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Museum's curator of collections blows dust off Auburn's history in new book

Hilary Pittenger, private author and curator at White River Valley Museum, brings local history to life in ‘Images of America, Auburn’.  - Robert Whale, Auburn Reporter
Hilary Pittenger, private author and curator at White River Valley Museum, brings local history to life in ‘Images of America, Auburn’.
— image credit: Robert Whale, Auburn Reporter

Desperado Harry Tracy's ugly face leers at us down the centuries from photographs: menacing, mean, densely eyebrowed — and oh, those ears.

There's plenty there about the railroad in Auburn, too.

And many a grainy image shows us Auburn's dusty downtown and the wooden bridge that once spanned the White River at the intersection of present-day East Main and Auburn Way.

But who knew that a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan met in the Fraternity Hall above the old JC Penney building for a time in the 1920s, roused to pointy-headed opposition to the wave of Irish and Italian immigrants — read Catholics — then pouring into the country?

Or who remembers that for most of the Great Depression, Auburn residents had to drive to Tacoma or Seattle to conduct bank business because every bank in the city and in the area had folded?

Those are among the many surprises that await anyone lucky enough to pick up and gawk at "Images of America, Auburn," a richly-illustrated, 127-page overview of the history of the area that is now called Auburn.

Written and compiled by Hilary Pittenger, curator of collections at the White River Valley Museum, it is one volume in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series. Every book in the series, identifiable by its sepia-tone cover and rich vein of photographs, presents the history of one town or city somewhere in the Union.

Arcadia Publishing, ever eager to fill gaps in its series, allows writers to submit proposals and actively solicits such proposals. When it contacted WRVM director Patricia Cosgrove, she talked to Pittenger.

No, the museum couldn't write the book, Pittenger said, but she, as a private author with generous access to information, could.

Pittenger settled on a chronological format that touches on the Coast Salish culture in the area before moving on to the earliest settlers, the days when the fledgling town was called Slaughter, when it changed to Auburn in the 1890s, its connection to the Klondike Gold rush, the rise of the railroad industry, World War II and the impact on the area of Japanese internments, and the aerospace industry,

"Once I settled on a format," Pittenger said, "I just started poking around to see what great photographs we had to illustrate those little bits of the major portions of Auburn, then fill it in here and there with a lot of social history. That's what I'm interested in — how people were living day to day, what their houses were like, what kind of jobs they had, what they were wearing, what they were eating, things like that.

"I also tried to do it as much up to the present as possible. A lot of history books peter off about 20 years before the present, and it's so frustrating to research them," Pittenger added.

Pittenger anticipates potential criticisms of the book.

"I covered as much I could about Native American history, but there are not a lot of photographs of pre-settlement times because they didn't have cameras. And without any photographs, it's hard to talk about history," Pittenger said.

She was also disappointed to discover the relative lack of archival images of immigrants and minority groups in general, an unfortunate tendency of minority populations, she said.

On the positive side, Pittenger found plenty of photographs to illustrate the railroad era and the hop industry.

"One of the fun things was finding images that explained what the hops industry actually was, because that's something that most of us don't get exposure to nowadays," Pittenger said. "And how after the hop blight, the whole hop industry transformed all those hop sheds to dairy sheds because cows were a lot more resistant to the blight than hops."

"Images of America, Auburn," is available for $21.99 at the WRVM gift shop, at Barnes & Noble bookstores and at Comstock's Bindery & Bookshop, 257 E. Main St., Auburn.

Pittenger signs books in April at the Covington Costco and in May at WRVM.

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