an exhibition at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center

3515 S. Alaska St.

December 7, 2002 – June 27, 2003


prepared by Donald Fels

Project directed and curated by

Donald Fels and Mikala Woodward, RVHS Director

with support from

Burke Museum, University of Washington

King County Office of Cultural Resources

Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation

Washington Commission for the Humanities

Rainier Rotary Foundation


In the fall of 2002, artist/educator Donald Fels and Rainier Valley Historical Society Director Mikala Woodward explored the Courtland Place neighborhood in the Rainier Valley with 4th and 5th graders from John Muir Elementary. The children carried out an archaeological dig on Courtland Place with support from Burke archaeologists, and oral histories with help from Woodward and Fels. Woodward provided historic photographs of the neighborhood from the RVHS Collection, and the John Muir School Library provided old scrapbooks that documented the history of the school.

Using all of this material, the students put together their own historical narrative of Courtland Place. In their words and with their illustrations, the exhibition features the dig, what they learned about the neighborhood, and how history is recorded and understood.

The exhibition is suitable for elementary through secondary students; it is compact and easy for students to take in. The exhibition is displayed in three glass-fronted cases, each of which addresses a related theme. There is much information packed into the exhibit, and much to be learned by exploring with children how and why they might learn about the history of their neighborhood. The guide is also divided into three parts: before, during and after the class visit to the exhibit. It is intended as an aid to viewing the exhibition and to initiating discussions and classroom activities.

While the John Muir students were extremely fortunate in having the Burke Museum archaeologists structure an actual archaeological dig with them, this is clearly not the norm for school activities. Therefore the guide does not assume that other classrooms will be doing a dig. However, the exhibition is set up to show how the dig was carried out and what it unearthed, so that children can appreciate the role of archaeology in understanding even fairly recent history. Planning for the dig took many months, involved several institutions, and required the writing of several grants. There are simpler ways for children to investigate the past where they live and go to school. The purpose of the exhibition and this guide is to create interest in doing community history and suggest ways to get started in its exploration.

BEFORE seeing the exhibition

1. Discuss with students how they usually get to know a place, for example their own neighborhood. How do they know who lives where? How do they know what has happened in the neighborhood before? Who might they go to ask or get more information? Are there resources besides people in the neighborhood for learning about the place? How would they find out what those resources are and how to access them?

There are formal and informal ways of finding out information. Children, like adults, ask people whom they know and trust for information; they watch and listen to adults and other children as they talk. These informal ways of gathering information and stories are extremely valuable, and should be credited as primary sources of learning about a place. The more formal ways – going to a library, historical society, internet, are valuable too – but are less personal and usually less finely tuned to the extremely local history of a particular neighborhood.

2. Talk with students about why people care about the history of a place. How does it help people to know something about the history of their neighborhood, region, country, world? What would happen if nobody knew anything about their history?

3. If there is reason to gather and research history, how is it usually collected and distributed? Is this work that is usually done by children? Why? What special skills and points of view do children bring to this task that adults might not?

Children have a point of view that is fresh and free from convention – much of the community history will be new to them, and therefore exciting and interesting. Because they are unafraid to ask direct questions, their questioning often leads to more truthful and direct answers. Oral history informants are usually pleased to speak with children, and often prepare themselves well in advance by organizing their stories and information. Since adults assume children probably don’t know the history, they go to extra pains to make their explanations coherent, concise and interesting.

Children tend to inquire about family life in a way that adults might overlook. They want to know what kids did “back then,” by themselves, with each other, and with their families. The answers they receive provide clues to the social history not always treated in conventional histories. Children make and organize connections between events and information differently than the connections made by adults. The same information obtained or investigated by children is apt to be processed, understood and shared differently than in a conventional history. For all these reasons and more, history as investigated by children is valuable and important.

Two books available in libraries that examine some of these issues:

Nearby History: exploring the past around you. By David Kyvig

Minds Stayed on Freedom; the civil rights struggle in the rural South: an oral history

4. If possible take a walk in the neighborhood around the school with the class. Ask them about what they see, and what they think would be interesting to tell others about. Ask them to think about how the place appeared many decades ago. Back in class the children can write and draw about what they saw and imagined from the past.

The Exhibition

The Dig

First Exhibit Case

Children from two classes at John Muir conducted the archaeological dig in planting strips along Courtland Place. They were able to walk to the dig from their school; maps on the side of the cabinet show the route to the dig as depicted by the students. The dig lasted one week, and included two square pits, ‘Unit 1’ and ‘Unit 2’. Digging, screening, sorting, and cataloging stations were arranged along the street, under tents. The dig was organized and supervised by the Burke Museum archaeologists, and was conducted exactly as an official archaeological dig – in fact, the site is now registered as an archaeological site with the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

Over the past few years the Courtland Place neighbors, with assistance from the City of Seattle, have organized the planting of trees in the area between the sidewalk and the street paving. As holes were dug in the ground for the trees, many bottles and jars were unearthed. The glass containers dated to the first decades of the 20th century. Research established that there was a dump at the current site of the Rainier Plaza shopping center on Rainier Ave (the large Safeway store, Long’s Drug, and Hollywood Video are the major tenants). It is not known when the dump opened, but city records show that it closed in 1939. Courtland Place runs along the side of the dumpsite. Because of the many artifacts found on Courtland during the tree planting projects, it was decided to organize an archaeological dig there.

In the book that accompanies the exhibition, the dig process is outlined in detail by Cally, one of the 4th graders, She explains what happens at each of the four stations, and how the tools displayed in the first cabinet are used. There are also drawings in the cabinet of the tools. The Burke archaeologists taught the children how to use the tools, and how to record their findings at each station. Examples of the forms the children filled out are also in the first cabinet.

An archaeological dig is systematized so that information is not lost. Each artifact gets a label with a number that can eventually be tracked by computer. The number shows where the artifact was found – in which of the two units, and exactly where in the unit. The units (pits) are dug in a square format so that they can be divided with strings evenly into an exact grid. The artifact location is determined by where it was found within the grid and at what depth. The level is determined by measurement. The deeper the artifact usually implies, if there has been no previous disturbance of the site, an earlier deposit. Since the units at the Courtland Place dig were conducted as test holes, and only dug as deeply as the children could reach, the depth of the find probably didn’t reflect much difference in time of deposit. Also, since the site was a dump, the exact arrangement of the artifacts probably does not contain much useful information.

A deeply dug site would yield more information (and more artifacts) from a longer period of time. In fact, the bottles and jars shown behind the black scrim are some of the bottles unearthed by a City of Seattle crew while putting in a gas line on Courtland Place a few weeks after the children dug their test holes. The city crew was using mechanical digging machines that could go considerably deeper than the children’s arms. Interest generated by the archaeological dig caused neighbors to work with the city crew to conserve the bottles they found. They were donated to the Rainier Valley Historical Society.

Artifacts found by the children and on display include a porcelain doorknob, a pen that still writes, parts of plates, bottles, pieces of rubber, pieces of metal, some coal, a brick, a small piece of metal with the word “LAUNDRY” on it. Each of these items was once used in the area, and then disposed of. Questions to ask children viewing the exhibit revolve around what the artifacts tell us about the way people lived in the early part of the last century, and what characterizes the types of artifacts found. For example, why were there no newspapers, pieces of furniture, or articles of clothing found in the ground?  If things decompose underground, how do we know about what life was like a long time ago? What is the job of museums? Do ideas and stories also get old? Do they get buried too? How do they get found or revived?

Gridding the square holes and determining where in the grid the artifacts were found involves math and mapping skills.  A game to develop these skills with children can be carried out by making a wooden frame of four 2×4’s, each 18″ long. Placing the 2×4’s on edge, make a picture frame of the pieces of wood on a table top or the floor. Place a few small objects randomly within the square framed by the 2×4’s. Ask the children looking down on the square to draw the objects from above, asking them to observe where the objects are in relationship to one another. Then, when they have completed the drawings, staple string across the top edge of the 2×4 frame, so that each side of the square is divided into 3 sections (this will give you nine squares in your string grid). Hand out paper with a square divided into 9 equal parts, and ask the children to draw the objects again. Most children find it easier to complete the task accurately when the strings form a grid. Discuss with the children how this procedure is used in making maps and in enlarging small drawings into large paintings and murals.

As the children wrote exhibit labels for the artifacts they had to guess at what the artifact was made of and what it might have been used for. Educated guessing is an important part of science and social studies. Further research allows archaeologists and historians to determine whether their guesswork is more or less correct. Working with artifacts from the past involves conjecture because the earlier context is no longer present. The students conducted oral histories about the neighborhood in order to fill in some of that context. Without the stories they gathered and narrative they developed about the neighborhood, the artifacts have little meaning.

The Stories

Second Exhibit Case

Over a period of several weeks the children interviewed people from the neighborhood. Interviewees were sought who had either grown up in the neighborhood, or been there for several decades. More interviewees were available then time for the children to speak with them. A different group of children interviewed each person, usually six or seven kids to a group. The interviews took place at the school in a small area at the end of a hallway.

Though the interviews were tape recorded for preservation at the Rainier Valley Historical Society, the kids took notes. At the end of the interview the kids returned to the classroom and reported salient features of the interview to the rest of the class. Already, moments after having conducting the interview, the kids were “editing” the information they had heard, choosing which stories were important to share with their classmates. This editing occurred naturally throughout the project, and like in life itself, the stories most interesting to the children became the information that made it into the exhibition.

There was not room for all the stories in the exhibit, and those that are not included in the case are presented in the red book at the end of the exhibit.


Since the children had already found many medicine bottles in the dig, they asked about the pharmacies in the area. The children found out that in the 1920s and ‘30s there were many pharmacies in the area. During Prohibition, pharmacies could dispense “remedies” which contained a high percentage of alcohol when alcohol was not otherwise available for social drinking. Dozens of pharmacies sprang up to take advantage of this loophole in the law, and Bartell’s was frequently accused of faking prescriptions for alcoholic “remedies.” Could some of these remedies have been purchased simply to obtain an alcoholic drink?

Included are a Bayer aspirin bottle and one containing an ointment called “Musterole.” These were both popular brands during the first decades of the 20th century and can be researched on the internet.


After the dump was closed, the circus used the large open space. Several interviewees mentioned the circus, and one provided photographic evidence he took there when he was ten years old.

Population Changes

The kids were curious about the different waves of ethnic immigration into the area. At one time the area just North of Courtland was called Garlic Gulch because of the large numbers of Italian immigrants living there. Many of these Italians had small truck farms in the area. The Desimone family that founded the Pike Place Market had a farm there, and until very recently still had a vegetable stand on Rainier Ave.

As the children explored the scrapbooks in the John Muir School Library, the first thing they noted was that the school had changed names in 1921.The school was originally named “Wetmore,” but it was changed to “York School” early on because it was near York Station on the Rainier Valley Streetcar Line. The children discovered that their neighborhood used to be called “York” – a fact that is all but forgotten today.

Looking at groups of class pictures in the school scrapbooks, the children could see how the population in the neighborhood has changed. In the exhibit you can see that in the 1924 school picture there were many Japanese families. In the 1943 there were none. It was explained to the children that after Pearl Harbor the Japanese were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

In a 1966 newspaper clipping from the school scrapbooks, the caption explains that there was a recitation about “Negro culture”. The photograph shows that John Muir’s all-white classes were becoming integrated by the mid-1960s. African Americans came into the neighborhood in the 1960s and ‘70s when the neighborhood fell on hard times and thus became more affordable. Also, the civil rights movement in Seattle brought an end to racial redlining that had largely confined black homeowners to the Central District.

Claude Forward, a prominent African American from the neighborhood, was one of the interviewees. He explained how crime had risen to frightening levels, and how he and others organized the community to “take back” their streets. He explained that the crime kept vacancies high and rents low in the neighborhood and indirectly provided the opportunity for recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and Africa to settle in the Rainier Valley. The neighborhood’s diversity is now a point of pride for many residents.

Mr. Forward and other interviewees also explained to the children that the neighborhood had always been very tolerant and open, and welcomed “mixed” couples, even when blatant racism permeated the rest of society. He told the children about his experiences working at Boeing. Until a big strike after the war, he wasn’t allowed to join the union because he was black, and he was paid less than white workers. These kinds of intimate personal discussions between the children and the neighborhood elders were frank and informative in powerful ways that no “lesson” could be.


The children were naturally also interested in the story of Sicks Stadium that once stood on Rainier Avenue where the Lowe’s Hardware is now. Sicks Stadium was built by Emil Sick, owner of the Rainier brewery, and opened in 1938. It was torn down in 1979. It was actually the second baseball park on the site. The first was called Dugdale Park, and it opened in 1913. It burned down July 4, 1932. The children especially liked hearing that students from their school could attend baseball games free of charge if they did well in school. Failing that, they could join the freeloaders and watch the action from the Vacca Brothers vegetable farm on the hill behind the stadium.


The kids loved to hear about what the interviewees remembered about their childhoods. This turned out to be a very fruitful topic of discussion. A related topic that came up in the first interview quickly became a standard question: “What did you do when you were a kid to get in trouble?” Every interviewee prefaced his or her response by saying “Now, you have to promise me you won’t do this.” These tales of mischief were fun to hear about, and they created a sense of shared secrets that made the interviews feel more intimate. They also gave the kids a valuable glimpse into what childhood was like decades ago, and they revealed and confirmed other aspects of neighborhood history as well.  Dan Fink and his friends picketed the local candy store because they thought the prices were too high. Did they get this idea from seeing union strikes or civil rights protests? Suzy Banchero played in abandoned houses with her friends – and the fact that there were so many abandoned houses illustrated vividly that the neighborhood had fallen on hard times.

Looking at History

Third Exhibit Case

The large eye in the center of the third case has a child-written story beneath that explains its origins. What the written piece doesn’t mention is that Suzy Banchero, who supplied the eye, told the children the story of “The Eye of Ann Sothern” in response to the kids questions about doing “bad” things. She told them that as the oldest of six children, she had to be good all the time, but that when her husband was a teenager, he stole the winking eye of Ann Sothern from a billboard on Rainier Avenue. (Suzy’s father-in-law bought the land that had been the dump from the city and county in 1939, and developed the first grocery there; the family later sold the land to the developers that enticed Safeway to the area.)  A few days after her interview, the children decided to ask Suzy if they could borrow the eye for the exhibition. She agreed, and it is now proudly displayed.

Behind the eye is a statement that reads,  “I learned that milk came to houses because Dan Fink told Thaddaeus and Thaddaeus told me”. Thaddeaus is a child in the 4th grade class, Dan Fink was the interviewee with whom the kids most identified. It was Danny who first told them about his childhood exploits. The eye and the statement are hung in the last case to suggest how history derives from very specific points of view. The children perceived Dan Fink as an honest purveyor of the truth: he told them how it really was. Despite its shady provenance, the story of the eye rang true to the children too – especially since they got to see it do its magic. History is not a unified vision of reality. It is made up of linked stories. History most often focuses on famous and important people. In this exhibit those people are Claude Forward and Dan Fink and Suzy Banchero. These people and their exploits bring to life a past the children didn’t know, or even know about.

At the bottom of the last case are three “Donna stories”. Jerry Elfendahl, who graduated from John Muir in 1952, told the children about a child at the school who disappeared suddenly, only to reappear at their 50th John Muir reunion. The first two of the stories reflect the story Jerry told, retold by two different children. The third story was actually related by Suzy Banchero, but in the mind of the student, became another tale of Donna. The three stories were included together to show that facts can be reshaped by storytelling, and that myths can easily be recorded as history.

The elephants marching across the back of the case recall an image that was recounted by several of the interviewees – circus elephants joined trunk to tail marched from the downtown train station down Rainier Avenue to the circus grounds. While the children saw no photographs of this, they had no doubt that it did happen, nor did they have any difficulty imagining how it might have appeared. Imaging is one way to understand history.

Other activities that the children used to understand history included: listening, reading, looking at pictures, digging for artifacts, searching on the internet, and looking in the library. The children’s drawings in the case are intended to portray some of these ways of learning about history.

Follow Up

A class doesn’t have to do an archaeological dig to unearth fascinating information about a neighborhood. If after seeing the exhibition the children are interested in learning about their own neighborhood, you can create a class unit to do this. A letter home might ask whether parents could suggest suitable interviewees, or provide old photographs, artifacts, or other materials. Local historical societies have a wealth of information, as do museums such as the Museum of History and Industry. These institutions can help you and the class make use of their collections. There are municipal archives maintained by the city and county. The state archives are located at Bellevue Community College. The following activities could all be part of a neighborhood history study.


Work with maps at the beginning of the unit could delineate what exactly might constitute the neighborhood in question. Neighborhoods have a tendency to be renamed over time – even tracing the successive names is an interesting exercise in local history.


There are plenty of artifacts available in everyone’s attic, basement, or storage unit. It is important that the children and their families understand that for artifacts to be interesting and informative about the past, they don’t have to be valuable or well-preserved. The artifacts found at the Courtland dig were all things that had been literally thrown away, but they still had the power to tell stories. What brought out that power was integrating the “artifact recovery” with other information and exercises in thinking broadly about the neighborhood’s past. Children are by nature broad thinkers. It is important to give them access to various sources of information and work with them to develop a structure for understanding.


Ask the school librarian if there are old photographs of the school available. Ask your local historical society or library if they have photos of the neighborhood. Ask your students to bring pictures in from home. Older neighbors may be able to provide pictures. More and more historic photographs have been scanned and put on the web, and are downloadable free of charge. Try these web sites for photographs of particular neighborhoods or locations.

www.seattlehistory.org (Museum of History and Industry)

www.historylink.org (Washington State History)

www.cityofseattle.net/CityArchives/ (City of Seattle Municipal Archives)

www.crossingboundaries.org (12,000 historic photos of King County, available late 2003)

To find local historical societies and museums in your area, check out the “Links Plus” page at historylink.org. There is a searchable database of museums and historical organizations, plus a directory of AKCHO members. (Association of King County Historical Organizations).

Have the students analyze the photographs (a sample work sheet is attached). They can write stories about what might be happening in them, or draw pictures based on the historic images. With disposable cameras, they can go out into the neighborhood and take pictures of the same locations today. Historic photographs can be used to enhance an oral history interview or map study as well.

Oral Histories

Bringing other people into the classroom is an easy and exciting way to assist the kids in seeing the past. Many adults very much enjoy sharing their knowledge about a place with children – they just need to be asked. Begin looking for interviewees early in the process, as it can take several links in the chain of contact before you find the right people.

Work with the kids to brainstorm and refine a basic list of questions you will ask the interviewees, leaving room for follow-up questions and questions specific to an individual interviewee. Give the interviewees the list of questions ahead of time – giving them time to prepare will lead to much better interviews. They may even be inspired to dig up old photographs or artifacts for the kids to study.

Small groups of kids (maximum of 6) will be able to establish a more intimate tone in an interview; trying to address the whole class can be overwhelming for an interviewee. You can use a cheap tape recorder to record the interview, or simply have the children take good notes. Have the kids report back to the rest of the class immediately after the interview, while it is still fresh in their minds. Writing up their favorite stories should also be done fairly soon after the interview.

Finally, always write a thank you note to the interviewee, and be sure to include them in whatever presentation you make at the end of the project – send them a copy of the book, invite them to see the exhibit, etc.

Share What You Learn

A neighborhood history study will be interesting to many people outside the classroom, and it is important to share your findings with the rest of the school and with the larger community. Putting together a final product will also help students focus on the most important things they have learned, and teach them a lot about how historical narratives are constructed from the incomplete evidence available. A classroom exhibit, a publication, a web site, a slide show – these are all ways to share your students’ work. See if you can get the local paper to write a story about your project. Whenever possible, give a copy of your final product to your interviewees, the school library, and the local historical society.

In the end, history is always edited by human memory. For history to be remembered it must be either transmitted from person to person by word of mouth, or written down, or both. Artifacts are useful for holding on to memory, for representing a time and place. Children can even make ‘pretend’ artifacts to represent stories they have been told. They do this all the time when they draw pictures or play house. Artists do this in two-dimensional forms, and in sculptural three dimensions. Storybooks often tell true stories, or reinterpret stories from legend and history. Cultures have different ways of remembering their history. In the multi-ethnic classrooms of today’s schools, children might have different cultural ways of knowing about their past. A class activity could involve asking grandparents about their childhoods. Each child could choose a way to represent some of his/her family history, and a display made from the results.

The children from John Muir heard many more stories from the interviewees than they put in the exhibition. To adult ears many were very interesting – such as how Lake Washington was lowered 9 feet when the Mountlake Cut was dug in 1916. But this story didn’t grab the imagination of the children, and didn’t make it into the exhibit. Perhaps if there had been “before” and “after” photographs available, or time to visit the working model of the Puget Sound watersheds at the UW, the children would have had a better sense of what the lake changes meant. Like adult historians, the children had particular interests, and it was those interests that made it into the history they told.