When Osage County Historical Society Museum Barbara Pease unlocked the back door to the museum early Wednesday morning smoke poured outside, and she could see flames licking up in the storage room.
A Pawhuska firefighter pushed past her with a fire extinguisher in hand to quell the flames. A hole in the ceiling, cut by the firefighters, ultimately helped contain the fire and save the museum’s artifacts.
But Pease didn’t know that until Fire Chief Gip Allen walked her through the museum.
“I think he heard me crying so hard,” Pease said. “I have never seen anything like it.”
“Barbara, I think everything can be saved,” she remembered him saying.
The fire, which appears to have started in an electrical breaker box, started around 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. The security and smoke alarm system alerted the Pawhuska police department, fire department and Pease.
The fire did destroy the contents of the 13 by 17 foot storage room – which included photographs, tools and various office supplies – where the breakers were located. But not a single artifact is believed to have been lost, Pease said.
“If you lose that, you lose a big part of your history,” she added, choking up. “I am here to protect the artifacts.
“If it had been in one of the rooms with the artifacts I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “I would still be at home crying.”
The pictures in the storage room have already been scanned into a computer, according to Pease and museum contract worker Rhonda Kohnle.
“We might have lost the hard copy, but they have all been digitized,” Pease said. Items in display cases were largely undamaged, according to Pease and Pawhuska Fire Capt. Lloyd Arnce. Some items in the display cases will need cleaning from smoke, soot and the smell, Pease said.
The museum has hired ServPro, which has professional fire, soot and smoke restoration experience, to clean the items.
Pease doesn’t know exactly when the museum will be up and running again. Right now, it is a waiting game for everyone involved.
The city, which owns the building, has to wait for the artifacts to be removed before they can start repairs. And the museum can’t remove the items until the fire inspection has been completed.
Pawhuska City Manager Paul McAlexander said he believed the building could be repaired and restored, but the city wouldn’t know for sure until they have it inspected.
Preliminary reports indicate the fire was caused by electrical probables, but is still under investigation, according to State Fire Marshal Agent Terry Smith.
Smith also credited the local fire department, which is just a block from the museum, for saving the building and much of the historical content. “Obviously there’s a loss. It could have just gone to the ground,” he said.
Arnce said that the firefighters were able to cut a hole in the roof, ventilating and containing the fire.
“That helps keep it from spreading in the attic,” Arnce said. Smoke damage can been seen around the outside of the building near the roof and attic.
“So much of that stuff is so fragile,” lamented museum board member Fred Drummond. “Sometimes, smoke is worse than a fire, and it was terribly smoky. We were lucky we didn’t lose everything.”
Drummond said that some items were being moved into the Pawhuska Business Development Center and that the Osage Nation had volunteered the use of the old pawn shop and Texaco station at Main and Lynn for the museum to use as an office. The tribe bought the building late last year.
“It was such an inopportune fire,” Drummond said. “Of course there’s never an opportune fire but we were just about to start building a storage building. We’ve raised $85,000 of the $100,000 we need.”
Drummond also said that he had recently had a curator visit the museum from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, on whose board Drummond also sits.
One beaded belt in the Osage exhibit, Drummond said, particularly captivated the curator, who said it would bring $40,000 on the open market.
“That’s just typical of the things we had down there. You can’t put a price on them,” Drummond said. “The photographs are irreparable, the curacot said. They might be digitized but you just can’t replace them.”
Whether the museum will have a temporary mini-museum isn’t certain yet, Pease said. “It’s just too soon to tell. We have a tremendous amount of cleaning to do.”
Just two or three months prior to the fire, several items were moved out of the storage room and put on display in the Osage Exhibit. Items that had been in the room just months ago during transition to the new exhibit include Chief Bacon Rind’s bow and one of the few Osage lances still in existence.
Nine firefighters responded to the fire, along with EMTs, and State Fire Marshal Agent Terry Smith was at the scene Wednesday morning. Arnce said that the fire appeared to be electrical and that one could hear electrical pops of the breakers when the firefighters arrived. One firefighter, Arnce, was slightly injured when he jammed his knee on a ladder laying in the storage closet.
The museum is insured by the Tolson Agency.
The museum board is scheduled to meet Thursday evening. “Me, my employees and the board directors are working to the best of our ability to make sure everything is cleaned, restored, and put back to the best of our ability,” Pease said.
And it’s not just the museum board members that are working to get the museum back in working order. Volunters, city residents and concerned citizens have come forward to offer help and condolences, according to board member Julia Wilson. As she put said: “I don’t think you really realize what friends you have until a disaster happens.”