By Shirley Stirling
At Bigelow Museum House, Cheryl Hougham is known as a super volunteer, but she is so much more – she is a treasure trove, a repository of knowledge, and an intrinsic part of our living local history! Cheryl’s roots run deep in Olympia and the neighborhood around and near the Bigelow House. He has a link to history that, dare I say it, few others have. And that is his special relationship with Bigelow House and family.
Life at Olympia
Cheryl Carlson’s ex was born in a maternity home in the late 1930s across the street from her parents’ house at 4th and Quince– very useful locations! His father owned the Paul H. Carlson Garage and Service Station on Washington and State Street, and his mother owned Jewell’s Beauty Shop at 4th Avenue, also very close to their house. As a high school student, he worked at Nehrings, a Maytag sales and service store at 5th Road. After graduating from Olympia High School in 1956, he worked at the Mottman Mercantile in downtown Olympia on Fourth Avenue and Capitol Way.
“The first floor contains men’s clothing with a mezzanine, the second floor contains women’s clothing, and the third floor houses the Capital China Company. I worked on the mezzanine on accounts receivable.
“Selected merchandise will be delivered to me in a pulley-raised basket. The money paid will be put in a cup in the basket, and I will give change to the customer. I also wrapped the merchandise in sheets of brown paper, tied it with white string, and returned all the change in the cup, along with the package wrapped in the basket.” He also mentioned that the lift also works with a manually pulled cable!
In 1957, she married Doran Keith “Gabby” Hougham (1933-2012), and they built their own house before starting a family. Doran and Cheryl raised their children Olympia, Doran Paul, and Deena. She worked until 1961, when their first baby was born, and felt lucky to live in a time when mothers didn’t have to work outside the home.
Doran worked for 11 years at Lacey Plywood and 30 years for the region’s leading employer, Olympia Brewery. They are part of that iconic history! “He comes in at the best of times and comes out before the worst,” she quips, “We always say that in the family.”
In the 1850s, long before the civil war, Daniel R. Bigelow, a territorial attorney and legislator, and his wife Ann Elizabeth White Bigelow, a teacher, built a two-room cabin and then the family home on Olympia, overlooking Budd Inlet. They are community leaders and work for the public good.
They were creative but orderly people, and history can be grateful for their holding on to many things, almost everything! For example, it is said that the first Mr. Bigelow never threw away letters. He kept his correspondence chronologically in a box – a treasure trove for historians!
Among other good causes, they prominently promoted suffrage and, being good Methodists, also advocated temperance. Even now, alcohol is not allowed on the Bigelow House property. Four generations of the same family lived in the house continuously until 2005.
Cheryl has always known Mary Anne Campbell Bigelow, Mary Anne of the third of four generations of the same family who lived at 918 Glass Street. Mary Ann moved into the house in 1935 as newlyweds with her husband, Daniel. It was a thrifty move, since he was in law school. Mary Anne said they were given, after the remodel, “two and a half rooms”, their own apartment with separate entrances.
Mary Anne claims that the two of them first met when Cheryl was only five years old. Mrs. Bigelow is part of his world. He saw her as a customer at her mother’s beauty salon, around town, and they usually greeted each other. His father serviced Bigelow’s cars. He saw the family strolling around the neighborhood – they were a walking family.
As a child showing respect, a custom in those days, he knew her as Mrs. Bigelow – always. When she became an adult, it was difficult to call the old woman by her first name. “She has always been Mrs. Bigelow to me!” he says.
Cheryl knows the house herself because Mrs. Bigelow has long since opened his home to the environment and the community. He opens his doors at Christmas, for Boy Scout events, and for the annual “Tour of Homes.”
Each year the tour focuses on historic homes on the west, south, or east sides of town, but always includes Bigelow House. and Mrs. Bigelow is the one who provides tea and drinks. Beautifully dressed and stylish, she loved sharing her home and she loved showing young people the elegance of etiquette.
To Docent or not to Docent
In the mid-1990s, Cheryl’s husband sat through the newspaper one day and read to her about the Bigelow Home Preservation Association and the events at Bigelow House. The family entered into a living estate agreement to share their home and artifacts. They recruit volunteer guides, to show visitors the house and talk about the Bigelow home and family, Olympia and its history. “You can do that,” he commented. And he decided that he really could. And he did!
Volunteer with Overhead Oversite
Cheryl volunteered, starting in 1995, at the start of the tour. Coming in at 30 years old, he is the only remaining guide from that first group.
One curious fact is that for the first ten years, the Bigelows lived in the house, while it was shared with the public. Truly a living museum! Tours were only given in four rooms at the time and the Bigelows holed up upstairs while visitors explored the first floor. Mrs Bigelow listens in to tours and conversations of visitors through the floor vents! After that, he would comment on the visitors and correct the narrations of the guides.
He said things to Cheryl that he just shared with her and gave advice freely. Cheryl learned well from Mrs. Bigelow and he learned to perfect the tour for his audience.
For years, Cheryl served one Sunday every month. If he anticipated working alone in the building, Doran would accompany him and sit down, reading a book. He did not offer himself but supported it.
Active in the Community
Cheryl is an active community member and was recognized last summer for 30+ years supporting heart patients through Mended Hearts of Thurston County. He was on the board of the Northeastern Environmental Association for many years. She also leads a special troop on the Pacific Peak Girl Scout Council called Troops for Wider Opportunities; an interesting highlight was the trip of escorting the girls on their one month visit to Switzerland. They are still getting together for the reunion after 43 years. Also a square dancer, Cheryl gets together with former members of the square dance organization for lunch every month.
How Now Home
This two-story house, over the course of its long existence, has been regularly updated and even renovated with apartments for family members. While the kitchen remains a “modern” 1950s-era upgrade, the rest of the house has now been brought back to Victorian times.
Warning, don’t try to donate antiques to the house. Unlike other museums I’ve been to, only items belonging to the Bigelow family are included. No outside artifacts! Some of the items were passed back and forth to surviving family members in Olympia and Seattle, but all that was on them were the original furniture, pictures, books, plates, musical instruments, or knick-knacks. Visiting this house means experiencing how one family lived through history. Most of the other historic homes have been sold, with the furniture and all of the land up for auction. Later, in recovery, lucky even some items were returned. Where else in the country can you find a place like the Bigelow House Museum?
The house is now closed and during the pandemic. But time has been wisely used to carry out attractive renovations, repairing historic buildings inside and out, and adding new spaces for public display through grants and donations. Interior designer David Bettencourt Goularte, wife of Ruthann Panowicz Goularte and owner of Drees, a leading Olympia retail store, has guided a volunteer organization to make the home look like it did in its early days with planning, designing and hands-on work. The décor has harkened further back to its Victorian past. Also, the house now contains surprising, larger-than-life 2-D cuts of early family member and famous 1871 dinner guest, Susan B. Anthony. She poses amidst slightly cluttered Victorian-era furniture and decor, with its signature bric-à-brac and antiques.
This author has a sneak preview of the changes in it. I was so excited to “see” the former occupants (and Susan B. Anthony) in the house! Volunteers have brought fun home décor to Victoria’s heyday, and they’re now developing new tours to entice visitors. Cheryl Hougham is excited to be back as a guide after a three-year pandemic hiatus. Stay tuned for the home reopening announcement, in April this year! Visit the Bigelow House Museum website by clicking here.
Interested in volunteering? Send email to: [email protected]
Shirley Stirling, of Lacey, writes about the good things people in Thurston County are doing. If you’d like to nominate someone for profiling, contact them at [email protected] or comment below.