Grease Was the Word: Museum's exhibit chronicles lives of teens in the 1950s, '60s

Students in 1966 prepare for a school dance with formal wear, clean cars and their romantic date.  - Courtesy photo/1966 Auburn High School Invader, museum collection
Students in 1966 prepare for a school dance with formal wear, clean cars and their romantic date.
— image credit: Courtesy photo/1966 Auburn High School Invader, museum collection

A smart GEAR LORDS car club jacket, perfectly preserved, hung up with care draws the eye.

A girl in a white bathing suit, head thrown back, smiles, posed on the hood of a Studebaker, out back of her dad's car repair shop.

Call that bathing beauty va va va voom, or perhaps yowsa, circa 1955. Or if you prefer, Hilda (Hemmingson) Meryhew, director today of the Neely Mansion Association.

"No, not a wild kid," Meryhew chuckled of her teenage self, photographed by her father one sunny day in the Jantzen bathing suit she had just bought for high school water ballet.

It's memorabilia and images like those, younger versions of friends, neighbors and parents, perhaps just people one sees about town, that make White River Valley Museum's latest exhibit, Grease Was the Word, more than worth the trip.

Patricia Cosgrove, museum director, summed up what it's about: a look back at high school car clubs, driver's education, the teenage dating scene, and how music influenced what teenagers drove and how lived their lives in America and right here in Auburn, in the 1950s and '60s.

Grease was the Word rocks, rolls, revs and dances in its celebration of the world inhabited by that generation of teens.

It is full of artifacts from the museum's collection and others loaned by community members and collectors.

On display, training films instructing teenagers on how to behave during dinner date.

Auburn Planning Commissioner Judi Roland's 1955 Senior Night dress is on display next to her Commercial Club sweater and matching dyed tennis shoes.

There's the frontispiece from the 1966 Auburn High School yearbook. In this night shot, the school's front windows ablaze with light, teenagers are pictured in front of the school, dressed to the nines, escorting dance dates from a Jaguar and a Thunderbird.

Vinyl records capture the era when songwriters started to compose music especially for teens, and teens themselves began to form bands and play music themselves. One single on loan is covered with art work proclaiming one former teen's love for The Beatles.

The exhibit includes a collection of never-before-exhibited artifacts from the GEAR LORDS, which flourished in Auburn from 1962 to 1969, disbanding only when Uncle Sam drafted most of its members to fight the war in Vietnam.

The idea for the exhibit began with an appetite among museum stuff to know more about the GEAR LORDS, which formed to be a car club "for the good", as opposed to rowdier car clubs like The Sheiks.

"They were the good boys. They were not the drinking club, the carousing club," Cosgrove said. "They had a band that traveled with them, The Epics, and they put on dances. They had a rule whereby if someone was stranded, they had to stop and give them (a GEAR LORDS' card) and help them out."

Museum staff wondered at first if there would be enough artifacts to make an exhibit? Happily, surviving GEAR LORDS stepped forward with memorabilia: their gray blue jackets; a roster of names and photographs; calling cards.

From there, Cosgrove said, the idea grew to include teens and cars and "that whole change in dynamics that happened when you became ever-so-more independent in your dating experience and more private, and a different experience altogether when you had a car," Cosgrove said.

Grease Was the Word is on display until Nov 10.

About the White River Valley Museum

The museum combines history and culture to create an exciting and educational experience for visitors though a series of award-winning exhibits. Museum collections focus on Puget Sound history, Northwest Indian culture, Japanese immigration and the Northern Pacific Railway.

The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. and is located at 918 H St. SE, Auburn. Regular admission is $2 adults, $1 seniors and children. Admission is free on Wednesdays and the fourth Sunday of the month.

Call 253-288-7433 or visit for event information.



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