The Jefferson County Historical Society has been without a museum for six years, but plans are being made to reopen one in the former Westside Elementary School building in Madras.
The Bean Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Madras, is working with a group of local stakeholders to transform the old school building into a community center that would include the museum and other community organizations. Plans include possibly adding a library facility on the 7-acre property and having space for the Jefferson County School District and city and county officials.
The 54,000-square-foot school building hosts programs for the Kids Club, High Desert ESD and the school district.
Dubbed the Westside Community Campus project, it is still in the early stages and could take three to five years to complete, according to the historical society. But society members say it will be worth the wait.
“It seems to us like an ideal arrangement of public buildings all on one big campus,” said Jerry Ramsey, a historical society board member.
Until 2013, the historical society’s museum was open on the top floor of the old county courthouse in downtown Madras. The county put the building up for sale, and the museum decided to move out, Ramsey said.
The small space had its limitations, such as no handicap access or heat in the winter, Ramsey said.
“It was crowded, and we couldn’t even have our historical society events and meetings there,” he said.
At the time, volunteers helped move about 6,000 artifacts into storage. The collection is being temporarily stored in the old Westside Elementary School building, where it can be conveniently arranged into a museum.
The historic collection includes various items from the early ranching days such as saddles, packing equipment and brands. Artifacts also include a large iron knife from Chief Paulia’s tribe and a shotgun used in the days when stagecoaches would travel through the region.
Ramsey said the historical society has stayed active without having a museum. In recent years, the historical society launched History Pubs, which are casual historical lectures similar to the ones held at McMenamins Old St. Francis School in Bend.
The historical society is also proud of its semiannual publication, The Agate, which features in-depth stories on historical topics in the area. The Agate earned an Oregon Heritage Commission excellence award in 2018, Ramsey said.
Staying active has helped the historical society grow its membership base. To date, the historical society has about 300 members, Ramsey said.
When the museum reopens, Ramsey hopes the support continues and people will volunteer time to help run the museum.
Ramsey is encouraged by seeing the support for other regional museums such as the Deschutes Historical Museum and the Sherman County Museum.
“Looking around, Central Oregon is remarkable in the state and beyond in the vitality and the strength of its historical societies,” Ramsey said.
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