Donate now

Okanogan County Historical Society’s Own History

January 3, 2024

In 1963, a meeting was convened by the Okanogan Development Committee to consider organization of a county historical society. The hope was a museum which would provide the City of Okanogan with a tourist attraction. However, the dozen or so attendees had a different viewpoint.

They wanted an organized effort to record a microcosm of the Old West with native Indians, Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders, cattle drives, a battle between the Indians and whites, a gold and silver rush, boomtowns, stagecoaches, gun fights, homesteading, sheep and cattle wars, and even sheriffs driving high speed roadsters in pursuit of bootleggers. The consensus was that it was better that a truly county wide historical society become active and a museum could wait.

On May 5, 1963, 50 people attended a meeting, voted to launch OCHS to preserve and disseminate the colorful heritage of Okanogan County, and elected directors.

One of the first programs of OCHS was an effort to preserve Indian pictographs which would be flooded by Wells Dam.  These pictographs are on a large rock salvaged during Wells Dam construction.

Another program was to mark historical sites throughout the county. Small signs were first built and put at various locations. Later, they erected substantial signs at major historical sites. These signs are still in place and repaired as necessary.

A third focus of OCHS was forming a committee to file and index hundreds of books, magazines, pamphlets, folders, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, manuscripts, and other materials relevant to Okanogan County history. This effort was the beginning of the Society research library.

One of the most successful projects has been the publication of a quarterly magazine, Okanogan County Heritage, which comes with membership in OCHS. The first issue was mailed in June 1963. The first issues were done in black and white on a mimeograph machine. Due to advances in technology, color pictures now liven up the look of The Heritage.

Finally, with initiative coming from outside OCHS and in a joint effort with the town of Okanogan, the society was ready for a museum. A fundraising drive was launched in September, 1972. Ground was broken in March, 1973, and the building shell was completed in November, 1973. The responsibility then shifted to the Society to complete the interior and develop the displays. The grand opening was May 18, 1975.

In 1984, The Okanogan County Historical Society was the first small society to receive the Washington State Historical Society’s coveted Robert Gray Medal for “distinguished contributions” to the preservation of local and state history.

 The Okanogan Fire Department had been bequeathed a substantial amount by a local couple and, in 1995, they approached the Society about plans to build a replica fire hall and an attached building to house the OCHS research library. The replica fire hall has displays of fire department history and early day equipment. In 1996, the research library and OCHS office were moved into the new building. A corner of the library is used by the Okanogan County Genealogy Society.

In 1997, the research library was dedicated as the Wilson Research Center in honor of Bruce and Merilynn Wilson. The Wilsons were instrumental in founding, building, and supporting the Society from its infancy in 1963.

A little information about the four museums in the Society:  

The town of Molson has two museum sites. Old Molson was established by a local Molson man and joined OCHS in 1982. The Molson Schoolhouse had been closed in 1969 and opened as a museum in 1982.

The Okanogan County Historical Museum was opened in 1975.The museum has indoor displays and an outdoor village including an original log cabin and displays of old equipment.

Shafer Historical Museum in Winthrop became part of OCHS in 1976. It had originally been established by Simon Shafer who purchased “The Castle” which had been built by Guy Waring. The Shafer family then transferred it to OCHS. It has multiple buildings depicting how life was lived in the past and displays of mining and farming equipment.

Conconully Museum joined OCHS in 2002. This museum consists of two lots which were donated by the owner. One contains a 1914 house and the other one a small building leased to the United States Post Office. The museum was established in the house by a Conconully historical preservation group.