As Willamette Heritage Center curator, Kylie Pine finds treasures in local history

Even when walking a visitor to her office at the Willamette Heritage Center, Kylie Pine can’t help being a guide.

She walks backwards across the center’s 5-acre campus, pointing out the former Methodist mission and an under-development exhibit showcasing a train caboose.

Pine’s office is in the center’s research building and library toward the back of the site, which she said was a strategic decision to keep her out of the public eye.

“Otherwise I’ll just start spouting facts,” she said with a laugh.

Pine was recently honored with an Oregon Heritage Excellence Award from the Oregon Heritage Commission, recognizing her work as the center’s curator.

Volumes in the Willamette Heritage Center’s collection include an 1897 book entitled “What a Young Husband Ought to Know.” (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In a largely volunteer-driven organization, “curator” is an all-encompassing job that includes indexing and caring for collections of maps and genealogy records, helping visitors to the research library, writing interpretations for exhibits at the Center, managing volunteers and sometimes “finding really cheap ways to hang things,” she said.

Even with such a broad job description, Beth Dehn, the commission’s coordinator, said Pine is known across the region for promoting historical and heritage work outside the duties of her job.

She teaches an anthropology course at Western Oregon University, serves on the board of the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health and helps with hundreds of research requests to make the Heritage Center’s collections accessible and useful to students, genealogists, researchers and business people.

“Everyone knows who she is, which is a sign of someone who is doing good work,” Dehn said.

Michelle Cordova, the center’s executive director, said she’s always impressed by the depth of Pine’s knowledge of history and the way her enthusiasm shines through when sharing with community members.

“She’s brilliant. She’s always thinking and she’s always researching and examining things,” Cordova said.

Cordova was recently biking with a friend at Willamette Mission State Park and noticed a small board with a historical narrative along her route. She mentioned it to Pine and was unsurprised to learn Pine had helped create the display.

“Of course you did, because you help with everything,” Cordova remembered thinking.

Visitors to the center often think of Willamette Valley history through the lens of the Oregon Trail. Pine enjoys showing people that there’s much more to the area’s early history: a diverse group of Kalapuya indigenous people who spoke different languages, French-Canadian fur traders who settled in the area decades before the Trail and Methodist missionaries who came in the 1830s.

“It’s much richer and deeper,” she said.

Kylie Pine, curator at Willamette Heritage Center, flips through a collection of historical photos. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Pine was raised in Salem and graduated from South Salem High School. While there, she volunteered as a teen interpreter for the center, which was then the Mission Mill Museum. She became curator in 2014.

Her interest in history was sparked by her great-grandmother, Thelma Walser, who had a knack for storytelling, and her two grandmothers, who played the roles of family historian in an era when that meant mailing questions to the U.S. Census Bureau and waiting for them to send information.

Walser told her great-granddaughter stories of growing up in eastern Washington and being forced to share her horse with the preacher’s daughter, a prissy girl who wasn’t well liked.

Walser got her revenge by having a brother shoot his slingshot as the horse’s hindquarters, sending the animal running with the terrified preacher’s daughter clinging on the back.

When the family moved to Portland, Walser would sneak out at night to go dancing, giving Pine the impression that her great-grandmother was a flapper during the Roaring Twenties.

“It was a world view into something different than what I was experiencing,” she said.

Through her work, Pine now gets glimpses of the personal, individual pieces of larger historical events and trends. The Center is working to renovate a train caboose which served as living quarters for train crews. Walking inside, Pine points to the little details showing evidence of human life, like the workers’ initials carved into a drawer.

Pine said she doesn’t have a favorite collection at the Center. There are too many items: textile collections, wedding photographs, punch cards for a Jacquard loom, which allowed for the automatic weaving of more complicated patterns and were a technological precursor to computer programming.

Recently, she was looking at a “cinder report” from the 1920s – an account of the air pollution levels from nearby plants and industry.

“It’s things that you never would have thought would have gotten saved,” she said. “Those types of things are really fascinating.”

She’s worked to record more oral history through videos of Mid-Willamette Valley relatives talking about their lives and experiences, and with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde to make sure the Kalapuya perspective is included in exhibits and displays.

The caboose exhibit Pine has worked on is coming along, with interior painting nearly done. She hopes, when finished, it will be a window into working-class life and other industries that relied on rail transportation.

The orange car sits right next to the current train tracks on the other side of the fence from the Heritage Center, a bit of ambiance Pine excited about.

“It’s history right there,” she said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.