastern Washington may not have appreciated the value of this experience in our restless youth. Yet we look back fondly on the memories and grow to honor the unique stories that the history of our small towns could tell.

I had the great fortune to speak with one such kindred spirit, Lee Ann Blankenship, president of the Washtucna Heritage Museum. Lee Ann and all the dedicated volunteers at the museum are striving to preserve the history of her Washtucna community and breathe new life into this town that has lost its way.

Lee Ann wistfully describes how Washtucna had been a thriving, busy little town when she lived there in her youth. She remembers a grocery store, a meat market, a barber shop, a hardware store, two banks, and three railroads. Between the loss of the railroads and wheat farming becoming more mechanized, requiring less labor, she found Washtucna now “dwindling, barely hanging on to survive.”

But when a Washtucna teacher made a small historical inquiry about the origins of the Christmas star that is displayed in the town every year, Lee Ann felt compelled to do some research. This took her to the library in Ritzville where she connected with Karin Clinesmith who was a researcher with the Adams County Historical Museum. This encounter led to Lee Ann’s destiny as a preservationist of Washtunca’s history and the birth of the Washtucna Heritage Museum.

Lee Ann learned that the Adams County Historical Museum was seeking an extension. She and Karin set out to find a location in Washtucna. Initially the chosen location was a 400 square foot former insurance office. But in another twist of fate, the business owner using the rest of the building decided to close shop and move out, making the whole building available. Lee Ann confessed that initially this was a “nerve-wracking endeavor” as she wondered how on earth they could afford the rent and finance the museum.

Among countless examples of community support and generosity, that problem was solved. The Jones family gifted the building to house the museum. This was in 2016. The rest, so to speak, is history. The site proved to be a natural home for the museum. The building was initially a Washtucna business called Snyder Electric that opened in 1947 and later expanded to sell housewares and insurance. It had “long been a site for community-focused gatherings.”

According to the Washtucna Heritage Museum website, “in the early 1950s the Washtucna Commercial Club held meetings within its walls and worked to get the site of Palouse Falls accepted as a state park.”

With generous grants and donations, the museum is currently staffed by dedicated volunteers like Lee Ann and Karin and a board of five who are committed to keeping the rich history of Washtucna alive. The museum includes a community room as well as a research room with endless documents and photos that tell the story of Washtucna’s history.

The volunteers at the Washtucna Heritage Museum hope to see the town grow back to its former glory. Their vision includes the tourists who seek out the popular Ice Age Floods and Palouse Falls Tours which pass directly through Washtucna.

Google searches about these tours and of Washtucna brought up countless images of one of the museum’s major attractions—That NW Bus (#thatNWbus). Described online as the “magical roadside bus in Eastern Washington” and an “epic Instagram site,” the bus was an internet sensation that was destined to reside just outside of little ol’ Washtucna.

photo by Lee Ann Blankenship

Initially #thatNWbus was just an old, abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere. It drew graffiti artists and others wanting to leave a mark until it became a literal work of art itself. According to lovehardtraveloften.com, the bus “became a popular Instagram spot on the drive between Pullman and the Tri-Cities” where adventurists took “iconic shots like jumping and leaping on top of the bus” posting images on social media.

According to the museum website, in 2017 the Department of Natural Resources decided the bus “was more of a liability than a charming roadside attraction.” Determined to save the bus, the Washtucna Historical Museum came to the rescue and moved the bus just outside of Washtucna. The museum’s website notes that “the magic of #thatNWbus is a little bit irresistible,” describing the bus as “part living guest book, part art gallery.”

The irresistible magic of the bus has an exciting future in the works. The Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) out of WSU has created a plan for an art park/Ice Age Floods learning trail on the plot where #thatNWbus lives.
The museum’s latest project is the preservation of the Mason Lodge, which dates back to 1901 with connections to G. W. Basset, Washtucna town founder and one of the earliest settlers in the county. The preservation of the building is exciting, considering it is “probably one of the oldest frame commercial buildings in the county still standing.” Museum board member Michelle Plumb has worked extensively to submit a nomination to have the lodge included on the Washington Heritage Register and National Register of Historic Places. Let’s cross our fingers for the approval of this pending nomination.

Lee Ann expressed immense appreciation for the community, businesses, and volunteers who have provided support to the museum, but Karin Clinesmith’s contributions are especially noteworthy. “Karin is amazing,” says Lee Ann. “She has so much energy. She loves to create.” Karin is also responsible for acquiring 90% of the food bank donations which are distributed from the community room next to the museum.           

Another exciting project that was in the works has sadly been put on hiatus. A video documentary detailing the history of the area including the ice age floods, Native Americans, Chinese railroad workers and early farmers was halted by the sudden loss of the videographer. Such a bold and expensive endeavor will require more funding or volunteers.

To see photos, documents, project descriptions, and more about the museum visit the museum’s website at www.washtucnahistory.org/. And mark your calendar for October 16 to join us for the annual museum fundraiser. Stay tuned for more fundraiser information coming soon!