Collection of “history hoarder”
is a priceless treasure today
Printer George Himes saw the historical value of the everyday things around him, and although that made for some very unsuccessful publishing ventures, his collection is the heart of the Oregon Historical Society's archives today.
By Finn J.D. John — December 13, 2015
If you were to start asking local historians who the most influential Oregon historians of the 19th century were, there would be several names you would hear over and over.
You’d likely hear Frances Fuller Victor mentioned the most; the “Mother of Oregon History” is certainly the most famous, despite Hubert Howe Bancroft’s efforts to pass off her work as his own. And you might hear a mention or two of Oregonian editor Harvey Scott — although really, Scott was more of a propagandist than a historian, and would never be caught passing on a tale that reflected poorly on the state or contradicted the heroic “Oregon story.”
But the name you might be least likely to recognize is that of a failed printer, amateur historian and compulsive collector from Portland: George Henry Himes.
George Himes is best known as the curator of the Oregon Historical Society, a position he held from 1915 until his death in 1940. That’s because it was during that time that it became clear to anyone interested in state history just what he had done for the state. For decades he had been, you might say, a hoarder — but a hoarder with a purpose, and a hoarder of a very specific type of material. And he left his hoard as his legacy to his adopted home state: a massive collection of things — documents, books, maps, photographs and physical artifacts — that forms the foundation of the Oregon Historical Society’s collections today.
In doing so, Himes helped set a tone for how history would be done in Oregon — a tone that draws as much from the journalist’s toolkit, and the amateur antiquarian’s, as it does from the professional academic historian’s.
George Henry Himes was born near Troy, Pennsylvania, in 1844, and emigrated on the Oregon Trail nine years later. They settled in the town of Lacey, up in what’s now Washington, and when he was 17, young George got his start as an apprentice printer to a newspaper publisher.
Himes made his way to Portland in 1864 and took a job setting type on the Portland Morning Oregonian; his hand set the type in the Oregonian that announced the assassination of Abraham Lincoln the following year. This was probably about the time he adopted his lifelong habit of historical scrapbooking and collecting, saving clippings and artifacts of contemporary historical events — forming the nucleus of the collection that he would one day bequeath to OHS.
By 1870, Himes had his own printing company, which he somewhat unimaginatively named “Himes the Printer.” He’d met and married a woman named Anna Riggs, and the two of them were getting started on building a family that would eventually include 11 children.
But by 1873, Himes was already worrying about the obscurity that would soon fall upon the stories of the pioneers who had braved the Oregon Trail twenty years before. As the city around him grew in size and opulence, he worried that their stories would be lost. And, of course, being one of their number himself, he took that prospect rather personally.
So with several other Oregon Trail veterans, he formed the Oregon Pioneer Association.
The OPA was more of a fraternal organization-cum-public-relations outfit than a true historical society. Over the years, it staged parades and banquets, sponsored lectures and shows, and published books and articles, all of which were at pains to preserve the pioneers’ stories (and, a professional academic historian might remark, perhaps also to reshape and mythologize them just a bit).
But the OPA was, until the Oregon Historical Society was formed in 1900, the organization most in control of the narrative of Oregon history. And, backed up by Himes’ already-huge-and-growing collection, it was growing to resemble a real historical society more and more.
Himes the Printer, during this time, made a name for himself as a publisher of Pioneer Association items and other poorly-selling nuggets of Oregon history, as well as several volumes of Joaquin Miller’s poetry. A lifelong Congregationalist, he was also a hardcore temperance man; when, in 1874, Frances Fuller Victor published the story of the temperance riots (“The Women’s War with Whiskey; or, Crusading in Portland”), Himes was the publisher.
But Himes never was much of a businessman. As a publisher, his knack for seeing the significance of historical events as they happened was a real hindrance. Nobody wanted to read “The History of the Willamette Valley” when it was published in 1885, because that history was just a couple dozen years old and most valley residents already knew it. Similar bad decisions kept his business perpetually tottering. And it didn’t help that the lion’s share of his labor and time and attention were all taken up with adding to his collections, conducting oral-history interviews with aging pioneers, and volunteering on OPA events.
By 1898, though, it was clear that unless OPA was willing to open its membership to non-pioneers, something new was needed. So Himes, together with Oregonian editor Harvey Scott and University of Oregon professor Frederic G. Young and others, formed and incorporated the Oregon Historical Society — the oldest of its kind on the West Coast. (The California Historical Society claims 1871 as a birth date, but shares only a name with the short-lived organization that was founded at that time. Its true founding date was 1922.)
When the OHS was launched in 1900, it was clear that it would be carrying forward in the same style as the OPA, only with more professionalism. Professor Young was named editor of a new professional peer-reviewed journal, the Oregon Historical Quarterly. Scott became the president. And Himes, gregarious and enthusiastic as always, became the curator of the new organization’s collections — almost all of which had been collected by Himes himself.
The early years of the Oregon Historical Society have been criticized by modern historians such as E. Kimbark MacColl for being too boosterish, too interested in presenting a glorious Oregon story of bravery, nobility and regional exceptionalism, and insufficiently willing to own up to tales of darkness and meanness. Certainly the Historical Society was not the place to go to learn about shanghaiiers, bootleggers, bordellos, opium dens and political corruption. Those stories would be supplied later, by jaded newspaper raconteurs such as Stewart Holbrook and Herbert Lundy.
But although Himes probably approved of this sort of silent whitewashing of the state’s history, that wasn’t his department. His specialty — at first just a hobby, but after 1902 his full-time occupation — was building that massive collection of artifacts, unvarnished pieces of a fast-fading past: Old books, manuscripts, photos, transcripts of more than 7,000 interviews he’d conducted with pioneers, and plenty of articles carrying his own by-line.
It’s entirely possible that, if transported to the modern day, George Himes would be labeled a hoarder. Especially when he was first embarking on his lifelong collecting habit, when the artifacts he was saving — newspaper clippings, old letters, memoranda with important people’s signatures on them, that kind of thing — were not yet old enough to be rare or cherished. But by saving all those things, and adding to them over a lifetime of travels and interviews and searchings-out, Himes probably contributed more to the study of Oregon history than any other single individual — and his collections are still contributing to it today.
(Sources: Laugesen, Amanda. “George Himes, F.G. Young, and the Early Years of the OHS,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 2000; Wexler, Geoffrey. “George Himes (1844-1940),” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org)