News Column

Milton-Freewater history on display at Farmstead

July 22, 2014

By Karlene Ponti, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash.

July 22--MILTON-FREEWATER -- A family home, now a museum, is a time capsule of days gone by.

The elegant Frazier Farmstead Museum, 1403 Chestnut St., commemorates the lives of a family that lived here for three generations, for more than 115 years.

William and Rachel Frazier came by wagon on the Oregon Trail, arriving at this location in 1868. Initially they built a cabin on the site. The exact location of the cabin isn't known, as no remnants of it have been found.

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"They came with nothing, just what would fit in a covered wagon," said Diane Biggs, director of the museum. "It was before the town was here, it was just scattered settlements."

The current home was built in 1892 and remodeled in 1896. It was remodeled again in 1913, and remains as it was then.

"Thank goodness they didn't remodel it again," Biggs said.

In 1983 Lela Frazier died and left the six-acre farmstead, buildings and all their contents to the Milton-Freewater Area Foundation. The home was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites in 1986.

The three front rooms were still elegant in wallpaper, but every other room was painted with a high-gloss white paint.

"That had to go," Biggs said.

Since then, some painting and surface changes have been made, but all in keeping with the character of the home. Volunteers with the Milton-Freewater Historical Society wallpapered and restored the rooms, although they got professional help for the staircase with its extremely high ceiling.

"I found the original wallpaper in the back of a linen closet," Biggs said.

But the cost of reproducing that design was prohibitive, so something less expensive was chosen.

"We picked something that was appropriate to that era," she said.

The kitchen has an antique stove and ice box, as well as a dumbwaiter in the wall. Biggs and volunteers have uncovered walls, floors and woodwork throughout the home.

"Every wood surface was white," Biggs said. "It had indoor/outdoor carpet that was really ugly. We took it down to the wood under layers of tar paper."

The parlor is used as the museum's gift shop. Upstairs there's a long hallway filled with family antiques, photos and items from the early 1900s. Commenting on the photos of people from the late 1880s and early 1900s, Biggs said, "The reason they look so stern is because they had to sit still for a long exposure."

The home includes a sewing/costume room, several bedrooms and interesting personal bits of history. In one of the bedrooms there is a small bag containing sugar paste roses from a wedding cake from about 1884. Nearby is a worn stagecoach trunk with images of Jenny Lind, a noted vocalist from the era.

Biggs has spent a lot of time sorting through the many items at the museum. She loves history and antiques, so the role is natural for her.

"This October, I will have been here 30 years," she said. The only other paid employee is groundskeeper Judy Piper.


Photo by Michael Lopez

A cabin with fireplace is part of the museum.

The site now boasts lush gardens and restored outbuildings, including a large 1918 red barn.

"They left everything intact; all the buildings were full," Biggs said. "There were more than 800 items. There were drawers and drawers of beautiful old linens. One family had owned the home all those years, there was no reason to get rid of anything."

In her years at the museum, Biggs has found many fascinating things and heard stories about the people of the past. She's also had the opportunity to meet many people and hear their stories.

In a museum, every object has a story, a history. She found the most interesting item while going through a trunk of quilts and blankets. At the bottom she touched a small tin box. In the box were 10 letters written during the Civil War. These were from a relative of the second generation that lived here.

Preserving paper items is difficult, so Biggs had the letters encapsulated to be saved. She's found encapsulation works much better than laminating, as it's reversible and doesn't damage the item.

The museum holds the remnants of the lives lived there.

"They saved newspaper clippings, articles from the 1890s," Biggs said. One documented a family tragedy.


Photo by Michael Lopez

Antique rifles hang on the wall on the second floor of the Frazier Farmstead Museum.

"Claude Frazier was about 4 years old when he fell into the fireplace," Biggs said. "After 24 hours he died from his injuries. His parents, who had come here to care for (an elderly parent), couldn't live here anymore, so they built the house across the street."

But the house museum holds memories of joy as well as sorrow -- weddings, births and the wonder of everyday living. And new memories are made here in the present, with special events and seasonal activities, like the traditional Christmas Open House celebration the first Wednesday in December. In the summer, the museum holds its annual Summer Time Festival. A Frazier family reunion was held in 1995; Biggs estimated attendance at about 150.

The museum is available for special occasions and weddings. Biggs said these events are held on the grounds to accommodate large groups.

Another facet of the efforts by museum, staff and volunteers is the genealogy work they have done tracing family lineage.

"We have about 400 families on our website," Biggs said.

The site also has information on the former local group of veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic, and lists of headstones of those who were in the Civil War.

The site includes a carriage house, large hay barn and expanded perennial garden. Roses appear everywhere and the garden is a lovely place for contemplation and relaxing. The back of the property is bordered by the Walla Walla River with a willow tree Biggs planted years ago.

"It's very quiet here," Biggs said.

Karlene Ponti is the U-B specialty publications writer. She can be reached at 509-526-8324 or


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Source: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (WA)

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