When someone wants a photo from Whatcom Museum’s archive of 200,000 images, they contact Jeff Jewell. It might be Ken Burns needing a Darius Kinsey photo for one of his documentaries. Or a former high school athlete seeking a Jack Carver photo from the ’50s or ’60s. Or, as on a recent afternoon, Michelle Sheridan from Sacramento, California, who was looking for images of her ancestors, loggers in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Entering Jewell’s office on the second floor of the museum’s annex, Sheridan surveyed the historic photos lining the walls and said, “You’ve got the coolest job.” [Read on to see for yourself.]
Jewell, 62, has held his cool job for going on 30 years — his official title is photo archives research technician. Richard Vanderway, the museum’s former curator of education, and the person who hired him, said Jewell is a legend at the museum. “For people doing historical research he is the museum,” Vanderway said. “Probably by the time he’s done he’ll be there longer than anyone else.”
All of which makes Jewell something of a Bellingham historical figure himself, with a backstory to match.
In search of community
Jeff Jewell was born Jeff Johnson in Hollywood, California. His grandmother June was personal secretary to Hedda Hopper, the actress and gossip columnist. Hopper threw a baby shower for June when she was pregnant with Jewell’s father.
Jewell’s parents divorced when he was 2. His mother remarried, to Ken Jewell, and Jeff’s last name was legally changed to Jewell. Ken Jewell was a confidence man. He’d cadge money from people — for rent, a medical bill, any number of things. His grifts always caught up with him and the family was forced to move often, sometimes skipping town. Jeff Jewell went to 13 elementary schools.
It wasn’t all bad. His stepfather worked for a while as a warehouseman for Universal Studios, and as a child Jeff once joined him at lunch with Alfred Hitchcock. “It was a liquid lunch, which happened often,” Jewell said. “I had a hotdog.” Two actors happened by. The first, Robert Wagner, was nobody to him. The second was Fred Gwynne, aka Herman Munster. “I was beside myself,” Jewell said. “Here was celebrity.”
Jewell and his parents eventually settled in Seattle. In 1978, when he was in junior high, the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit came to Seattle Center, cementing his already keen interest in Egypt. He told his high school guidance counselor he wanted to become an Egyptologist. The counselor said, “I’m thinking an anthropologist would be more the way to go.”
Jewell graduated from Inglemoor High School in Kenmore and embarked on a peripatetic college career, starting at Washington State University. He stayed one year before moving on to Bellevue Community College and then to the University of Washington. He moved to Bellingham in 1982 to attend Western, graduating in 1984 with a degree in anthropology.
For two summers during his college years he studied poetry at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Colorado, the first accredited Buddhist college in America. Naropa’s intent: “To teach meditators about the golden mouth and to educate poets about the golden mind.” He learned about the school reading the sleeve of Bob Dylan’s “Desire” album. “I went to Naropa to hang out with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and all the beat daddies,” Jewell said. “I got to meet all of my literary heroes.”
He still writes poetry every day, not for publication but as a form of meditation. “You’re learning as a survival mode, expressing your feelings and viewpoints and thoughts in a very honest and naked way, so that you can almost evaluate your own mind,” he said. “It sounds kind of pretentious, maybe, but I’ve found that it works for me.”
Jewell yearned for a stable home after his chaotic childhood, and he fell in love with Bellingham, and its history. “I had come most recently from suburbia, which is auto-centric, doesn’t have a center,” he said. “There’s no particularly organic feel to it. It’s just a sprawl.”
In Bellingham he discovered a kind of Mayberry RFD or Bedford Falls from “It’s a Wonderful Life” (He watches the movie every year and always cries.). “Here is a downtown that I’ve only seen in movies or read about in Jack Kerouac books,” he said, recalling his early impression of the city. “It was such Americana. To go into the Horseshoe or Woolworths — ‘Oh my god, there’s a lunch counter, and the waitresses have uniforms.’ I know that might sound bad now, but ‘Oh, there’s a postcard rack, a photo booth.’ It was a dream come true. I just felt like I was in a time machine, because I felt that America had disappeared completely. I just wanted to know, to get involved, to be here.”
A mentor and a calling
Bellingham didn’t offer much in the way of work for budding anthropologists, and he spent 10 years working in restaurants, starting as a dishwasher at Dos Padres and moving up to line cook at il Fiasco and Cliff House. While working at Dos Padres he met Gordy Tweit, owner of the Fairhaven Pharmacy next door and a fount of Bellingham history. They talked while breaking down boxes to be recycled.
Tweit also was a much-needed role model and father figure for Jewell. “Boy, I can’t think of a better person to have met. He was everything. Just an all-around compassionate, generous person, which in itself is so rare,” Jewell said.
“His knowledge of the community extended out so far. He was a pharmacist. He worked with people at the most intimate moments of their lives and often at the most stressful moment of their lives, and he had all those relationships with people; so he was close to people, and that extended out generations. Here was someone who was completely grounded in this place. Firmly.”
To this day, Jewell has a shrine of sorts to Tweit displayed in the archive. It’s a photo of Tweit flanked by cans with replica labels from old Fairhaven canneries.
At the same time Jewell was working in restaurants, he was digging into Bellingham history. In addition to Tweit, he sought out others to learn from, including Galen Biery, George Hunsby, Charlie Lancaster, Wilhelmina Willis and others. He became particularly interested in Bellingham’s old buildings. “We didn’t have old buildings in suburbia,” he said.
Today, he and his wife, Lisa, live on Kulshan Street in a house built in 1906. Despite his access to thousands of historic Bellingham photos, Jewell hung just two in their home, both by James Sandison. “I’m married and there are political issues with wall space,” he said.
Jewell researches while walking and biking around town. He never drives, and he never has, a decision he made in high school. He was influenced by reading “City Lights Journal Number One,” edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It included an article describing the automobile as public-enemy number one: It destroyed communities by making everyone nomadic, caused pollution, and more. His buddies urged him to a get his license; it didn’t mean he had to drive, they told him. But he knew he’d be tempted on a rainy day or a date. “Take the car out the equation,” he said, “it’s not an issue and you don’t know any different.”
He and Lisa met at Washington State. Right off he told her didn’t drive. Really? she said. I don’t either. “Two people had found each other,” Jewell said. Lisa started driving when they had their second child.”
Jewell applied to the Whatcom Museum four times over six years, not always knowing exactly what the positions were, but willing to do anything to get his foot in the door. His first job was as a permanent, part-time, substitute attendant. He greeted visitors, working weekends and filling in when needed. Vanderway recalls him as somewhat shy, but once those at the museum grew to know him, his passion for local history shone through. He was hired permanently in 1994 to serve as photo archives research technician.
When Jewell began, the archive numbered about 15,000 images, made up primarily of the J. W. Sandison and Darius and Tabitha Kinsey collections, plus some other vintage photos. Today, it numbers about 200,000, boosted by the arrival of the Jack Carver collection in 1995, and the Galen Biery collection in 1996.
Making history accessible
There are two kinds of archives: one keeps items safeguarded, and the other is open to the public. Whatcom Museum, which is owned by the City of Bellingham, is the latter. Requests come from filmmakers, corporations, universities, publishers large and small. Jewell provides photos and captions for a variety of local publications, from Salish Current, Cascadia Daily News and Whatcom Talk to magazines such as Bellingham Alive and Southside Living. Two assistants help, but there’s more than enough work to fill 40 hours per week. Because he’s a city employee, Jewell can’t work overtime.
The archive is housed in the Syre Education Center next door to Old City Hall. It’s open to members of the public Wednesday through Friday afternoons, and Jewell is there to help. “He’s never, as far as I know, denied access to anyone,” said Carole Teshima, the Whatcom Historical Society’s former program coordinator. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional, or a student or anybody. He will help you out. “It’s not about him. It’s never about him. He really cares about the community.”
The archive is ADA-accessible and Jewell has played host to people in wheelchairs and even someone in a hospital bed, a person who’d grown up in Bellingham and wanted to see photos of the town as they remembered it. Blind people have come to the archive. “They have the pictures described as they appear on the monitor,” Jewell explained. “They had sight as a younger person but no longer do.”
Much of his job is retail, selling images to publishers and media, the public, but it’s also about sharing knowledge. Museums are unique. They’re not exactly a business, where people come in expecting to buy a product off a shelf, and they’re not a library, where people check out items for free. “We’re kind of in between,” Jewell said.
That can lead to contentiousness when people won’t or can’t pay for images. Jewell has been cursed at, told to f-off, and he has made people cry. “That’s rough; that’s emotionally just heavy,” he said. “There’s a lot of that kind of pain that goes on in this job. You’re dealing with legacy here, which is a really powerful motivator and emotion. You’re really giving value to people’s existence, and to validate that is really important. It’s an important part of a museum’s function.”
For the most part, though, Jewell’s customers are satisfied, among them Shawn Serdahl, part-owner of A1DesignBuild in Bellingham. In the early 2000s Serdahl was considering buying a house on York Street off Electric Avenue. It dated to the early 1900s and he wanted to learn more about it. Someone told him to go see Jeff Jewell at the museum — of course someone did. Jewell told Serdahl he needed more than an address and directed him to the Washington State Archives on 25th Street. Serdahl found the former owner’s name in an old city directory and went back to Jewell with the information.
Jewell found a photo of the former owner, Everett S. Howell, and told Serdahl that Howell was the principal of Fairhaven High School when it burned down New Year’s Eve 1935, and subsequently the first principal of Bellingham High School.
“He was just really excited to help find information, with a smile and with passion,” Serdahl said. “He seems like he really loves what he does. It’s great when you meet someone like that.”
Jeff Jewell, the history student, is now a wellspring of Bellingham lore, just like Gordy Tweit and the other local historians who came before him.
Jack Carver’s assignment for the Bellingham Herald that afternoon was to go to Custer and photograph a woman who’d won blue ribbons for her canning at the Whatcom County Fair. Carver snapped a photo of Loretta Lynn standing over her stove holding a pot. The picture is one the most requested images from Whatcom Museum‘s photo archive — famous less for Lynn’s canning ability than for her becoming a country-music legend.
Lynn used the photo in her book “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” “If I knew how I’d done it,” she wrote in the caption, “I would have told ’em.” Neither she nor Carver remembered the exact year, but the museum dates it circa 1955.
The photo is part of the Jack Carver Collection, one of the archive’s six major collections.
Jack Carver collection
Carver was the Bellingham Herald‘s photographer from 1945 to 1981, documenting everything from Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Bellingham to winter scenes to high school sports. The museum’s Carver collection numbers 57,000 negatives and prints and is the archive’s most popular.
Another often-requested image is of the world’s tallest Christmas tree, taken in 1949. The 153-foot-tall tree was erected on Railroad Avenue. Carver’s photos have a “nostalgic element,” says Jeff Jewell, the museum’s photo archivist. “Jack knew everyone, and everyone knew Jack.”
The Carver collection went from the Herald to the state archive before being donated to the museum in 1995.
James Sandison collection
Another of the museum’s most requested photos is J. W. Sandison’s Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, taken in front of the Liberty Theatre in 1921. The photo has appeared in books, magazines and documentaries.
Sandison was a commercial photographer with a studio on Holly Street. The Ku Klux Klan hired him to photograph its parade through downtown Bellingham in 1926. The Klan staged the event after being denied entry in the Tulip Festival. Whatcom Talk used three of the photos for a history on the Klan in Bellingham, and they’re popular on anti-racist websites. “The Klan wanted them for their own edification,” Jewell says. “Now they show the Klan was here.”
Sandison died in 1962 in his studio at age 89. The collection numbers about 7,000 images, and the museum bought it in 1963, for $50.
Bert Huntoon collection
Huntoon, an engineer by profession, was instrumental in the development of Mount Baker Highway and the Mount Baker Lodge, which opened in 1927. He also was involved with the construction of Chuckanut Drive. The Herald described him as a “MASTER BUILDER” in an editorial tribute.
Huntoon photographed along the way, producing a treasure trove of images that document key developments in Whatcom County. His photos were published in newspapers and magazines at the time, and they remain popular. They hang on the walls of the Mount Baker Ski Area’s lodge, and they’re in books about local history. The Huntoon collection includes about 5,500 photos and original negatives, donated to the museum by the state archive and by Galen Biery in 1995 and 1996.
Galen Biery collection
Like Jack Carver, Biery was born and raised in Bellingham. He worked for years in the fishing industry and was a self-taught historian. He was a photographer, and he collected and preserved historic photos, working in his home’s basement, which he converted into a darkroom. He died in 1994, and his family donated his collection to the museum. It numbers more than 35,000 images, including thousands of 4-by-5 copy negatives Biery made in his darkroom. The collection is evidence of his considerable contribution to Bellingham history.
Harold Hanson collection
Hanson was a prominent naval architect and marine engineer, and also a photographer and collector. This is the archive’s largest collection by physical size. Totaling about 30,000 items, it includes photos, drawings, blueprints, models, books, periodicals and more, documenting the shipbuilding industry from 1918 to 1970.
Hanson died on Mercer Island in 1975 at age 82. The collection was stored in the leaky stateroom of a Seattle boat, and the museum competed for it with the state. It was donated to the museum in 1982, in part because Hanson family members lived in Bellingham and also because it had ample storage.
The archive’s most prominent collection is the work of Darius and Tabitha Kinsey’s photo documentation of logging in the Pacific Northwest. The Kinseys lived and worked in Whatcom and Skagit counties in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Kinsey roamed the woods making photos, and Tabitha ran the business back home.
The collection includes prints, plus glass, nitrate and stereoscope negatives. They sell to commercial clients for $1/megabyte. Ken Burns paid about $6,000 for their use in two of his documentaries.
The collection took a circuitous route to the museum. Darius died in 1945, and Tabitha sold it the following year to Seattle freelance photographer Jesse Ebert, who sold it to Dave Bohn in 1971. Bohn partnered with Rodolfo Petschek to produce a two-volume history of the Kinseys. Kinsey Photographer runs to more than 300 pages and includes dozens of photos.
The museum bought the collection from Bohn in 1978 for $60,000.
— Reported by John M. Harris
A print version of this article may be found in the December issue of the Journal of the Whatcom County Historical Society.
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