A hidden gem of a museum in the most unexpected of places

Ahead we have our longest travel day yet on this trip but we still plan to squeeze a lot in so we leave early. It is yet another fine day and we decided to pull off I-84 to check out Hermiston, which is famous for its watermelons. The drive through was quick as there was not much to make us want to stay longer – this is our first and most likely last visit to Hermiston.

What had piqued our interest was the museum of art at Maryhill, which was around the halfway point on our journey to Portland. The museum was founded by Sam Hill (1857 to 1931) who was by all accounts an interesting character. He was originally a child of the mid-West but fell in love with the Northwest and moved himself here and it became his life-long passion to develop the communities of Washington and Oregon. His fortune was made in building railroads, working in his father-in-law’s businesses. When he relocated to Seattle his wife, Mary, could not settle and returned, with her children, to Minneapolis after six months. The Northwest was still very wild and a tough environment for refined folks to accept. Anyway, Sam threw himself into building a legacy and his real passion was roads. He created the Washington State Good Roads Association in September 1899, which persuaded the Washington State Legislature to create a state highway department in 1905. Hill persuaded the University of Washington to establish the United States’ first chair in Highway engineering in 1907. After failing to convince Washington State to build a highway on the north bank of the Columbia River, he convinced Oregon officials to build the scenic Columbia River Highway, which linked coastal Astoria, Oregon and The Dalles, Oregon.

Sam wanted to build an inland empire in the Northwest and purchased land in Klickitat County, Washington along the Columbia River and named the parcel Maryhill after his wife and daughter. His original plan was to build a farming community but unfortunately this is a place where it does not rain a lot so this adventure dried-up! Today they do successfully harvest grapes and the area is now a producer of some very good wines – which has been helped with the introduction of modern irrigation systems that were not available during Sam’s time. In an attempt to tempt his wife back to Washington State, Hill built the building which now houses the museum – sadly the plan failed and the building lay empty for many years.

Monuments were another Sam Hill’s passions. He was responsible for the Peace Arch which sits on the I-5 border crossing with Canada at Blane. With our recent travels to and from Vancouver, BC to catch flights we have had a close-up experience with this arch. A more interesting and somewhat quirky monument is the Stonehenge that Hill built next to his Maryhill estate. Of course we had to visit this and see how it compared to the original and much more ancient edifice from our homeland. This Stonehenge was not built for druids dressed in bedsheets to shuffle around on summer solstice and instead is a monument to the local young men who fell during World War I. The structure itself is not as rustic as the original henge on Salisbury Plain, but nonetheless it is impressive.  As always it was sad to see a record of those who had died at such a young age.

The location has spectacular views down on to the Columbia River. This is a wonderful setting!

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Sam Hill’s Stonehenge monument

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View from the monument

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We move on to the Maryhill Museum of Art which is four or five miles down the road. This location is remote and our expectation for an art museum out here is not high. The building, as you might guess from an egocentric individual such as Sam Hill, is impressive. During a visit in 1917 Hill decided to turn this into a museum and his dream was realized when it was dedicated in 1926 by Queen Marie of Romania. As part of this process Queen Marie donated more than 100 objects.  Hill’s personal contribution to the new museum included almost 90 American Indian baskets, more than 70 Rodin sculptures and watercolors, and many personal items. Over the years the collection has been expanded by donations from Hill’s acquaintances and the work of subsequent museum directors and other patrons. This has resulted in an eclectic and interesting collection.

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Entrance to the Maryhill museum

The first room you enter is entirely dedicated to the donations of Queen Marie. These are artefacts from a major European Royal family and consequently they are lavish and ornate and not what we were expecting to find in rural Washington. Marie was born into the British Royal Family and was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. Included in the exhibit were some personal possessions of Marie, including letters from Queen Victoria, her stunning wedding dress and some gorgeous Fabergé eggs.

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Another unexpected find was an interesting exhibit of the works of the Auguste Rodin, who many consider to be the father of modern sculpture. As well as having examples of his sculptures in various materials there were samples of his sketches and workings. We didn’t know too much about Rodin and his history – which was very rich, including a troublesome childhood, eyesight issues and the various women who influenced his life and works – until we visited the museum.

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One of our favorite exhibits was a collection of chess sets. The history of this collection goes back to the passion of a former director of the museum. Over the years it has expanded and there is now a super and diverse array of sets of different design styles from many countries. It was amazing to see the variety and creativity that had gone into what many people might consider a mainly logical and cerebral pastime.

The sets which caught our eye were the more quirky and comical designs.

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Contemporary chess set design

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Rather evil looking character chess set

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Just got love the chess set in the middle with the “busty” queen

The exhibit of Native American arts was amazing! Each of the major regions was covered including the Alaskan tribes. The intricacies of the designs were stunning. We have seen several collections of this art but this was one of the better ones we had come across in our travels across the United States.

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