When Clark McAbee was a boy, his father took him to the Field Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, where he marveled at the dinosaur skeletons and fossils. The collections he saw left an impression that inspire him to this day.
“History is where you came from. It can define you but it also gives you a path toward a future,” said McAbee, who has been named the director of the Orcas Island Historical Museum. “As a director, it gives me an opportunity to do a lot of different things. I work with a board, write grants, do historical research, develop exhibits, conserve and care for rare objects. It’s never boring.”
McAbee started at the museum in early 2013 as the curator/acting director, commuting from his home in La Conner. This past August, he and his wife Felecia became official residents of Orcas Island. Under his leadership, the museum has had a major increase in visitors – a total of 8,000 in 2014 – as well as made building improvements to the Crow Valley School House. A fresh coat of paint will be put on this spring.
Clark is currently working on raising the remaining $13,000 to install a heating system in the museum, which is located in Eastsound. This will enable the facility to be open year-round. The museum has been approved for Heritage Capital Project funding for the heating – it just needs a final stamp of approval from the state legislature.
Clark earned a degree in history from Washington State University but was an intelligence officer with the Navy for the first half of his career. He volunteered at historical museums in his spare time, and in 1997 decided to enter the field professionally, earning a Museum Studies Certificate from the University of Washington. He then worked at the Lewis County Historical Museum, the 100-year-old Morton Train Depot and the Northwest Rail Museum. He is also the co-author of a book about the history of Tacoma, Wash. called “Rails to Paradise.”
Clark is impressed by the depth of the Orcas Museum’s collection. He says it represents 14,000 years of human habitation on the island.
“Geographically Orcas is a small piece of real estate, but there is a tremendous amount of history,” he said. “There are still a lot of stories to collect and exhibits to create.”
Clark says there are little-known facts about Orcas like “Dennis the Menace” artist Hank Ketcham vacationing on the island for 20-plus years starting in the 1960s and Eddie Bauer spending his youth here.
McAbee calls Ethan Allen the grandfather of Orcas history. He collected native artifacts from all over the San Juans and maintained an open air museum on the porch of his Waldron home.
Starting in the 1950s, island families donated six original homestead cabins built in the 1870s-1890s to the historical society. Volunteers disassembled the structures at their original sites, then moved, reconstructed and linked the structures together to create the main museum facility that still stands today in Eastsound.
“It was very much a community effort back then – and it still is,” McAbee said. “We have more than 50 regular volunteers and a strong board.”
Each cabin serves as a space for interpreting aspects of island history as told through the life stories and material culture of the Native American and early European-American settlers. The museum has a permanent collection of 6,000 objects that range from a replica of the bison antiquus skull to firearms to medical tools. One of McAbee’s favorite items is a cast iron donut maker.
The museum opens for the season on May 23 with its exhibit “Smugglers’ Blues” and a roaring 20s gala. The exhibit will be up through Nov. 1.
When not at the museum, Clark enjoys riding his motorcycle, reading and hiking. He is also working on a book about the contributions of Japanese Americans to the Washington state timber industry.
His wife Felecia loves to garden and preserve food. She is completing a certificate as a master food preservationist through the University of Idaho. The couple has an 11-year-old cocker spaniel named Sophie and a total of five grown children from previous marriages.
Felecia, who has a background in hotel management, works at the Orcas Hotel. She and Clark also both volunteer with the group Celebrate Recovery, and Felecia leads the women’s ministry team at Life Church.
“It feels like we have been here forever,” Felecia said. “We’ve had such a warm welcome. Our life is so full.”