New Discoveries at the Museum

The words “new” and “discovery” are not often associated with museums and museum collections. We usually think of a museum as remaining essentially the same, year after year, visit after visit, unless a blockbuster visiting exhibit is brought in or some new event is presented. People could even be excused for the assumption that the Thorp Mill Museum, focused on the flour mill and its machinery, would be the kind of place where nothing ever changes. However, these people would be entirely wrong.

The Thorp Mill is a “living” museum, unique due to its centrality to the community and in the memories of the people of Thorp. It has a physical collection made up of the building and items on display. However, less tangible but equally important are the collection of stories and memories that Thorp residents and their descendants share about the mill and its surroundings. The Thorp Mill functions as a laboratory providing a place for museum studies students at CWU to learn how to create and care for exhibits. The Thorp Mill benefits from the research these students carry out and the exhibits they design based on their research that expands our knowledge of the building and region. Further, the museum staff and members of the board continue to actively research the people, objects and events of Thorp’s history in order to bring more of the Mill’s stories to light. Finally, the Thorp Mill museum grounds provide clues concerning the past beyond the operation of the flour mill and sawmill back to the original pioneers of the Kittitas Valley, the Native American people, as well as the geological and hydrological events that shaped the region.

This summer, while researching the background of Oren Hutchinson, the builder and first owner of the flour mill, I made the astonishing discovery that I am a distant cousin of Oren’s. While this might not have been unusual had I grown up in Thorp, it was remarkable in light of the fact that I had arrived here in central Washington four years ago, having spent most of my life in New England with no knowledge of any family connections in the area. Oren Hutchinson was born in the early nineteenth century in Wilton, New Hampshire, not far from the town where I grew up. It is through my father’s family, neighbors of the Hutchinson’s, connected by marriage that I can claim my “shirt-tale relation” status. It is still seems shocking to me that I have been working for almost four years now in a building to which I have this family connection, but had no inkling of until recently.

Native American pestle found on the site of the Thorp Mill

However, the most interesting discovery by far of the summer is that of a Native American stone pestle, found in the Mill’s Ditch. A pestle is usually roughly cylindrical or squared off piece of some hard stone that is used to grind seeds or grains from plants or other items, such as minerals for paint on or in a stone mortar. The pestle is made by pecking at the stone with another stone that has been formed into a hammer or pick. Then it is ground against other rocks to create the correct shape- elongated and slender enough to be held in the hand- and a smooth surface. The weight of the pestle is intentionally heavy so that if the material being processed requires pounding the user expends energy only lifting the pestle, then allowing it to drop back into the mortar onto whatever is being prepared. In fact, this is how the Native Americans in the Northwest processed salmon into a paste that could then be dried and stored for a long period of time and could be transported easily.

We have been working to restore the increasingly restricted water flow in the Mill’s Ditch, requiring removal of reeds, silt and branches clogging the waterway. The pestle was discovered during the clearing of the outflow- the water coming out of the turbine basin- of accumulated sticks and leaves. One pass with the garden rake brought up a curious stone object rather than the soggy branches expected. The stone was not much different in type from the other river cobbles, however it was immediately apparent it had been worked by someone to create its squared form and smoothed surface. The pestle dates at least to the pre-contact period, before the arrival of Europeans and Euro-American settlers to the region, roughly pre- 1810. After regular contact was established, many Native Americans adopted tools from the Europeans that were more easily available and transportable than items like the heavy pestle.

The pestle is an important connection to Thorp’s early pioneers, the Native Americans that made their homes in this part of the Kittitas valley. At the time of contact, the Kittitas valley was populated with a number of Native American communities of varying size, from large towns or villages to single lodges of individual families. Thorp was one of the most heavily populated spots, with its proximity to the Yakima River, grasslands and upland resources. There was a very large village located at the opening of the Taneum Creek and smaller settlements scattered around, all supported by hunting, fishing and collecting of plant foods from this resource rich location. Additionally, the valley hosted the yearly gathering known as Cheholan, when large numbers of different people gathered north and east of Ellensburg coming from west of the Cascades, from the northern Okanogan valley, from over the Rockies and also from the south up the Yakima River to trade, engage in competitions and arrange alliances big and small- between tribes through diplomacy and between families through marriages. The pestle is a physical reminder of these people and their manner of living, adding to our knowledge of the site’s history and use.

Discoveries like the pestle underscore how unique the Thorp Mill Museum is compared to the average historical, art or industrial museum found elsewhere. Far from being a static accumulation of objects, this Thorp Mill Museum is dynamic, a site located at the hub of community and regional memory and experience revealing a depth of past history and linking generations of people through time.

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