My favourite books as a kid were from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, set in the late 1800s. Life then sounded so simple, yet so tough and wild at the same time. I got that same feeling all over again when I took my tweens to the eclectic Lynden Pioneer Museum in adorable, historic downtown Lynden, WA. Whether you’re a kid who can’t imagine life before cell phones, a collector, a hobbyist, or just someone looking to reminisce over those stories your parents and grandparents once told you, you’ll relish this quirky museum’s collection of more than 37,000 historical objects.
Located less than ten minutes south of the Aldergrove border crossing, the museum sits on beautiful, tree-lined Front Street, surrounded by charming antique shops, a bakery, and cozy mom-and-pop restaurants. The not-for-profit Lynden Heritage Foundation first opened the museum in 1976 in order to preserve and share with others the legacy of Lynden’s Dutch ancestry. The Dutch began immigrating to Lynden in the 1890s and the area has since become Washington state’s largest Dutch community.
“What Southern British Columbians might not realize are the tremendous similarities between their family and business history and ours,” says Museum Director and Curator, Troy Luginbill. “Back then, people travelled freely back and forth across the border. Our history and theirs are intertwined. It wasn’t until prohibition in the 1920s that travel and trade became restricted.”
Every inch of the place recalls the past. The smell of cedar and earth and the creak of the museum’s worn wooden floors are remnants of its former occupants, North Washington Implement, the first John Deere Tractor retailer in Whatcom County. In 1984, the museum doubled in size to its existing 2,600 m2 (28,000 sq. ft.) on three floors, using trusses repurposed from an old Bellingham cannery, Pacific American Fisheries.
Organized into three major areas, the friendly volunteer docents herded us first into the homestead and barnyard exhibit. This area portrays the daily life of Lynden’s first settlers. The farmstead includes examples of an 1880s kitchen, parlour, and bedroom, complete with period appliances, furniture, and now-rare but functional household items. Exhibits in this area also include the early logging and milling operations that eventually shifted toward the dairy, egg, and poultry farming that have supported Lynden’s economy over the last 100 years.
Wandering downstairs we experienced “the transition from the horse-drawn to the motorized vehicle,” including a collection of more than 54 horse-drawn vehicles and related tack, a few antique cars in fantastic shape, and a host of brightly lit scale model cars.
Perhaps half of the main floor and the entire second storey are occupied by 22 historic shopfronts arranged as a mini-town. There were the standards you might expect: a general store, post office, and pharmacy full of rare, period objects. But I most enjoyed looking into the more unusual shops and displays. The shiny silver tools of all shapes in the offices of the dentist and surgeon, the framed straight-razor collection above the padded chair of the barber shop, and the vintage coffin in the micro-chapel were all idiosyncratic surprises, to name a few.
My son’s favourite moment was lying on the uncomfortable metal bed of the jail while reading about the “silly-sounding laws that put you behind bars in the old days, like not buying televisions on Sundays and breastfeeding in public.” Although things have changed, some Dutch religious conservatism remains in Lynden, as many downtown businesses remain closed on Sundays.
The kids explored at their own pace with their “Pastports,” small booklets ready for rubber stamping with a list of items to look for, strategically spread throughout the museum. I liked that there was a mix of precious “don’t touch” items behind glass as well as interactive exhibits where we could feel the texture of old barbed wire, create a cow bell musical, and plunk away on the many ornate antique pianos spread throughout the museum, all without any tsk-tsking from museum employees.
The museum’s large collections are fairly organized and include some items you’ll likely never see elsewhere. Many were gathered by individuals who then bequeathed them to the museum in memoriam. The shelves and displays of this expansive space are lined with antique clocks, model trains, cameras, radios, coffee mills, firearms, Native American art, moving lamps, and even a substantial set of circus miniatures.
A separate area houses war memorabilia from medals, uniforms, and sepia photographs, to delicate handwritten letters and newspaper clippings that range from the Civil War through the end of World War II. Many artifacts are from the era of the Netherlands’ occupation by Nazi Germany, between 1941 and 1945.
In this modern era of fast food, plastic, and disposable electronics, our unconventional meander through the old days was a positive reminder of simpler living and just how far we’ve come. My rambunctious boys explored for more than two hours before I summoned them for lunch. “Mom, this place is so cool, I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of it,” said my ten-year-old.
“Me either, sweetheart,” I replied, “me either.”
By Lorraine Wilde
For more information please visit www.lyndenpioneermuseum.com