News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Keep Sisters small?

During the 2018 Sisters Country Vision, “Keep Sisters Small” was an overwhelming sentiment from the rapidly growing community. Yet there is a conflict about what small means and the desire for more affordable housing and economic opportunities. At a time when the City is updating its Comprehensive Plan that will influence future growth, it’s nice to think about simpler times.

The Sisters History Museum connects the City’s 1880s downtown theme to its 1880s beginnings. Sheep used to be herded down Cascade Street to the foothills of the Cascades for summer grazing. Lumber mills employed the community. Sisters was a tourist town even back then as it catered to travelers from the east and west. There were waysides and hotels for guests, a barn to park their animals, merchants and blacksmiths, two general stores, and the quintessential saloon.

There are many more treasures to discover about the history of Sisters in the Museum. Verbal tours of their collection of artifacts and photographs are offered in the historic Wakefield bungalow. Walking tours show parties around the downtown’s existing historic buildings and landmarks that had been burned in the fires of the 1920s.

The Three Sisters Historical Society, who founded the Museum, hosted Fireside Talks on various topics at the Five Pine Conference Center — including highlighting ordinary people from the Sisters area to share their extraordinary stories of ‘back in the day.’ Though large gatherings are temporarily on hold, the Museum continues to find meaningful and educational ways to engage with visitors.

Karen Swank, one of the founders of The Three Sisters Historical Society, says, “Sisters is more than just a tourist drive-thru town. We want to present our rich history. People don’t always know about it.”

Having opened only one month ago, Swank says the Museum is receiving interest beyond its mailing lists. People are coming from all over the west, between Arizona and the Puget Sound. “Despite COVID and the off-season, our guest book statistics show we are drawing visitors from outside Sisters including Seattle, Yakima, and Palouse, Washington, as well as the valley. These visitors had family here at one time, so the Museum is the particular destination in order to see what we have in their family files.”

The Museum is pleasantly surprised by the turnout, to say the least.

The Museum’s momentum and breadth of reach holds opportunity for future services. “We would like to offer tours at the [Camp Polk] cemetery. There’s lots of history there,” with its first burial in 1880, says Swank. The Museum would also like to place more plaques that identify significant historical landmarks around town.

Though not a direct partner of the Sisters Country Vision, the Museum is embracing what makes Sisters exceptional from the community’s visioning. The walking tours and plaques support a more Walkable Downtown. The number of Museum visitors from out-of-town works towards becoming a Four-Season Tourism & Visitor Destination. And preserving the history of Sisters promotes stewardship of its Small-Town Atmosphere.

The Sisters History Museum’s unintentional alignment with the Vision’s 20 Strategies shows even through their mission statement: “Our mission is to deepen the understanding of past choices, present circumstances, and future possibilities by preserving, sharing and bringing to life the history of the Three Sisters area, and thereby strengthening community bonds.”

As Sisters contemplates its future regarding growth and change, learning about the history of how it all started brings a valuable perspective.

With Sisters’ 75th Anniversary coming up in April 2021, the Sisters History Museum will be a significant asset in the collaborative development of the celebration. When asked about the history of Sisters in 1946, Swank shared a fitting headline from “The Sisters Herald” newspaper in 1912 after the railroad’s arrival in 1911, “Sisters May Incorporate, There is a Movement On Foot to Incorporate Among the Progressive Citizens.”

Even today, achieving community visions takes time and continuous effort.


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