Some pieces of Baker City’s history haven’t been exposed to sunlight for decades.
Or been seen by any eyes except perhaps the beady ones of a mouse or a spider.
I’m writing here not of memorabilia tucked into cardboard boxes or trunks and then forgotten for a couple generations in the musty corner of an attic or basement.
The items I mean have been hidden, and not necessarily by intention, in places where not even a curious child, bored on some afternoon when a chilly wind makes it unpleasant to play outside, would likely come across them.
The recesses I refer to are the spaces behind the walls, the places we don’t as a rule see unless we’re remodeling or we’ve had the misfortune of busting a water pipe or driving a nail into a wire.
A couple of recent experiences prompted me to consider this trove of, well not necessarily treasure, but at least compelling finds.
In one case the owner of a south Baker City home, while remodeling the structure, discovered that the walls had been lined with newspapers from 1902.
Most of these issues were from the St. Louis Republic, but a few pages had been plucked from the Baker City Herald.
I suppose we can be thankful that fiberglass insulation wasn’t invented until the early 1930s.
Prior to its widespread availability, builders, if they insulated walls at all, used a variety of materials for the purpose, newspapers being a common — and obviously readily available and cheap — option.
Sometimes this simple insulation was in the form of shredded newsprint, which, in addition to making ideal bedding for rodents, is pretty effective at keeping out frigid drafts.
But in other cases workers simply hung sheets on the walls.
It happens that the space between the inner and outer walls is a relatively hospitable environment for newsprint — hardly the most robust stuff, to be sure.
The 1902 issues of the Herald that the homeowner uncovered bear a few minor water stains but are otherwise intact. They’re perfectly legible, in any case.
Newspapers published 117 years ago are for me endlessly fascinating documents.
I particularly enjoy the advertisements, which seem to me to betray the passage of time more blatantly than the articles do.
A 1902 reader of the Herald, for instance, would have been enticed by such products as Dr. Coe’s Electric Catarrh Balm, free samples of which were available at Levinger’s Drug Store.
(Catarrh, a term you won’t often run across these days, basically means a stuffed up nose, although it was commonly used to describe what we would today call hay fever.)
Readers also could learn about Shiloh’s Consumption Cure and choose from multiple purveyors of a product we wouldn’t today deign to spend money on unless we were going camping — ice.
Newspapers aren’t the only artifacts, though, that can end up in the forgotten crannies of our homes.
Richard Taie told me recently about an eclectic bunch of items he and his wife, Bonnie, found while replacing the fireplace in their Myrtle Street home in 2000.
(Bonnie Taie died in December 2014 at age 73.)
Richard said he decided to replace the fireplace, which was built around 1929, because he and Bonnie had begun to smell smoke when a fire was kindled.
He examined the fireplace and found that its supports were failing, causing the fireplace to slump and pull away from the wall, and allowing woodsmoke to seep into the couple’s home.
During the replacement he and Bonnie found more than a dozen things on the floor behind the fireplace. So far as Richard could tell, they had fallen through gaps between the fireplace and the wall rather than placed there, as if in a time capsule.
The items include a note to customers of Baker Loan & Trust Co. offering them a 1930 calendar for free, pencils bearing the name of Silven’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning, and an invoice, dated October 15, 1929, for several books purchased by the St. Stephen’s Church School.
There is a matchbook listing four lodging establishments — the Baker Hotel, the Washington Hotel in Pullman, Washington, Evergreen Hotel in Vancouver, Washington, and Lithia Springs Hotel in Ashland.
There is a shotgun shell, a container of wooden matches, a small light bulb of the sort that might fit a table lamp or wall sconce, a few metal washers, a button, several sewing needles and a single playing card (it’s a joker, which suggests somebody might have lost out on a potentially lucrative hand when the card went missing).
Perhaps the most notable item in the collection — and in my eyes the most poignant — is a program for a piano recital presented by the pupils of Birdie Bushnell on the Friday evening of May 29, 1931.
I can say with a fair amount of certainty that many of those attending might have dispensed with a jacket on that night 88 years ago. The recital started at 8 p.m., but the temperature that day topped out at 79 degrees at the KBKR radio station, where weather data were collected from 1928 until 1981.
The young pianists performed at Nevius Hall, which was south of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, on First Street off Broadway.
Phyllis Badgley wrote about Nevius Hall in one of her historical articles published in the Herald. The building was used for many purposes, Phyllis wrote, with piano recitals being a prominent example.
Phyllis wrote that she remembered practicing on the Hall’s Steinway grand piano, which is also mentioned in the 1931 recital program. She listed several piano teachers, among them Birdie Bushnell.
Richard showed me the display that Bonnie made of the items they found behind their fireplace. I find it fascinating.
And as I ponder the dozens of homes and other buildings in Baker City that predate Richard’s, it strikes me how likely it is that other compelling glimpses into our city’s history lie in darkness, awaiting the whack of a sledgehammer or the slice of a saw to reveal themselves and tell their long-hidden tales.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.