Bainbridge Island has been home to many diverse communities of people and industries over its long history. For the Suquamish and other Coast Salish tribes, the island and the Puget Sound region was a center for trade. In the late 1800s, the timber industry arrived, changing the island landscape and creating a lucrative timber and shipbuilding industry. Agriculture became the next transformative economy, alongside the military, who used the island’s ideal location to protect the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, and later as a listening station post during World War II.
However, it was—and is today—the people that made our island the wonderful diverse community we now live in. The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum’s new exhibit is a celebration of the smaller communities that have lived, loved and worked on Bainbridge Island as well as the industries and businesses that supported these communities.
Our Community: Past to Present is collection of artifacts, photographs and stories from the past to the present. The exhibit is organized into 13 different community sections. Merilee wanted to focus on “telling the story” of these communities and worked with leaders and advisors to learn more about their community’s journey.
“I define community as a group of people linked together by heritage, work, or play, or any other associations,” she explained. Each advisor or leader collaborated with their individual communities to gather stories for their specific display. Some of the display items belong to the museum, while others were loaned from the community and/or individuals.
The Suquamish Tribe has occupied the Puget Sound for at least 14,000 years, and although not many members live on Bainbridge today, it is an important part of their ancestral heartland. The Tribe continues to harvest traditional foods in the area using their treaty to protect our waters.
The Filipino American Community came to the island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in search of work and education. Many were employed at Port Blakely Mill or worked as pickers and field bosses for the Japanese American farmers. Later they established their own farming community and businesses. So many photographs were donated for their display that Merilee couldn’t use them all in the exhibit, instead, she put them on viewfinders so visitors can still enjoy them.
Japanese men arrived in the late 1800s to work at Port Blakely Mill, once established they brought their families over. Although, the Japanese American Community suffered a great deal during World War II, their innumerable contributions can be seen and enjoyed all over the island.
The African American Community has lived on Bainbridge since the 19th century, working in timber, shipbuilding and the military. Their community contributions, as well as their work towards a more inclusive and equitable society has been invaluable to our growth.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, 36 Aboriginal women from 19 different tribes in Canada, Alaska and Washington migrated here to pick berries. They married young Filipino immigrants and raised their Indipino children. Although much of the maternal Aboriginal culture was abandoned early on, the grown children began to embrace their mixed heritage in the 1980s, creating the strong Indipino Community we have today.
In addition to sharing the stories and history of our diverse community, the Museum’s exhibits share stories about the Forestry, Faith, Business, Food, Military, Maritime and Transportation, and of course, Pickleball communities.
Merilee also designed fun interactive activities and games for visitors of all ages. “One of those fun, hands-on activities are a drawing/writing activity designed to support the thesis of the exhibit which is Community,” she explained. Visitors are invited to share through words and or drawings to different prompts about community, such as Community means __________ or A healthy community needs _________ to thrive. Merilee included this activity, “So that visitors can reflect and think about their relationship to community.”
She also created a “2-Minute Story” line where you can dial in and share your own story, and a section where you can relax and enjoy visual histories about four different communities: Indipino, Suquamish, Forestry, and Japanese American.
In addition to heading up the museum’s exhibits and engagement programs, Merilee runs The Curious Curator, where she explores BIHM’s collections, local historic sites, and other museums. Click here to learn more.
The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum began as an informal Society in the 1930s, and in 1949 they joined with the Kitsap County Historical Society, Bainbridge Island Branch. In 1971, the Island Center schoolhouse (the schoolhouse was built in 1908, and one of the last one-room schools in operation on the island until 1923, when it closed), was donated by the school district to the Society to be used as a museum and moved to Strawberry Hill Park (site of a former U.S. Army Nike missile base).
As the museum grew, and the community donated materials, they soon found themselves full to capacity, and through the generosity of the McCracken family, a new building was added onto the rear of the schoolhouse in 1997. Though Strawberry Hill was a beautiful setting for the museum, it wasn’t easily accessible and a new site was located on Ericksen Avenue, just one block north of Winslow Way and a short walk from the Seattle-Bainbridge Island ferry terminal. Both museum buildings were moved to the new site in 2004.
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