If you love history and you live in Lewis County, then you’ve found yourself in the perfect place.
Founded on December 21, 1845, Lewis County was the first organized county in the state of Washington. It has been nicknamed The Mother of all Counties because, after breaking up its original territory, it branched into 11 separate counties. It is also home to Washington’s oldest free-standing building, the Claquato Church.
No one knows these facts and more like Andy Skinner, the director of the Lewis County Historical Museum. Located in the heart of downtown Chehalis in the old Northern Pacific Railway station depot, the building has a rich history all of its own. The mission-style train station on Front Street in Chehalis was constructed in 1912 due to the rapid growth of freight and passenger trains. It faced demolition in 1972, but was saved and restored by the Lewis County Historical Society and the museum opened on September 18, 1979.
The museum has seen many improvements in the 51 years it has been open, all resulting from the work of the museum board and committed volunteers. Every piece in the museum is donated or funded by donors, such as portions of the old Maytown post office, a model barbershop, and a tribal display donated and blessed by the Cowlitz and Chehalis tribes.
Skinner took over as director in 2013, after two years of volunteering with the museum. Yet, even in the wake of administration troubles, Skinner has stood by the museum and committed himself to seeing it grow, amazed by the support of the community.
“I always thought it was pretty impressive that, even after all that happened, people still came back and volunteered their time, money, precious artifacts and family treasures,” Skinner says. “That means more to me than anything else—that people still believe in us and want to see us here and to succeed.”
As director, Skinner’s aim is to make the museum more accessible and interactive to visitors.
In addition to upgrading lighting throughout the building and in displays, Skinner is working on digitizing and expanding the Research Library, a collection of archival files, genealogical research and 23,000 historical photos of Lewis County. A majority of the research was compiled by long-time volunteer Margaret Shields.
The Research Library is also home to 500 oral histories, recorded in the 1970s. Because of the large amount of student volunteers, Skinner hopes to collect more by having students go out into the community and interview members of older generations.
“A lot of people assume history is old and boring. It’s not,” says Skinner. “History is all about stories and telling people what life was like and learning from our own mistakes.”
If there’s anything that Skinner wants visitors to take notice of, however, it’s the model trains. Donated in 2007 by the Lewis County Model Railroad Club, the trains represent something greater than merely model trains.
“See the trains. We wouldn’t have the county without them,” Skinner says. “The trains and railroads built everything that was there.”
Although the building has been renovated for efficiency, the structure and character of the historic train station is still intact. The original brick flooring, intricate ceilings and freight doors are all well maintained.
The museum offers a host of permanent and rotating exhibits with items spanning from the 17th to the 20th centuries. While many of the exhibits are display-only, improvements are being made to make displays more interactive, including making walk-through exhibits and hands-on demonstrations, such as an interactive blacksmith shop and a dispatch station for children to communicate across the building.
The museum also has another unique draw that sometimes brings visitors from outside of the area—a ghost.
“We’re most famous for our ghost,” says Ted Livermore, museum volunteer and Model Railroad Club Headmaster.
Certified haunted by the Paranormal Investigations of Historical America, a ghost is known to roam around the museum, and has even been caught on camera. Livermore states that the ghost has been known to move chairs, leave drawers open and reset furniture that has been moved. The ghost has attracted many visitors to the area, even inspiring ghost tours during the Halloween season.
And while ghosts may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it does serve to bring more people in and help them learn about local history.
“We want to teach history here, besides preserving the artifacts,” says Livermore.
Livermore, a native of Santa Monica, retired to Lewis County and has been involved with the museum for 20 years. He is an active community member, serving as Fair Commissioner on top of volunteering for the museum and working for the Model Railroad Club. He loves the slow pace and genuine nature of Lewis County, and loves to hear and collect stories of the people that live here. His love for storytelling draws him towards the Research Library, and hopes that more youth will get involved and keep the museum going for their generation.
Aside from memberships and donations, the museum is also supported by fundraisers, mainly the Claquato Pie Social every July and a pancake breakfast and hotdog lunch at the Chehalis Festival.
“We would like to see this become the hub of the community,” he says.
Lewis County Historical Museum
599 NW Front Way
Chehalis, WA 98532