OAKLAND — It’s been 50 years and counting for the Oakland Museum.
It was 1969 when the all-volunteer historical museum opened in a small building in downtown Oakland.
Director Louise Stearns, who was one of the founders of the museum, said a group of local residents created the museum to display artifacts and history of Oakland.
One year later, the museum was moved into the Underwood building, which was constructed in 1895. It had housed the Red and White Grocery Store for 65 years.
“In 1969, a group of people met to organize and create a museum for Oakland to showcase the distinctive history of the town,” Stearns said.
The mission was to “discover, gather, collect, preserve and display any materials, artifacts or objects of the past, particularly those having significance in the history of Oakland and the surrounding area,” according to its website.
The museum has been operated by volunteers since it opened, and it relies completely on contributions from the public for its budget of $7,000 a year — all for operating costs for the building and utilities.
About 30 volunteers spend at least one day per month opening up the museum to the public, and it’s become a must-see when people come to town.
Mayor Bette Keehley is a member of the museum board and also volunteers at least two days each month staffing the museum.
“Our museum is very unique. For a small town, it’s fabulous, and they don’t expect that when they come in the door,” Keehley said. “It’s a walk through a day of life in Oakland in the late 1800s.”
Jana Cunningham is a volunteer who staffs the museum at least one day per month. She loves the interaction with visitors and being able to tell them about the history of Oakland.
“Everything in here is from 1855 to 1955, and frankly, most of it was gathered by Louise,” Cunningham said. “She’s done a really good job.”
The museum has re-creations of scenes showing a glimpse of life in Oakland in the late 1800s, when the community was known for timber, turkeys and agriculture. Scenes range from a doctor’s office with equipment that came from the offices of the earliest medical professionals in Oakland to a display of banking equipment from the first bank in town, a grocery store, logging equipment, livery stable and many items donated by pioneer families and others over the years.
“(Turkey) was a huge industry, there were seven warehouses along the railroad tracks and they shipped live and dressed birds out of there for Thanksgiving, it was a very big industry,” Stearns said.
When the museum board purchased the building, which is across Locust Street from Tolly’s Restaurant, it was in bad shape.
“It was terrible,” Stearns said. “There was nothing in it, the roof leaked and water had run down the walls and the plaster had fallen on the floor and rotted out the floors.”
So the volunteers went in and refurbished the building. Stearns did a lot of the work herself, with help from her late husband Bob Stearns.
Her husband was a partner with his brother Fay Stearns in Stearns Hardware, which opened in 1887. Bob and Louise Stearns were not only founders of the museum, but also contributed many of the artifacts displayed there.
Bob Stearns, who died on the last day of 2018, was a constant supporter of the museum and did the carpentry work, repairs, refinishing and was an advisor on many other projects from the time the museum opened in 1969.
“I couldn’t have done it if he hadn’t supported me,” Louise Stearns said. “He was encouraging, supportive and worked alongside me and was just a wonderful person.”
There are no special events planned for the 50th anniversary of the museum, but the museum board is encouraging people to take time to come in and check out what it has to offer.
The museum has attracted visitors from all over the world, and local schools even bring classes for educational purposes to learn about the history of Oakland and the state of Oregon.
The museum board has started a legacy fund encouraging people to leave money in their wills to support it, and they have already had several people include the museum in their wills.
The need gets greater each year as the price of utilities and other costs has continued to rise, and the board is hoping those donations will ensure the museum meets its budget goals. But Stearns says the volunteers are still the key to keeping it going.
“The volunteers are so cooperative. We couldn’t do it without them and they are the nicest people,” she said.
A lot of the volunteers are getting older and the board is looking for some younger blood keep the museum going, but Stearns is optimistic that it will be able to continue for many years to come. She is proud of what they have done with the museum in its first 50 years.
“I hope that we can carry on after I’m gone and that people will realize the value of it,” Stearns said. “I just love our little museum.”
Admission to the museum is free, but it does accept donations to help pay for operating costs.