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San Juan Historical Society and a museum worth saving

Have you ever been to Pagosa’s history museum?

If you had asked me two weeks ago, my answer would have been “no.” And judging by the lack of yes answers I get when I ask that question of my friends and neighbors, there aren’t many Archuleta County residents who have.

Ann Oldham is a tour guide and the only paid employee at the San Juan Historical Society Museum, and she says that it’s mostly tourists who come in to visit. “I can’t believe I haven’t been in here before,” is a phrase she often hears when a local does drop in. Residents who drive past the museum located in downtown Pagosa Springs at the corner of 1st Street and U.S. 160, just west of the River Center bridge, may have noticed the rusting farm implements outside the weathered building, or the large Museum sign that is mounted on the ground. But we don’t seem to ever have the time to stop.

We should.

Inside the stone building that was once the town water works, the San Juan Historical Society has amassed a collection of memorabilia from local residents that reflects not only the history of the area, but offers an insight into the lives of pioneers. The interesting exhibits are a tangible snapshot of a forgotten way of life. A hand-cranked mechanical food processor sits among several other “appliances” and tools in the kitchen exhibit area, and a beautifully preserved buffalo skin lap robe, evoke images of a time when horses were the mode of transportation and the robe was used to keep warm on a sleigh ride. One such sleigh has found a home in the museum and is perched up high on a permanent display, with its plush seat and large, curving red skids ready to be pulled through deep winter powder.

Underneath the sleigh’s high perch is a display featuring antique office items — an old Pagosa Springs SUN printing press, a 1900s mechanical calculator from Dunagan’s Garage and a creaky, but still comfortable chair that Frank Oppenheimer used while living on his ranch just south of Pagosa Springs. Museum tour participants can find out more about Oppenheimer’s residency in Archuleta County that included building a farm, raising his cattle on a 1,500-acre ranch, becoming president of the Blanco Basin Telephone Company, a chairman of the Archuleta County Soil Conservation Board and being an elected delegate representing the Archuleta County Cattlemen’s Association to the Senate agriculture and subcommittee hearings.

The museum building itself is a piece of Pagosa history. In 1970, a group of county residents met to discuss interest in starting a museum that could be used to preserve old historical records and items. The San Juan Historical Society was formed and the group began scouting for a location. The Town of Pagosa Springs donated its non-functioning water works building to the group, which included the downtown site. At the time, the 1938 building had large openings in the walls for the chutes that carried water pumped by a large wheel from a diversion in the San Juan River. The building is made of stone and visitors can still see where the chute openings have been patched closed.

Because the original water works space was not big enough to house a museum, the San Juan Historical Society worked with the U.S. Forest Service to acquire one of several buildings from a Job Corps program that was being phased out. A small building that had served as a washroom was donated to the museum and a group of residents worked to dismantle the many cement blocks that made up the interior walls. The blocks were hauled to the new location, along with the building that had to be cut in half and welded together at the new site. Much of the work for the new building was donated, such as the transportation, plumbing, welding and carpentry.

From Virginia Decker’s account printed in the first volume of the San Juan Historical Society’s publication, “Remembrances,” we learn the acquisition of the museum building was truly a community effort. A museum membership drive raised money for the remaining costs, and the San Juan Historical Society Museum was ready to be filled with memorabilia.

Donations to the museum began with a collection from Ruth Adams that she had housed in a shed. By 1976, the museum has acquired historical items from local businesses, such as the old “Pay Cage” from the Hersch Mercantile Building and the original switchboard from the telephone company. The telephone exhibit will evoke images of the old movies where the operator asks, “What number, please?” then deftly moves a wire from one spot to another on a board filled with plugs and holes. If you’ve ever wondered what a switchboard looked like, you can see it at the museum.

Over the years, the museum has been given items from Archuleta County’s oldest families, some on loan, and some donated permanently. There is a tool section, antique cash registers, a sparkling gem and mineral collection, and a beautiful display of vintage clothing that includes a deep purple dress with a long train.

“I’ve had people tell me that a dress in our clothing display is as nice as anything at the Smithsonian,” Ann Oldham proudly exclaims. Ann shares the story of how the dresses were originally displayed on mannequins she had made from balloons and papier maché, but were destroyed when mice got in and ate the flour used in the mix. The new mannequins are now made of wire.

Ann’s husband, Leroy Oldham, is also involved with the museum and helps with the cleaning, maintenance, exhibits and displays. Leroy constructed a shadow box for a collection of memorabilia from the Parr family. The family was so pleased with the presentation that they donated an antique radio to the museum. With a previous career in Navy communications and as an electronics technician, Leroy enjoys the museum items such as radios, the antique mimeograph machine, calculators and mechanical office equipment that were cutting edge in their time. He points to a display of mint-condition machines that were medical hoaxes and laughs at the Metabulator, which looks very fancy and complicated and was supposed to be used to measure metabolic rate and how many calories patients were burning.

“How’d you like to have your teeth drilled with that,” Leroy asks, chuckling as he points to a rather intimidating hand drill hanging near an antique dentist chair. He pauses to point out a stunning exhibit of items from the Catholic Church, including a hand-carved rosary. Against another wall is a blacksmithing exhibit, as well as a montage of vintage saddles, one homemade and, “in need of some TLC,” Leroy says.

In addition to helping with the museum, Leroy also serves as treasurer on the San Juan Historical Society’s board of directors. Shari Pierce is the current society president, and Glenn Raby serves as both vice-president and secretary.

“We really need people to join and help make decisions about the museum,” says Pierce. In addition to her work on the board, she is helping with the museum, and printing the society’s annual publication. Pierce is also attempting a project to digitize 1979 tapes of Pagosa Springs’ “old-timers” speaking about their lives and the area. Nearly all the participants have since passed away. She hopes to eventually have their voices as part of the exhibits, so visitors can hear about the items they are looking at in the words of the men and women who used them.

The Historical Society is seeking volunteers to serve on the board and help ensure that the museum can continue to offer a unique glimpse into local history. The Oldhams have been involved with the museum and the San Juan Historical Society for approximately 18 years, and Pierce has been involved for 25 years. The group needs more help and fresh ideas to keep the museum doors open.

“Financially, we’re doing well,” Pierce shares. “We’re not getting rich, but we came out in the black last year.”

Admission to the museum will be free for the second year in a row, which means the Historical Society is funded solely by small grants, donations at the door and from proceeds from their gift shop and the “Remembrances” publication.

Because Ann Oldham is the only paid employee, the museum utilizes several volunteers who greet visitors as they arrive. Ann is seeking more docents, or diplomats, to help with the visitor traffic that tripled last year after the museum offered free admission. The docents work either a morning or afternoon shift for 3 1/2 hours.

“If you can only work two, that’s okay,” says Ann.

The volunteer position involves greeting and interacting with visitors, perfect for those who like to sit and chat with people for a few hours. (The museum offers a nice covered porch for that.)

The San Juan Historical Society board meets every other month in the winter, and monthly in the summer. The next meeting will be held at the museum on Sunday, May 2, at 1 p.m., and the group urges anyone interested in being on the board to attend. Without more members, the museum may have to close.

Archuleta County residents should make a point to tour the museum when it opens in May and include a trip to this amazing piece of Pagosa history the next time you have visitors in town. If you think it’s worth saving, get involved.

For more information in serving on the San Juan Historical Society board, contact Shari Pierce at 264-4862. If you are interested in volunteering at the museum, call Ann Oldham at 731-5080.