The Kennedy Years (1956-1964): Historical Research and Interpretation


Historical Research and Interpretation

Although certainly an important aspect of Kennedy's administration, construction was not the only significant accomplishment during 1956-1964. Important historical research was accomplished during these years due to Park Historians George Tays, Jack Farr, Erwin Thompson, and John Jensen. Historian Tays mapped the building sites and Historian Farr began writing the museum prospectus and historical handbook, both of which were completed by Historian Thompson in addition to his own study of the mission house kitchen. Thompson remembers that lack of funds and resources hindered research so he had to make do with what they had. He remembers, "The two colleges were our greatest help. Then we got the [Whitman-American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions correspondence] microfilm from Yale University and that helped a lot." [119] These resources were especially useful when the museum was constructed:

[The museum planners] . . . would send up requests--"What ages were the . . . Sager children?" . . . "What kind of clothes did they wear at that time?" and so forth. Then I would busy myself around here, Whitman College and sometimes go up to Pullman and try to find the answers for their questions, and that varied from minute research to some fairly complex jobs. [120]

In addition, artifacts for the museum were acquired during these years, including Elizabeth Sager's "papoose" doll and a lock of Narcissa Whitman's hair. Aside from their research and writing, each historian guided tours and interpreted the site for visitors until 1964 when tours were phased out and the site became truly self-guiding. In no way should the years 1956-1964 be considered only in terms of construction, but rather, in terms of development which encompassed important historical research and interpretation, as well.

Planning, research, changes in the park's administrative structure and physical appearance were all achievements of 1956-1964. "Exciting" was the word Erwin Thompson used to describe those years. "We knew great things were happening," he said. [121] Today Kennedy credits their success to "a good, strong program worthy of support" [122] and to his staff, Regional Directors Lawrence C. Merriam and Edward A. Hummel and their staffs, and finally Walla Wallans Allen Reynolds, B. Loyal Smith, and Vance Orchard. Kennedy also remembers his own place in those busy years:

For me, Whitman was a real challenge. It was so bleak when we arrived there that January day in 1956 . . . and Whitman was so beautiful and kind of shining when we left eight and one-half years later! I had worked my tail off, but I had enjoyed it. Some of the fights had been bitter but we had always won, always, because we were always on the right side. [123]

Or as Superintendent Stickler said of the park's development in 1966, "It was a good 'package plan' rather than a piecemeal operation." [124] The accomplishments of 1956-1964 changed the park's direction forever. The process of development was finished and the process of management begun. As Park Historian John Jensen aptly wrote in 1965, "[These accomplishments] marked the start of a new era in operation of the Park--a change from a program of research and construction to one of interpretation and maintenance." [125] How the next administration coped with these changes and new responsibilities is the subject of the following section.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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