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Looks like illuminating history doesn’t mean lighting up

Wednesday found me with some time to kill so I went to check out how Spokane’s better half used to live.

No, I don’t mean the suckers who bought million-dollar loft boxes when the downtown condo market was booming.

I drove to Browne’s Addition to tour the Campbell House, a living monument to what having real money was like during our robber baron days of yore.

“We prefer not to refer to those at the Campbell House as robber barons,” said Kim Davis, who added humorously that, “As robber barons went, they were pretty nice people.

The Campbell House is part of the MAC – the Museum of Arts and Culture, 2316 W. First.

Davis was the docent (guide) for the noon tour that included just me and an affable couple from Coeur d’Alene.

Boy do we ever live in a small town. Davis said he had met me a few years ago when I was asked to take part in a Civil War battle re-enactment.

Hearing that gave me a momentary cringe.

I recall that many of the fake soldiers wanted to put me in a real firing squad for my behavior. I fired one shot then ran screaming off the field like a hysterical maniac.

I still don’t see what the problem was. Everyone was being so brave. I thought someone needed to re-enact the part of a Civil War coward.

Fortunately for me, Davis didn’t harbor any grudges and he proved to be a wonderfully knowledgeable tour guide. Listening to his rich descriptions of what life was like at the Campbell House was like riding a time machine back to the turn of the century.

The turn prior to the last turn, that is.

The Campbell House was finished in 1898, probably for about $20,000.

That won’t buy you much of a new car today. But a dollar had a lot more buying power when Amasa Campbell hired famed architect Kirtland Cutter (the Davenport Hotel, the Glover Mansion) to design his English Tudor Revival-style home.

Campbell had dough to spare. He made a killing on North Idaho silver and lead.

Those were rough and turbulent times when management solved labor disputes by hiring thugs with clubs. Today the suits don’t need to beat you to break you, of course. They just lay you off, cut your benefits or keep forcing you to take unpaid furloughs.

It’s interesting to note that despite all his wealth, Campbell’s new house wasn’t the finest digs to be found. But the booklet I bought in the museum bookstore suggested the home is “one of a few restored to its original condition and open to the public.”

That’s a great thing for Spokane. Not long ago the Campbell House was closed to public viewing. Now back up and running, the MAC offers hourly Campbell House tours (for a modest fee) Wednesday through Saturday, beginning at noon.

I urge you to take the tour. Some of my highlights are …

The laundry room. Think your job is tough? Using a wood stove to heat the heavy hand irons, one of Campbell’s servants could iron 12 shirts an hour, Davis said.

The lighting. The electric bulbs glowing throughout the Campbell House give the place the dim aura of a mole’s lair. But the light bulbs are historically accurate, Davis said. And at the time they were considered a modern step up from kerosene lamps.

The kitchen. The Campbell House kitchen features a mammoth Majestic stove that offered cooking with both wood and gas. It doesn’t get any more state-of-the-art than that.

The living room. Note the large table in the center of the room. Davis said this original Campbell House piece was later acquired from a Washington State University fraternity.

So I’m guessing the tablecloth is to cover up all the beer keg scratches.

The den. His wife, Grace, and daughter, Helen, had the run of the house. But this basement room, with its red walls, was Campbell’s “man cave.”

Davis said big shots like the governor of Idaho sometimes played around the octagonal poker table, making business and political deals.

True story: Years ago I was invited to sit at this same poker table as Patsy Clark (another Spokane tycoon) during the Campbell House Christmas tours.

I dressed up in an old suit complete with a vest and a gold watch chain and dealt cards to some others who were also portraying historical characters.

Everything was going great until I decided to complete my role by lighting up a fat stogie, which didn’t go over well with some of the museum staffers.

I guess history isn’t as much fun to some people when they have to smell it.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at

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