Echtle, (Re)Discover Bigelow House!

Ed Echtle, President of Bigelow House Preservation Association

As those familiar with local history know, the Bigelow House Museum on Olympia’s east side is the oldest surviving home in town. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, more recent homes now obscure its former prominence overlooking the town. What many don’t know is the home not only showcases original antique furnishings and décor, it also holds the personal records of the Bigelow family, offering a window into more than 150 years of local, state and national history. To better understand the significance of these materials, a brief overview of Bigelow House Museum is in order.

Daniel Bigelow and Ann Elizabeth White traveled the Oregon Trail separately in 1851.  Twenty-eight year old Daniel came on his own as a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, looking for opportunity. Ann Elizabeth arrived with her family at age 15. By 1854 she was working as one of the first schoolteachers in Washington. That year she met and married Daniel and they began married life together on Daniel’s claim, across the bay from downtown.

Daniel’s time in the Boston area exposed him to many social and political causes he adopted as his own. He became a lifelong advocate of female suffrage, public education and equal treatment under the law for non-whites. Together, Daniel and Ann Elizabeth worked throughout their lives to ensure their community and their government embraced these values as well. While Daniel served in the first three legislatures—and later for a term in 1871—Ann Elizabeth was active in the Methodist Church and other social organizations, including the Olympia Women’s Club, the first founded on the west coast.  As key participants, they kept extensive documentation of their part in these activities.

By the time Daniel passed away in 1905, the Bigelows were venerated pioneers, consulted by the press and historians for their insights on the founding of Washington and their opinions on current affairs. After Daniel’s death, Ann Elizabeth, an accomplished businesswoman in her own right, managed their extensive land holdings until her death in 1926. The eight children they raised in the house also went on to become prominent in local affairs. Their youngest son, George, followed his father into law practice and served as Olympia’s city attorney. Among his many accomplishments, George Bigelow was instrumental in securing Priest Point as a city park for Olympia.

George’s son Daniel was born in their home just above the old Bigelow place in 1911. He too became a lawyer and in 1935 married Mary Ann Campbell. In their early married life, they lived upstairs in Bigelow House, while Daniel’s aunts Margaret and Ruth lived downstairs. After their passing, Daniel and Mary Ann modernized the house to make it their own. However, by the 1950s, people interested in the history of the house began asking the Bigelows for tours. Mary Ann and Daniel graciously opened their home and many individuals, school classes, church groups, and others visited to learn stories of the past. Mary Ann especially embraced the family’s history and used her talent for storytelling and music to bring the past alive.

As Daniel and Mary Ann aged, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the house. By the 1990s developers were offering them substantial sums for the homestead. In response, the Bigelows partnered with friends and neighbors to preserve the house as a museum. While the city was reluctant to manage a museum, it facilitated a loan for the purchase of Bigelow House by the newly formed Bigelow House Preservation Association (BHPA). After BHPA purchased Bigelow House, it undertook a year-long renovation, returning the home to its territorial era appearance inside and out. The Museum opened for tours in 1994. Within a few years BHPA repaid the loan from the city as well.

Meanwhile, Daniel and Mary Ann retained a life-estate in the house where they continued to host visitors and tours until their deaths in 2005. Since then, Bigelow House is fully open as a private non-profit museum, providing visitors a look into middle-class domestic life in the Pacific Northwest prior to Washington statehood.

As OHS and Bigelow House move toward a merger in 2014, not only will OHS finally have a place to call home, but Bigelow House will take on a larger role, beyond the story of one family. In coming years, records stored in the house will become a part of the growing OHS collection of materials that will be available for researchers through the new organization. As the combined Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum enters their next phase, the Bigelow House will continue the role established by its builders Daniel and Ann Elizabeth as a place where community can look to its past to gain perspective on its present and future.

Note: you can also find more information on the Bigelow House and the White and Bigelow families on our website at Where Are We?

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