Discovering Oregon History in Polk County

March 9, 2016 (Updated March 10, 2016)

If you want to deepen your connection with Oregon history, consider taking a trip to Polk County near Salem. You can quickly gather a sense of place by exploring the local museums, where you will discover fascinating stories of the region dating back to before Oregon statehood.


The Polk County Museum in Rickreall is the repository for much of the region’s history from 1842 to 1960. History, both ordinary and extraordinary, is documented through well-preserved texts, photos and artifacts. Visitors will learn about the native Kalapuya tribe that first inhabited the area and the resilient pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail on foot and by covered wagon in the 1840s to settle in the resource-rich landscape. You will be introduced to the freedom fighters who defended Oregon and the nation with their lives. You will see exhibits about the 28 townships that once flourished in Polk County. The museum is also a research facility with an extensive archival collection.

“Interestingly, most of the non-local visitors we get, especially those from out-of-state, are seeking genealogical information. The museum at Rickreall has an archives and library available for this kind of research,” says Ann Gage, an education coordinator at the Polk County Historical Society (PCHS).

In addition, the museum regularly hosts educational programs on local history. Its annual spring Family Day showcases Civil War reenactments, demonstrations of  pioneer skills and children’s activities, all geared to give you a taste of life “back when.”

The Polk County Historical Society also maintains the Historic Brunk House, a pioneer farmstead on Highway 22 near the Independence junction. Built in 1861, the two-story farm home features furnishings of that era along with outbuildings, gardens and orchards to explore what it was like to live on a working farm during that time. Several annual events offer living history opportunities, including the October Apple Festival, which features public cider-making from apples grown on the property.

To learn more about the indigenous people who inhabited the region, a trip to Chachalu Museum is a must. Chachalu tells the story of the Tribes and Bands of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon.

Located on tribal lands in Grand Ronde, the museum illustrates the resiliency of the land and the people who lived here long before settlers arrived. Chachalu is a center for cultural activity where the Tribes’ stories, history and culture continue to be practiced and shared. The museum also houses one of the largest basket collections in the Pacific Northwest. Hours vary during Pow Wow weekends in July and August and Restoration weekend in November.

Next, if you’re familiar with geocaching—a game in which players search for items based on geographical coordinates—have a bit of fun and punch the coordinates N 44° 51.171 W 123° 11.249 into your GPS device. When you arrive at the destination, tell the attendant the magic words, Westward Ho The Wagons, Ye Haw.”

This begins an adventure in the city of Independence that’s particularly suited to families. The outing provides history about Independence and the lives of the pioneers who first homesteaded the Willamette Valley. The geocache treasures are said to be themed for children’s toys and games — so keep that in mind if you’re planning to trade.

If geocaching isn’t your thing, head to the Heritage Museum, located in an old church in the heart of the Independence National Historic District. The museum features a variety of tours, traveling exhibits and museum classes. However, these adventures are limited to Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons.

In the neighboring Monmouth, a genteel experience awaits at the Gentle House. You are transported to the 1920s as a tour guide tells you about the history behind this enchanting late 19th century home and the family whose travels around the world landed them in Monmouth. Tours are by appointment only, but they are free and can be for any size group.

Monmouth also offers a self-guided walking tour of historic places. Stop by Monmouth City Hall to pick up a tour map.

About The

Eileen DiCicco
Eileen DiCicco is a freelance writer and editor who appreciates the simple and grand pleasures of living in Oregon. She makes her home in Dallas, Polk County.