Kevin Loftus helps to preserve San Juan Island history, and he needs locals’ help.
“We owe it to ourselves and to those who have come before us to connect with our past,” he said.
Since Loftus became the executive director of the San Juan Historical Museum in 2008, the museum has amassed countless donations that the organization relies on to honor the island’s past. These donations include letters, diaries, photographs, newspapers, household items, business signs, and high school history reports.
Recently, an islander donated a rotary phone from the 1960s to the museum, with the local number still labeled near the dial. One day, the phone could be housed in a tentative museum exhibit on island technology.
Other museum projects include identifying the people and places captured in about 500 unmarked photos, out of the museum’s collection of roughly 4,000. The plan, said Loftus, is to catalog photos with search words so they can be easily found in an electronic database.
Volunteers are also working on creating an inventory of different uses of buildings on the island. For example, King’s Marine was once the Maple House Hotel, and the Coldwell Banker building opened as the San Juan County Bank in 1906.
Plus, did you know new cars were once sold on the island? Today’s Little Store is a former Chevrolet dealership, said Loftus, and the Friday Harbor Film Festival office and Vinny’s Ristorante once housed a Ford dealership and maintenance garage.
Others are researching the ferries used before the state’s system was in place. Like, in the early 1900s, a passenger-only ferry ran from Anacortes to Friday Harbor called the Concordia.
Loftus said before he started his position he gathered his own collection of what he calls the “islanders’ perspective” from long-time locals Jim Cahail and Al Sundstrom, who have since passed away, by going on long drives with them.
“They would take me down roads I’ve never been to before,” said Loftus. “People who know key local stories are becoming fewer and fewer.”
Stories include how, starting in the 1920s, islanders grew peas near San Juan Valley Road.
Volunteers, said Loftus, help keep these local narratives alive.
“The island has changed a lot over the years, and it is important for us to know our collective history,” he said.
Volunteers are also finishing the San Juan Historical Museum of History and Industry facility, which is housed in the barn on the museum’s property off Price Street in Friday Harbor. Four wings represent the industries of the island: fishing, logging, farming, and limestone quarrying and processing.
The project, first launched in 2014, has cost about $300,000, said Loftus, and will include interactive exhibits and multimedia.
“That’s how museums are moving in this fast-paced world,” he said.
Multimedia aspects include iPads with historical information and a TV with a scrolling list of museum donors.
Research can be done at the museum by appointment. The facility has a small library of books about San Juan Island and copies of The Journal of the San Juan Islands from 1906 to 2000. For more recent copies, visit the San Juan Island Library and Orcas Island Library.
Digitized copies of a former local print newspaper called the San Juan Islander are available at chroniclingamerica.loc.gov. Issues range from 1898 to 1914.
According to Robin Jacobson, the interim president of the San Juan Historical Museum, collecting the past is an ongoing job.
“There are so many things to be done,” she said. “If we don’t preserve our history, it’ll be lost.”
To volunteer or research items at the museum, contact 360-378-3949. Office hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays or by appointment. Visit www.sjmuseum.org for more information.