Oak Creek’s museum has been closed for two years, and it may never reopen
Tracks and Trails Museum seeking funding for roof repairs on century old building
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the population living around Oak Creek was as many as 4,000.
Leading up to the 1925 Oak Creek Mayor’s election, wives of Ku Klux Klan members would routinely attend town board meetings and complain about the Oak Creek’s Town Hall building.
After researching the old building, Oak Creek historian Mike Yurich concluded the complaints really weren’t about the building, but instead it’s Italian-Catholic owner. Finding a new venue for government in Oak Creek quickly became the main issue for KKK-backed candidates.
In response, the opposition Citizens Party added building a new town hall to its party platform and candidate Mayor Morrow won in a landslide. Morrow’s first act as mayor was to find an architect to build the new town hall, which was completed in 1927.
Today, the nearly 100-year old stucco building still stands along Oak Creek’s main drag, though the town’s government moved out in the 90s. Since 2007, it has housed the Tracks and Trails Museum, with exhibits sharing the history of as many as 4,000 people that lived in camps nearby when the coal mines were booming.
Hundreds have signed the guest book as they passed through the town and stopped at the museum. Some left comments about their visit, some mentioned their connection to the mining town and some left nothing but their name.
But no one has added to the guest book since February 2020.
In March 2020, the museum closed to the public because of COVID-19. A severe leak in the roof has continued to keep it shuttered for more than two years.
With repairs likely costing more than $100,000 and crucial property tax revenues seeing steep declines, some fear it may never reopen.
“If we can’t get the roof fixed, it will close,” said Chuck Keating, a member of the board of the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg, which operates the museum. “We’re on a life support system right now.”
‘Find their roots’
The old town hall building was “basically in rubble” when a group of volunteers first set out to restore it, said the museum’s part-time curator Nita Naugle.
The Historical Society started in 1998, but still lacked a museum like the surrounding towns when Keating joined the board in 2004.
They did have a large collection of archives, which Yurich, who died in 2015, had started putting together when he was in seventh grade in Oak Creek.
“I call him the godfather of Oak Creek history,” Keating said of Yurich.
Funded by local and federal grants and a variety of private donations, the museum opened in 2007, with it being dedicated to Yurich. Naugle has been curator since 2011, pulling together exhibits, bringing in school groups and inviting in guest speakers.
Betty Sweetland, a member of the historical board, said people will routinely call to see if they have records on a family member that once lived in Oak Creek, which due to the up and down nature of the coal industry, had broad swings in population. Coming from as far as Norway, visitors wanted to know where their family may have lived, or where they could be buried.
“I think people’s personal histories are becoming more important … to find their roots,” Sweetland said. “That’s one of the things the museum can offer.”
“We’re starting to lose that,” Keating added.
‘Sorry, we’re closed’
Just outside of the museum is a massive dragline bucket used by area coal mines that serves as a draw to bring visitors to the museum. A pair of men visiting Steamboat Springs stopped on Wednesday, Aug. 24, as they were exploring the area.
After reading the miners wall — a tribute to area miners — and looking at the other historic mining equipment, they went to the museum where they were met by a sign that read: “Sorry, we’re closed.”
Sweetland said this has hurt their revenue, because often when these people would stop, they would leave a donation. Even $5 here and there could go a long way. But the real hit financially has been looming for decades.
“Because of the coal industry, what it is today, that has made a big impact on the amount of property taxes we get,” said Sweetland. “When I took over as treasurer the property taxes were in the $30,000s to the $40,000s. Now we’re down to $18,000.”
Utilities at the museum run about $800 a month. The historical society also maintains the bucket park, a 1937 fire truck display and another display about railroad history in Phippsburg. A few years ago, the group bought a couple parcels in Phippsburg with the intent of displaying an old caboose.
The museum’s leaking roof has so far derailed that plan. Naugle said they don’t fully know the cost of fixing it, and $100,000 is a loose estimate, as there are mold issues as well.
“The town doesn’t even want us going in there,” Naugle said of the museum.
‘Long ways to go’
Over the past month, museum volunteers have worked to set up a mini-museum at The Station, an old gas station that the historical society owns across the street from the old town hall.
The museum would typically be full of people on Labor Day, which has been “like Christmas” in Oak Creek since local unions were able to get their workers an 8-hour work day more than a century ago.
Historical society volunteers spent a few hours last week meeting about this year’s celebration, which will include tours of mines, and an old school house the historical society has been working to restore.
They also hope to raise money for roof repairs. Some grants they are targeting require some form of a local match. If they could raise $15,000 locally, that could be doubled with the grant. Naugle said she is pursuing other opportunities too, maybe with the town applying for a grant on their behalf.
Keating described losing the museum as like losing a school in importance to the community — but this community that has stepped up to support history before. Sweetland was hopeful they could raise money this winter, do repairs next summer and have the museum back open for next Labor Day.
While it may seem like a lofty goal, it did only take about two weeks to raise the money to buy the lots in Phippsburg. Those on the historical society board are optimistic.
“But the bottom line is this one is much, much larger,” Keating said, noting they have received some support already. “We still have a long ways to go.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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