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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bye-bye, butter churn: St. John’s local history museum favors narratives over artifacts

ST. JOHN, Wash. – Many small-town museums are rarely open, perhaps only for a few hours on weekends in the summer or by appointment.

Not so in St. John, a Palouse farming hub of 600 people where the local history museum keeps regular weekday hours with a side entrance from town hall.

Sleek and minimalist, the St. John Heritage Museum is not cluttered with early-century sewing machines or rusty farm tools (though it does have a few of those in the back). What artifacts it does keep are carefully curated.

As a heritage museum, the exhibits focus on people and stories rather than objects.

“Anything we take in has to have a story,” said Lydia Smith, president of the St. John Historical Society.

When she planned the museum, she took advice from a curator in Seattle who advised against filling it with a bunch of old junk.

“Everybody’s seen a butter churn,” Smith said. “So, we just concentrated on the stories of our heritage.”

Founded in 1904 and named for early settler Edward Talbert St. John, the town on state Highway 23 between Colfax and Sprague has always been a center for wheat farming. If it wasn’t for agriculture, St. John simply wouldn’t exist, Smith said.

A brick wall with blown-up black -and -white photos brings to life vivid historic farming scenes: A team of two dozen mules pulls a combine harvester; an early self-propelled harvester is wrecked on a hillside farm; hands fill sacks of wheat and store them in neat piles in the field.

Another exhibit called Journey Stories tells the narratives with text and portraits of how the town’s early residents arrived.

Several traveled from Europe by way of New York. A 12-year-old girl walked to St. John with her family from California because there was no room for her in their wagon.

“Some of these stories are hilarious and some are sad,” said Carole Scherff, a museum volunteer who proofread the narratives collected from the pioneers or their descendants.

Around the corner, a central alcove of an exhibit titled “Warrior Stories” honors the town’s service members. Display cases hold their uniforms and mementos.

Five pilots served in World War II or Vietnam, and all five returned to raise their families.

Bryant Smick, a B-24 pilot, was shot down over the Bay of Trieste in northern Italy and Slovenia in June 1944 and swam four hours to the shore of Yugoslavia, where he was captured by German soldiers and taken prisoner for the rest of the war. Wesley Schierman, whose plane was shot down in Vietnam, was a prisoner of war for nearly eight years.

Perhaps more so than the original settlers, these men are considered forefathers of the town, Smith said.

Smith moved to St. John in 1963 when she married her husband, Bruce, a local boy. Over time, she became familiar with the town’s history, but was disappointed there wasn’t a place for people to learn more about it.

As a member of the town council, Smith volunteered to take on the museum project in 2009.

It took four years of donations, fundraisers and volunteer work to renovate the building, a former drug store that had been donated to the town. Students from Washington State University’s design school helped plan the facility.

Today, the free museum is supported by a thrift store across the street called ReNew. Half of the nonprofit’s proceeds go to the museum, while the other half pay for community programs like street flowers, the food bank and school activities.

Manager Linda Siler said the store has been surprisingly successful thanks to generous donations and patronage.

The museum’s other items of interest include organized binders of newspaper clippings, photos and a map of former schoolhouses, and a wall of area livestock brands that had been displayed for many years in a local tavern.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.