I love small town museums. Every city surely has something to be proud of, and often something to be ashamed of. These museums highlight these things. I’ve never been in one that didn’t teach me something fascinating.
I had been passing the Renton History Museum for months. The building itself intrigued me, with its Art Deco design. A museum is all the more exciting when even the edifice in which it is housed has a story to tell. (It turns out the building, which was built in 1942, used to be a firehouse, and, according to their website, is “the last existing structure in the area built under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).”
Just from one visit, I learned a great deal about the city of Renton. For example, the Duwamish people had been living in this area since the 6th century. Unfortunately they met their first white settler in the form of Henry Tobin in 1852, and a year later the Duwamish Coal Company was formed. Renton was named after William Renton, a coal investor, in 1875. As is typical in this country, the Native Americans didn’t stand a chance by that point.
I was kind of proud to learn, though, that a Cooperative Coal Mine was formed in 1895. This mine was owned and operated by the workers, for the workers. None of this “owed my soul to the company store” stuff for Renton! Power to the people!
I was also thrilled to discover that Mary Wilson, the first woman to vote in Washington State, was from Renton, and that Jimi Hendrix is buried here, at the Greenwood Cemetery. Also, I had no idea how diverse this town is. There are 87 languages spoken in the Renton School District.
The Renton History Museum has both permanent and temporary exhibits, so I’m sure I’ll be visiting again and again. The next exhibit will be about World War I. That should be interesting.
I encourage you to support your small town museum. It is the keeper of the history of the place in which you live. It helps to remind you of who you are as a member of a community, and where you’ve come from. It helps you define your place in the life of your town.
If you’ve seen the movie The Truman Show, you have experienced Seaside, Florida in all its creepy perfection. I have never been there myself, but I have been to Celebration, Florida, which is another perfectly planned little hamlet. These places are cool to visit, but they kind of give me the willies.
These communities are regulated in the extreme. Individuality is very discouraged. The houses can only be a certain style and a certain range of colors. Your white picket fence must be of a particular design. And forget about unique landscaping. Seaside and Celebration are the Stepford Wives of communities, even more so than your typical neighborhoods with homeowners associations.
I am thinking of these places because recently I drove through Port Gamble, Washington. Port Gamble was established in 1853, and looks as if it has been frozen in time. The Victorian houses, many of them identical, are in pristine condition, and there’s one continuous white picket fence along the length of the main street. There are also some touristy shops, but we didn’t stop.
The reason we didn’t stop is that I got the shivers just driving through the place. Yes, it’s charming, and each building, if by itself, would be a delight. But as you drive through there, you start to notice that there’s a distinct absence of humans. And all the blinds are drawn. I could easily imagine an FLDS polygamist cult occupying the town, or an extended family of zombies. It’s downright disturbing. I wouldn’t want to be caught there after dark. It felt like an extremely sanitized ghost town.
I genuinely think that there’s such a thing as too much perfection. Humanity lies in the flaws; in the peeling paint and the tacky lawn flamingoes. When people start marching in lockstep, they seem robotic. When they force their surroundings to do the same, it feels otherworldly. I would definitely not thrive in that environment. It’s too much about appearances and what the neighbors think.