Showing off Hillyard history
Museum planners strive to save rail memories
This weekend, Hillyard will celebrate its unique heritage during the Hillyard Festival.
The theme for the oldest neighborhood event in Spokane is “Under Construction” – a tribute to the $16 million revitalization under way. Streets are being repaved, sidewalks upgraded and trees planted.
Festival organizers have planned three days of fun, including music, the Hillyard Hi-jinks parade, fireworks and carnival games.
Events like these give this northeast Spokane neighborhood a chance to show community pride. It’s an area rich with history – so much that it takes two museums to encompass everything.
The Hillyard Fire and Rail Museum is in a red caboose and two boxcars on specially built tracks at Queen and Green streets. This collection of railroad and fire memorabilia is the brainchild of retired deputy fire marshal Tom Heckler.
In addition, in 2004 the Hillyard Heritage Museum Society was established by neighborhood advocates Mike and Marjorie Brewer. Their goal is to collect and preserve information and artifacts of historic significance. The group is raising funds to build a museum on property near the rail cars. The two independent organizations have a common goal: ensuring Hillyard’s past is not forgotten.
Hillyard history is inextricably tied to the Great Northern Railroad. Established in 1892, the town grew up around the rail yards and was named after railroad magnate Jim Hill. In the Fire and Rail Museum caboose, a large, double-panel, sepia-tinted photo shows the scope of the railroad’s presence. “The yards stretched all the way from Wellesley north to Francis,” Heckler said. “In its prime, the railroad employed 6,000 workers.”
But in 1968 Great Northern merged with the Northern Pacific to become Burlington Northern, and the shops at Hillyard were cut back to local service. The yard closed for good in 1982. Heckler said, “The only artifact I got from the yards is the overflow device that sat atop the water tower.” He pointed to the large cast-iron ball with cut-out holes and noted its resemblance to something from outer space.
Other exhibits include a carpenter’s wooden toolbox, signs from Hillyard businesses and many photos.
The boxcars contain Heckler’s collection of fire memorabilia, including two antique fire extinguishers on wheels that were used in the rail yards. “Hillyard had its own fire department until it was annexed (to Spokane) in 1924,” he said.
Heckler is excited about the museum’s newest acquisition. “We purchased a 1942 Pullman sleeper car,” he said. He hopes the car will arrive within the month.
For 10 years, Heckler has given tours to Shaw Middle School students, ensuring they know their neighborhood’s history. He believes it’s important to educate young people about the railroad employees who “worked, played, stayed and retired here in Hillyard.”
The history of those workers is what Marjorie Brewer hopes to preserve at the Hillyard Heritage Museum. “We want to tell the story of the people who lived in Hillyard. The population was made up mostly of immigrant workers.”
For several years, her organization has gathered anecdotes and exhibits from the descendants of the original Hillyard residents. “It’s more than just the men in the yard,” Brewer said. “It’s the women at home, too.” She related the story of a Hillyard resident called Mrs. Weaver. “When Mrs. Weaver heard the noon whistle blow at the yard, she knew she had seven minutes to get the meal on the table.”
Brewer believes anecdotes of daily life in Hillyard honor the hardworking folks who populated the area. “Another lady I interviewed said her dad worked in the machine shop at the yard,” Brewer recalled. “Her mother placed a washtub on the back porch and set out a pair of clean clothes. Her dad would drop his dirty ones in the tub, put on the clean pair and go into the house for the meal.” She paused. “These are the stories I think are really precious – how people lived around the railroad.”
Organizers of the Hillyard Heritage Society Museum envision exhibits of local businesses like the telegraph office, the hardware store and the laundry. Brewer said one of their goals is to draw outside visitors to Hillyard. “We want to bring new faces, new energy and new shoppers to the Hillyard core,” she said.
Her husband, Mike Brewer, said of neighborhood residents, “The people are good, solid, down-to-earth people.” He knows what he’s talking about. The couple have lived in their Hillyard home since 1954.
The “Under Construction” theme of the Hillyard Festival seems in keeping with the shared goals of the Fire and Rail Museum and the Hillyard Heritage Museum. Marjorie Brewer said, “We want to rebuild the pride that Hillyard heritage carries with it.”