Last week, in Part I of my two months in Walla Walla, I shared the history of the area as well as some of my impression. Now on to the fun stuff.
Although the Whitmans called their mission the Mission at Waiilatpu, the National Park Service calls the National Historic Site the Whitman Mission. And it was my first adventure in Walla Walla. It’s about 10 miles outside town. The area is small. Think of it as three parts. First there is the Visitor’s Center. Then the mission itself, or rather the building’s foundations. Last, on a hill overlooking the site of the mission and the Walla Walla Valley is a 27-foot monument called the Whitman Memorial, which was erected in 1897 on the 50th anniversary of the Whitman Massacre.
I visited it on November 26 and my timing was perfect since the Visitor’s Center is closed during December and January. I did the mission walk and visited the memorial first because rain threatened to begin at any time.
The mission itself succumbed to fire in the period following the massacre. The Park Service created a walking tour of the mission’s buildings. So you follow the path and where a building once stood is now the outline of the building and an information board. Some of the information boards have buttons you can press to hear additional information.
It’s surprising how much your imagination can fill in with simply a building outline. Buildings included a blacksmith shop, a grist mill and housing buildings. The largest building was a multi-purpose building with a classroom, kitchen, pantry, washroom, bedrooms and Marcus Whitman’s office. It’s also where the massacre took place. I stood on the exact spot where Marcus Whitman received a tomahawk to the head and the place where Narcissa was shot. Narcissa didn’t die right away. Led outside by a trapper in cahoots with the Cayuse, Narcissa was killed when she exited the building.
It sounds morbid to stand on the exact spot where someone was murdered. I know. And it was. But it was also kind of neat. At least I thought so.
The walk from building to building was lovely. Not far at all. Then once around the mission, we walked along the Historic Route of Oregon Trail and up the hill to the Great Grave and Whitman Memorial. The hill wasn’t long but it was fairly steep. It was good exercise going up but wet leaves made coming down quite slippery. We went slow and took tiny steps.
Since this was all outside, dogs are allowed on a leash. After we finished, I put Solstice in the van and headed in to the Visitor’s Center.
The Visitor’s Center is small but it includes a museum and a theater. During peak times, I think the film runs on a schedule but since I was the only person there at the time the Ranger said as soon as I sat down, she would start the film. I enjoyed the 20-minute film and appreciated that it didn’t tell a one-sided story about the massacre. It told of deep cultural differences, unrest, suspicion, distrust and revealed that the Whitmans were repeatedly warned of the danger and told to leave in the months leading up to November 27, 1847.
Even though the Visitor’s Center closed a few days after I was there, the park remained opened. I returned several more times to walk the mission loop, the Oregon Trail and the hill up to the memorial.
Kirkman House Museum
I like museums but I’m discovering I particularly enjoy the tiny, quirky, specific ones best. After about 90 minutes in the really big ones, things blur and my eyes and brain starts to fatigue. So, when I find museums that I can see in total within the 90-minute time frame, it is perfect.
I also love the Victorian Era. So I struck gold when I visited the Kirkman House Museum. When the house was built in 1880 by William and Isabella Kirkman, it was one of the grandest house in Walla Walla and, today, is the second oldest brick building still in existence in the area.
It went through a lot of hands over the years. The Kirkmans donated it to Whitman College and from 1920 through 1924 it served as the boys’ dormitory. Sold by the college and converted to apartments, it housed many people over the next 50 years.
The museum came into being as a rescue operation. Money was raised and the house was elected to the National Historic Register in 1974. The long work of restoring it to its original glory got underway. It received non-profit status in 1981. A long list of restoration projection remains all these years later, a board member told me.
I could not have had luckier timing for my visit to the museum. One day of the year—the day I went—the museum has a Victorian Christmas Open House where volunteers dress in period costumes. They serve holiday cookies and sing carols. The old pump organ played twice during the day. And, extra bonus, admission is free. Every other day of the year, admission is $7.
It was fun and festive. The museum’s treasures belonged to the Kirkmans but also includes thousands of period items donated by area residents. I spoke with one woman who comes up from California every year to volunteer for the Open House. Years before while doing family genealogy, she visited Walla Walla to see a Kirkman grave. Someone in town asked if she had visited Kirkman House. She hadn’t even heard of it but she visited and figured out she was a relative. She is a descendant of William Kirkman’s brother.
After a couple hours, a couple of songs and a couple of cookies at the museum, I walked a couple of blocks and enjoyed the Macy’s Parade of Lights.
One day, in the RV park office, I perused the brochure rack and discovered four brochures each with a different Historical Walk. I confess that I never heard of Historic Walks. But after reading the brochure, I knew I was going take my first Historical Walk and was pretty sure I was going to love it. And I did.
To me, they are like a treasure hunt, as I walk along searching for the next site on the map. Now I ask about Historic Walks every place I visit.
In Walla Walla, I enjoyed the Historical Homes Trail Guide and the Downtown Historical Trail Guide. In addition to the treasure hunt thrill, what I like about a self-guided walk is I go at my own pace. On the Homes walk, it was through neighborhoods and I was able to make it our daily dog walk. Because my dog is geriatric, our pace was somewhat slow. We took a couple of rests during the two-mile adventure. That wouldn’t be an option—heck even taking a dog wouldn’t be an option—on a guided tour.
Walla Walla’s Pioneer Park (with the large old trees) is big as parks go with lots to see and do. In addition to enjoying the trees, I particularly like the Aviary. It’s outside so you can visit it anytime. There are a dozen or so pens, each with a different bird or birds. In a large open area many varieties of birds share the green and water space. Fenced with a net roof, they cannot escape. I noticed many fat squirrels who squeezed through the fence to help themselves to the birds’s food. Across the road from the aviary is an open duck pond where birds are free to come and go as they please. The Aviary is free but they do have a donation box to help “feed the birds.”
Two miles down the road from the Whitman Mission is another Historical Site. Frenchtown is where Canadian Frenchmen settled, many taking Indian wives. Their descendants were called Metis which is the French word for mixed blood and these intermarriages spawned a new culture of food, clothing, music and even a distinct language. There isn’t that much to see, but I still enjoyed the walk around the area and reading the informational signs.
The Museum of Un-Natural History wasn’t on a single “must see” list. I’m believe it’s because it isn’t a government entity or a nonprofit. I’m thankful to the Chinese man who stopped and talked with me on the street when I was scanning the brochure rack outside the Visitor’s Center. Not only did he educate me about the rich and long history of Chinese people in Walla Walla (he himself was a fourth-generation resident), he told me about this unique little place. He was just one example of why I believe the “friendliest city” award was given to the right town.
Despite its name, the Museum of Un-Natural History isn’t actually a museum. It’s a one-man art show. But it’s free and quirky and unlike anything else. It’s only open on Saturday mornings and the artist is well into his 80’s so this is one you’ll want to visit sooner than later. For more mature readers, you may remember the artist. He was the voice of Sugar Bear (the cartoon character for the Post Super Sugar Crisp cereal) and he rowed around the toilet tank for Tidy Bowl.
Frazier Farmstead Museum serves as the history of the Milton-Freewater, Oregon area (it’s only 13 miles from Walla Walla) and is filled with period donations from residents. Admission to the museum is always free. They gratefully accept donations. Like my visit to the Kirkman House Museum, I got lucky. I visited on the day of their annual Christmas Open House. I got more cookies, conversations with volunteers and the chance to make an orange and clove Christmas ornament.
Next Trip to the Area
On every lists I read regarding things to do in Walla Walla, the number one on most was the Fort Walla Walla Museum. It was one of my intended adventures. First, I tried to coordinate with friends. Then it snowed and I became adventure-adverse in the slippery conditions. Then it was time to leave. Now it is on my list of things to do next time.
I heard that there is an underground tour in Pendleton, Oregon, about 40 minutes away from Walla Walla. That intrigued me but I didn’t hear about it until the end of my stay. It too is on my “next time” list.
When I told locals about how much I enjoyed the Whitman Mission, several insisted I visit the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute also in Pendleton. It celebrated 10,000 years of history of the tribes of the region including the Cayuse. The Cultural Institute explores the Cayuse’s side of the Whitman Massacre. I think it would be fascinating.
I also discovered Walla Walla has a food tour. You buy a ticket and walk from establishment to establishment (between 5 and 7) sampling local fare. Such a fun idea. They have different tours and the one that sparked my interest was the Ghosts of Walla Walla where in addition to great food and drink, you get “creepy tales and grizzly history.”
Despite the ice storm, the battle of the mold and the cold temperatures, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Walla Walla. I would love to go back, not only to do the “next time” list but to revisit all the places I enjoyed the first time around.
If you have ever been to the area, I would enjoy hearing your impressions.