Volunteers breathe life into rural farmstead sharing three generations of Polk County history

Volunteers at the Brunk Farmstead have spent months meandering their way through a historical treasure hunt.

Christy Short, the new head docent of the museum just outside West Salem, has lined up some of her favorite finds on the mantle of the kitchen’s fireplace. She picked up a cylindrical container, segmented like a stackable bento box. She grinned as she popped off each layer.

“One of my favorite things so far is: when I got here, nobody could tell me what this was,” she said. “This has been sitting here, I was like ‘Aren’t you guys curious?’”

Inside, it had 60, 80 and 100 gauge sieves. It had no markings, other than a Meister brand stamp. After some internet sleuthing, she figured it out.

It had been used for gold sifting. In another room, volunteers soon found its counterpart: a jar of fine black silt. When she held its contents up to the window, it glittered.

Many of the items at the farmstead had once been used daily by the Brunks, who came to Polk County across the Oregon Trail over 150 years ago. Some things, like the sugar barrel in the kitchen, came over on their wagon.

The property has been under the care of the local historical society and its volunteers for 50 years, whose careful preservation allows visitors to feel as if they’re stepping back in time.

Christy Short waves from the front porch of the Brunk House in West Salem. (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

About a year ago, Short and her husband moved from southern Illinois, where she had been a local historical society curator, to West Salem. When they passed the Polk County Historical Society’s museum in Rickreall, it drew them in.

She began volunteering there before the board’s director, David Moellenberndt, asked if she’d be willing to tackle a decluttering project at Brunk Farmstead.

The beloved West Salem property, built in 1861, includes a main house, additional smaller houses, barns, shops, gardens and an orchard. Its lead docents Alan and Sandy Bittle, who started in 2019, were in need of a successor due to medical issues.

Short, up for the challenge, stepped in as head docent in April.

“So here I am, volunteering again, sharing history. I still have a lot to learn,” she said.

A dedicated team of about a dozen volunteers, most of them retired, has cared for the property off Highway 22 since the historical society took over the home in 1974. It was donated upon the death of its third-generation owner, Earl Brunk.

Volunteers tend its orchard and gardens and work to preserve the historic property, which saw a major renovation during Covid to repair its decaying porch.

The museum is open Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., located on 5705 Highway 22. Admission is $5 per person, $4 for seniors, $1 for students and free for children 5 and under.

As head docent, Short is in charge of the smaller gardens and has been decluttering the large upstairs rooms, which has been closed to the public since 2020, all the while accumulating historical pieces from the property and local donations.

Along with updating the site’s social media and online presence, Short and other volunteers have helped uncover dozens of items to display. Their work has reunited multiple pieces with their counterparts that were stored elsewhere in the house. Among them are a large phonograph she hopes to repair and its music cylinders.

Short has also been reading up on the Brunk family history. A lot. 

Brunk house at Eola in Polk County, Oregon, 1940 (Ben Maxwell Collection/ Salem Public Library)

Brunk family history

Harrison and Emily Brunk traveled on an 1849 wagon train from Lincoln County, Missouri, using the Barlow Road which went through The Dalles. After unsuccessfully farming some nearby land, they bought the property which would become the Brunk Farmstead, and hired a local Eola carpenter to build them a home.

They and their 11 children moved in a year later, in 1861, and they had another child in the house.

The property, which would at one point in time span over 1,110 acres, predates the now adjacent highway. But it still sat on a major traveling route between the Willamette Valley and the coast. The family often had guests, Short said.

“People would come from that road, and they would stop out there in the middle of the highway,” Short said, gesturing to the now paved area. “There were a couple of big oak trees out there, and they had hitching rings out there for them to hitch their horses, or carriages.”

A lot of the artifacts in the home belonged to the Brunks, or their children or grandchildren. Short said that’s unique when it comes to rural museums which often have to opt for an amalgamation of artifacts from different places.

The Brunk home tells the story of a family credited with helping to establish the Eola community through over a century’s worth of items and renovations.

There’s a book of dried flowers that Earl Brunk collected with his mother, Clara, who married Harrison and Emily’s son, Thomas. Clara’s Bible, with intricate decorations and carefully recorded births and deaths, lays open on one of the tables in the entry room.

The family sold flowers from the garden in town, and won many ribbons for their prize pigs at local fairs, which are on display in the living room.

There’s also a framed hair wreath from the family hanging on the wall, carefully collected using a little container that Short uncovered as part of a vanity kit. The wreath, a common endeavor in Victorian homes, is made from the family’s own human hair and wire. It features flowers and a tiny hummingbird.

Short and the volunteers also found christening gowns for babies, which hang crisp and white in the nursery after she had them professionally cleaned.

“We now have them hung up in here, because we think they’re awesome,” she said. They join the previously displayed baby clothes, and children’s books and shoes.

Children’s shoes in the Brunk House nursery. (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Short especially takes an interest in utility items which show the challenges of 19th and early 20th century living. The bedrooms are small, barely big enough for a bed, because the family spent most of their time out of the house working, or building community out and about.

“Most of the time, you had to go milk the cow, skim the cream to make the butter. You had to go collect the eggs from the chickens, you had to card the wool, spin it into thread, put it on the loom and create the material so that you could make your clothes,” she said.

She said when she explains that to kids on tours, their eyes get huge in awe. In a recent tour to Myers Elementary third graders, they were most excited to learn about the outhouse.

“This one kid says, ‘Well, what do you do in there?’ And I looked at him and I go, ‘That’s where you go poop,’” she said, bursting into laughter. 

The home didn’t have plumbing or electricity until a 1948 renovation by the family.

Many older visitors recognize some of the pieces from their childhood. They remember their mothers cooking on wood stoves, or childhood treks to water wells.

“Sharing the stories, I think, is really important,” she said. “Because if you don’t know where you came from, then how are you going to get to where you’re going?”

Volunteers maintain the gardens at Brunk Farmstead. (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Outside, volunteers have been working to revamp the herb and produce gardens while battling resident “demon squirrels.” Volunteers get the first pick of corn, rhubarb, asparagus, tomatoes, raspberries and more, and the rest goes to local food banks or volunteers at Polk County’s main museum.

At some point, they hope to open a farmstand to share the bounty with the greater public. The longtime volunteers include retired teachers and forestry experts who have helped the gardens thrive.

“It’s amazing, the knowledge that we have in all the volunteers here,” she said.

The museum is open two days a week through October, which requires about three volunteers per shift.

It also hosts beginner blacksmithing and woodworking classes on the second Saturday each month. Short’s to-do list includes re-expanding children’s programming after the retirement of the previous coordinator.

One of Shorts’ biggest tasks ahead is to clear out the upstairs bedrooms, which are currently closed to the public. She believes the two large spaces were dormitory-style rooms for the Brunk children.

Volunteers have been making progress, which often sends them on little side-quests. Stacks of antique, handmade quilts with delicate stitching required a careful wash and photographing. A giant loom with a dried piece of corn on the end for the spool needs to be reassembled. There are piles and piles of fascinating trinkets, from spectacles to 1950’s childrens’ toys.

“We’re like little squirrels. ‘Oh, look, a shiny thing,’ and we’re off on some other tangent,” Short said.

But, the slow progress has been steady. Short’s hoping they’ll be able to open the upstairs area for small groups of guests around Christmas time, but she’s not going to push an opening date on the hardworking volunteers.

“When we get there, we get there,” she said.

While they work, Short will likely be adding notable finds to the collection downstairs. 
Short said she’s compelled to do the work because of the family’s journey on the Oregon Trail.

“Just the fact that they made it here, and survived all of that, and then started all of this,” she said. “I like the family, small-town community aspect of it, where people helped each other and they worked together.”

The Brunks were pillars of the community, Short said, and their children grew up to become lawyers, doctors and teachers who invested further into the area.

“They worked together, and they created this town. They were future-thinking,” she said. “That aspect of it, because they were involved in the community and everything, is why this all is still here.”

The Brunk House Kitchen’s sugar barrel, brought across the Oregon Trail, still smells sweet inside decades later. (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)
Christy Short demonstrates how they used to wash clothes at the Brunk Farmstead. (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.