The Weldon Years: Maintenance and Interpretation

 
 

Maintenance

Though superintendents are not normally found weeding and mowing in their parks, visitors to Whitman National Monument were likely to find Robert Weldon so engaged, a situation he found mildly amusing. After one month at the monument he wrote, "Well, there is always something new in the Park Service. I thought I'd just about seen and done it all . . . but goodness, no. I just finished digging out the weedy ditch . . . " [49] Today Weldon remembers those first months: "In my first monthly report I noted that 'the Superintendent began the work of watering, caring for, and pruning the grassy and shrubby areas around the Great Grave.' I might add this sort of work continued all the 5-1/2 years I was there." [50] Reaction to this newly begun routine maintenance was immediate when in 1951 a neighboring farmer reportedly remarked, "'Well, it finally looks as if someone lived around here!'" [51]

Each year specific maintenance improvements changed the park's appearance. In 1951 and 1952 the dirt paths leading to the mission sites were replaced with blacktop and a gravel footpath laid from the Great Grave to the Memorial Shaft. In 1952, water was piped to the Memorial Shaft for landscaping and the Great Grave area was refurbished. In 1953, a well, pump, and pumphouse were installed near the temporary museum for drinking water. Two pit toilets were placed near the museum while the two near the Great Grave were replaced. Weldon remembers an embarrassing situation caused by the lack of these facilities near the museum:

One day a group of girls from Walla Walla College came out. I was telling them the Whitman story by the museum when one girl started dancing around and yelling, "A bee is in my dress." So we shoved everyone out the door and she took care of the problem. Shortly after, we got a pit privy. [52]

By the end of Weldon's administration, the grounds appeared acceptable to most Walla Wallans: "Comments from some local people indicated that they were glad to see the area so well kept up now in contrast to its neglected appearance during and shortly after the war." [53] Alone, and with the help of temporary laborer Merlin B. Warner, Weldon established maintenance as a solid administrative priority. In fact, a few maintenance jobs also benefited another of Weldon's responsibilities and priorities: the interpretive program.

 

Interpretation

Based upon the suggestions of Ernest A. Davidson, Regional Chief of Planning, and Ronald F. Lee, Chief Historian, Washington, D. C., the excavation sites were backfilled, marked with gravel, and outlined with timbers in 1951 and 1952. [54] These markings, while simplifying maintenance, more importantly signified the first effort since the temporary museum to expand interpretation. Further expansion occurred in 1952 when the first temporary ranger-historian, Willard Whitman, was hired during the summer's high tourist season. Whitman College professor Dr. Arthur Rempel took this summer job from 1953-1954, and Burton Boylan filled the position in 1955. With the new ranger-historian assisting during the week and on weekends, the museum was open every day. Otherwise, the museum was open only when Superintendent Weldon was on the site--a very unsatisfactory situation that often irritated visitors. In fact, Mr. Weldon remembers the "fiasco" of 1952:

I had a chance to go to the Superintendent's Conference in Glacier, which I did. We could find no one to keep the Museum open, so closed it for about a week. When I got back, all hell broke loose. Visitors who found the building closed were up in arms . . . . There was some turmoil in town about the weeds, the closed building, and the "abandonment" of the area by the Park Service. What fun. A good conference but a pretty heavy price to pay. [55]

The new interpretive emphasis also resulted in a series of self-guided tour signs. Chief Historian Lee suggested modest sign development in 1950, so temporary, typed bulletins were installed until five routed historical signs, designed at Lassen Volcanic National Park, were placed at each of the mission sites in 1953. The new signs, clearly marked sites, and the temporary assistance of ranger-historians prompted Weldon to write in 1953, "We should have a good summer interpreting the Whitman story to the public." [56] In 1953 there was more to see at the monument than ever before.

 

By far the most unusual addition to the interpretive program was the adobe wall display, installed in 1954. Weldon described the display:

A 4 ft. long, 4 1/2 ft high section of original Whitman adobe (cellar wall of the Whitman's [sic] First House) was dug out, a cement wall built around it with glassed in top so that the adobe wall may be viewed from above by visitors . . . . [57]

This unusual and popular interpretive device remained in place until 1978. [58]

 
Finally, small-scale revegetation enhanced interpretation and contributed to natural resource management. Motivated, in his words, by "the policy of returning the various areas to as nearly their historic appearance as possible . . . , " [59] Weldon reintroduced native plants and grasses to the grounds which, by 1955 included, among others, willows, cottonwood, and gooseberries. Most importantly, Weldon reintroduced rye grass, symbolic of Waiilatpu yet absent from the area due to intensive farming. Also, hoping to recreate the Whitmans' orchard, "old-fashioned" [60] apple varieties, including the Winesap and Baldwin, were planted in 1955. Like Weldon's other interpretive projects, planting native species improved both short-term and long-term grounds management. While the modest development program flourished under Weldon's guidance, the major development program remained at a standstill. Although the legislative history of this issue was previously examined in chapter three, a review of development status during Weldon's term is in order.
 

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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