Volunteers keep telling Sumas's history, despite loss of collection

Sumas Museum persists, 2 years after destructive flood
November 19, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Sumas Museum President Liz Custer, left, and Secretary Helen Solem flip through what they call the museum's biggest loss in the 2021 flood — a 19th-century Bible. It had been wrapped in dog training pads to help absorb moisture.
Sumas Museum President Liz Custer, left, and Secretary Helen Solem flip through what they call the museum's biggest loss in the 2021 flood — a 19th-century Bible. It had been wrapped in dog training pads to help absorb moisture. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

SUMAS — In a cardboard box at the Sumas Museum is a large Bible. It’s embossed in silver and full of beautifully colored images. 

It's also water damaged. The Bible, likely from the early 1800s, was saturated in the 2021 flood in Sumas, when water flooded the town and the museum. The Bible belonged to the Kelley family, who moved to the area in 1889 before Washington became a state. Liz Custer and Helen Solem, president and secretary of the Sumas Historical Society and Museum, pored over it on a recent Monday afternoon, sighing at the obvious damage. 

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with it,” Custer said. “Really we should throw it away, but I just have trouble with that.”

The Bible is a reminder of the floods that devastated the area two years ago. The museum, like any good memory-keeper, is full of references to the flood.

Its reopening exhibit began in June and is about the devastating event, full of imagery and stories from that day. 

There’s an oddly discolored chair, lighter brown on the bottom, darker brown on the top, in the museum — a physical memory of how high the water came up in the space and the clay-like mud it left behind.  

The decision not to scrub the mud off the chair was intentional, Solem said. 

“We proudly leave our dried mud for people to see two years down the line,” she said with a laugh. 

photo  The museum is in a remodeled parsonage building of the old Sumas Methodist Church. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

Thanks to a group of volunteers, the Sumas Museum opened in 2017 in the former parsonage of the old Sumas Methodist Church, a building provided by the city. In its six years of existence, the museum has spent nearly four of them closed — first due to COVID-19, then due to the floods.

In November 2021, two floods, two weeks apart, ravaged the region when the Nooksack River reached “major flood stage” levels. More than 85% of homes in Sumas were damaged, roads were destroyed and a 50-year-old man in Everson died.

It took the city a year and a half after the flood to repair the museum, meaning Solem and Custer weren't able to use the building until April of this year. The museum reopened in June and has since been open four hours a week on Wednesdays, or by appointment.

photo  Liz Custer, left, and Helen Solem stand behind a display case at the historical museum. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

Custer and Solem are deeply committed to the museum, but the recovery from the flood has been slow, and emotionally taxing. The museum held family records, photographs and artifacts, which all told the story of the Sumas Valley and surrounding areas. In the flood, most were lost. None of the collection was digitized, so no records exist of what was in the museum.

“This one’s completely ruined,” Solem said, pointing to a book in a cardboard box lined with dog pads. 

“That was such a cool book,” Custer said. “It was talking about who was in the military from this area and what they were doing. There’s this, times however many what was lost.”

Sumas history

Sumas incorporated in 1891. White people first entered the area in 1852, but it is the traditional territory of the Nooksack people. The town was a railroad and gold rush hub in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Solem described Sumas as a boom-and-bust town, with lows during the Depression in the mid-1890s and the Great Depression in the 20th century. Now, the town has a population of about 1,600 people. 

The day before the Nov. 14, 2021 flood, Custer said they put things up higher off the floor, thinking the flood would be similar to the one that had come through the year before. But everything in the cases was destroyed, and the cases themselves had to be thrown out. 

photo  The waterline from the 2021 flood is still visible on an antique file cabinet. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

Custer wasn't able to get into the building until a few days after the flood because there was too much water around it. 

Custer said she already knew it was going to be bad. When the flood was raging, Custer said she looked out her front door, two blocks away from the museum, and saw a carving of a miner’s lady that sat outside the museum floating down the street on its side.

“I literally screamed and my husband comes running, and I said, 'It's the miner's lady, she's headed for Canada,'” she said.

The sculpture was rescued and again sits proudly outside the museum.

photo  The Miner's Lady sculpture was recovered after the floods and stands again outside the museum. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

While she laughed at the absurdity of the miner's lady floating in the street, Custer said she cried when she entered the mud-covered museum after the flood.

“When I got in and I saw it, I was just sick,” she said.

That week, Custer called up her church to ask for help going through the remains of the museum.

Custer said they decided what was salvageable and what wasn’t. A lot wasn’t. It was thrown away.

Upstairs in the museum today, farm tools and other old artifacts covered in mud line the floor, waiting to be cleaned.

photo  A spread of vintage agricultural tools lay on the floor of the second story of the museum, still covered in mud from the flood. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)  

“It’s just really a process. It takes so much time to clean it,” Custer said. “There’s just this fine mud on everything.” 

While they finish cleaning up all that was impacted by the flood, Custer said they want to get the word out about the museum, and potentially bring schoolchildren there to learn about their own history.

When asked why history is important, Solem got up a read a Norwegian proverb off a sign on the wall: “It is the duty of the present to convey the voice of the past to the ears of the future.” 

“Because otherwise people don't know who they are and where they came from and how they got to where they are now,” she said. “I think all that informs people makes life much, much richer.”

The Sumas Museum is located at 114 2nd St. in Sumas. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, or by appointment.

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