Students support small town with museum dreams

Closeup of an old gas station the community of LaCrosse hopes to turn into a museum with the help of WSU students.
Gas station that the LaCrosse community hopes to develop into an Ice Age Floods and Heritage museum.

Thousands of years ago, a large lake in what is now Missoula, Montana, broke through an ice dam in Northern Idaho.  

Water from the lake drained within two days, and a torrent of water cascaded to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, rearranging everything in its path. Traveling through the landscape around LaCrosse, Washington, in the area known as the Channeled Scablands, the water violently sculpted the region, carrying basalt rocks from far upstream and leaving them scattered far and wide. Over many years, similar events were repeated numerous times.

Many generations later, unaware of the region’s violent geological past, a local businessman in what was then a struggling wheat farming community during the midst of the Great Depression built a gas station and nearby bunkhouses, gathering the nearby basalt stones for a building material because, in times of economic struggles, the stone was cheaper than timber. 

Today, the gas station stands deserted with weeds growing up through the pavement. A generation of Washington State University students is now working with the community to bring the past to life. 

As part of WSU’s Rural Community Design Initiative (RCDI), the students are working with the community on ideas for an Ice Age floods and Heritage museum at the site of the old gas station. 

Making a difference for small towns around the region

The RCDI program is a collaborative effort between faculty and students in the School of Design and Construction and rural partners throughout the Pacific Northwest to design projects that enhance the social, cultural, economic, and natural capital of communities. Since its inception in 2010, students in the program have worked with rural communities on more than 30 projects.

Led by Bob Krikac, associate professor in the School of Design and Construction, and Michael Sanchez, assistant professor, the team of students recently presented ideas for an Ice Age floods museum at the site of the old gas station and will soon have a follow-up community workshop. The museum will someday be part of the National Park Service’s Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail that follows the flooding events and geologic history throughout the Pacific Northwest. 

Surrounding geology and landscape of LaCrosse that was impacted by the ice age floods.
Surrounding geology and landscape that was impacted by the floods. 

“When you’re driving through this unique landscape, it stirs up curiosity,” said Sanchez. ‘Why does it look like this?’ These museums are sharing the forces that created this area, the processes that they went through over the years, and how it eventually resulted in what we see today, so it’s fun to bring these far-apart spaces together. It’s satisfying to see why the land looks the way it does.”

After collecting community information, the students are developing a concept for a master plan. The work is meant to be conceptual only as a precursor to what a professional design firm would do. The student work also allows community members to have graphics and a conceptual plan that facilitates things like applying for grants or fundraising. The work also aims to provide inspiration.

“It gives the community an opportunity to clarify what they want from a conceptual level,” Sanchez said. “We give them enough momentum that they are able to take it to the next level. When the community is able to see what is possible, they get excited about it.”

The RCDI has also done work in Ritzville, Royal City, Moses Lake, and Soap Lake, among others. Word of the program gets spread by word-of-mouth and social media. Students work as paid interns, but the costs for the program are much lower than the cost of a professional design firm.

“When we talk to these communities, people are very appreciative because the students and professors are working together to help the community,” said Harleen Kennedy, an architecture student who has worked for the RCDI for two years. “We’re a multi-disciplinary design group that can help communities meet their needs.”

The students, meanwhile, also gain an invaluable experience.

“This is such a real-world experience,” said Kennedy. “Learning at an early stage how to work with other disciplines is a very important thing that this group really gives to the students.”

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