Keep History Happening

Sherman County Historical Museum seeks community support amid volunteer and visitor decline

Story and photos by Drew Myron

Museum Director Patti Fields brings design and photography skills to Sherman County Historical Museum.

Time is taking its toll at the Sherman County Historical Museum. Established nearly 40 years ago, the revered trove of local history is struggling through the loss of volunteers, COVID-19 closures, and a sharp decline in museum visitors.

A lack of local support has forced cutbacks at this seasonal attraction open May to October. Once open daily, the museum is scrambling to welcome visitors.

“We’re running thin,” says Patti Fields, museum director. “A lot of our volunteers have aged, and we’ve lost a lot of older people. We are having a shortage of museum hosts that greet visitors, and for the first time in years, the museum had to change its schedule and close on Sundays and Mondays.”

Located in the center of Moro, the museum is a showcase of the people who have worked, played, and lived in Sherman County for more than 100 years.

Spanning 830 miles, Sherman County is one of the state’s least-populated counties, with 6 small communities and fewer than 2,000 people.

While rural areas often show local history collections, few reach this level of professional display and presentation.

The polished presentation is rooted in the Sherman County Historical Society, a group formed in 1945 with passion for the past and vision for the future.

The Sherman County Historical Museum opened in 1983, thanks to the American Legion, which who donated its concrete block building for use as a museum. The society still oversees museum operations today.

Volunteers—including Sherry Kaseberg, Patty Moore, Wendell Clodfelter, Barbara Sharp and numerous others—spent years raising money and renovating the donated building.

Once the building was safe and secure, the group began a crash course in museum operations with help from the Oregon Museums Association, Horner Museum at Oregon State University, and Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington.

Museum Director Patti Fields wants to share the stories of Sherman County and its people. Quality lighting and carefully crafted displays bring a high level of professionalism to the rural history museum in Moro.

The learning curve was like “drinking from a fire hose,” says Sherry, who has spent four decades championing local history.

The museum was so popular that within 10 years a new wing was added, paving the way for later expansions. In 1994, the museum earned the Albert B. Corey Award for “imagination, scholarship, and vigor” by the American Association for State and Local History.

“It’s like a little Oscar for small museums,” says Patti, who has served as museum director since 2013 and is the nonprofit’s only employee.

Patti grew up in Sherman County, earned a communications degree from the University of Oregon, worked in television news production in Portland, then married her high school sweetheart and returned to her roots to raise a family.

“The museum is an extension of the county communities—past, present and future—a place for lifelong learning, a place to connect to roots and history,” says Sherry, an early advocate for creating the museum.

Now in her 80s, Sherry has served as historical society president, museum coordinator, director and editor of publications.

“I love local history and its storytellers and related research,” she says. “The museum broadened my world.”

Though the single-level entrance appears modest, the museum encompasses 13,000 square feet and features more than 15,000 artifacts that tell the rich history of Native American life, Oregon Trail migration, wheat farming, military service, newspaper production and more.

The museum collection is comprised of everyday items—dishes, clothing, magazines, maps, medical equipment, photos, and logging and farm tools—that reveal a slice of life in Sherman County.

While most museums display just 20% of their inventory and store the remaining items for rotating exhibits or special displays, Sherman County Historical Museum displays nearly all its holdings.

Patti says there’s a story behind everything in the building.

“These gloves and purses and personal items came out of their homes, their hope chests, their dressers,” she says of a collection of accessories. “This is more than facts and figures, it’s personal and real. That’s what gives a lot of depth to our museum.”

Museum leaders want to maintain a quality experience for visitors, but it’s growing increasingly difficult to keep the doors open as their volunteer base ages and dies. This issue—a challenge facing small museums across the state—is compounded by closures, restrictions and a sharp decline in visitors.

A covered bridge crosses a creek to the museum entrance.

Due to the pandemic, the museum was closed for the entire 2020 season, then opened with limited hours in 2021.

A typical season sees about 2,500 visitors, but the past two years have seen a brutal reduction.

“There’s no foot traffic,” says Patti, who is hopeful tourists, students and community groups will return soon. “More people are doing local vacations. Hopefully, people will see the value of small museums. I think people are slowing down and stopping to see our smaller towns.”

The drop-off in attendance is also having a financial impact. While the low admission price—$5 for adults—brings in some revenue, funders carefully consider visitor numbers and local support when making grants and donations.

Museum leaders urge the community to support the museum by becoming members for $30 a family.

“It’s really important that we get a new wave of people that support us as members,” Patti says.

Bruce Melzer, a third-generation Sherman County resident and museum volunteer, is proud to be a part of a community-oriented organization.

“I grew up in the area, and a lot of this history is my history,” he says. Patti agrees.

“There are so many stories to tell,” she says. “What we are doing today—what’s happening now—is actually history. I tell the kids who visit, this is their history, their life. They are part of the Sherman County story.”