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Washington State University Graduate School

Preserving WSU History

Anthropology PhD candidate Andrew Gillreath-Brown records historic WSU sites

By Cheryl Reed

When Andrew Gillreath-Brown first saw the WSU Pullman campus in 2016 as he was driving on Washington State Route 270 towards Moscow, Idaho, he was struck by the historic look of the campus buildings, particularly the steam plant and the combination of old and new buildings set against the backdrop of rolling hills. Given the reason he was visiting WSU—to potentially pursue a doctoral degree in anthropology—his interest in the topography and history of campus was inherent.

“I had no connection to WSU but knew about its anthropology department,” says Andrew, now in the third year of his doctoral program researching how people have adapted to climate change. With a background rooted in the southeast (Andrew grew up in Alabama and received undergraduate degrees in Alabama and Tennessee and a master’s degree in Texas) his trek out west has been an adventure.

Andrew’s doctoral research draws on rich datasets that relate to paleoecology, paleoclimate change, and archaeological data. By looking at pollen samples in soils and lake sediments, scientists can get a sense of how climate change affected plant growth and how people adapted in the past. Andrew, a computational archaeologist, can look at already-collected information to generate paleoclimate reconstructions. Between his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he took three years to conduct fieldwork in several areas, including Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Israel. Andrew’s advisor, Regents Professor Timothy Kohler, has received numerous awards for his research and played an important role in Andrew’s academic and professional growth and research.

In addition to his research, however, Andrew has been working on a fascinating project as a member of the university’s Historic Preservation Committee. He has built a website to archive all of WSU’s buildings, landscapes, and landmarks and to date has input about 161 sites. His work on the website this past summer was funded by two fellowships from the WSU Libraries and has resulted in a highly functioning teaching and learning tool for the university.

Where Passion Fosters

Andrew’s interest in history began at a young age. Living in an unincorporated northern region of Alabama on property owned by generations of his family, he spent his youth hunting for prehistoric artifacts in the soil and rocks. Well known for its caves and medicinal sulphur springs, the area of Bangor attracts spelunkers and was once famous for the Bangor Club Café, an underground nightclub and speakeasy with a short burst of popularity in 1937. But to young Andrew, the land was all about its splendid stone materials.

“My grandfather would plow the garden and wait for the rain to reveal the projectile points,” says Andrew, who loved searching for prehistoric arrowheads and stone tools carved out of chert—a fine-grained, sedimentary rock that produces sharp edges when fractured.

Andrew says his mother used to take photos of old barns and taught him to appreciate old things. He recognized early the rich history of the farmland and the Native Americans who were here before us. He also became interested in Egyptian culture.

“I remember the first time I saw a real mummy,” says Andrew. “It was so surreal.”

Digging In

Once Andrew arrived at WSU in 2016, his first instinct was to get involved. He ran for a senate position in 2017 in GPSA and ended up on the travel grants committee. Through that position, he got a real sense of how the university works and the needs of graduate students.

In spring 2018, Andrew joined the university’s Historic Preservation Committee as an ad hoc for GPSA—the first graduate student representative for the group in quite some time.

Being on this committee connected me to campus and made me want to dive into its history,” says Andrew.

The main charge for the committee is to document and archive university buildings and landscapes. But Andrew had a bigger vision. He talked with the committee about building an interactive website for all its content, and he applied to the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation, which included attending the Palouse Digital Scholarship Symposium and the Lawrence R. Stark Archives and Special Collections for funding last summer. During his week at the symposium, he was introduced to an open source online publishing platform called Scalar, designed to structure and convert photos, maps, plans, and various media into digitally interactive website content. With a vision of how to structure a new WSU historic building website, Andrew spent the summer of 2018 building the site: http://cdsc.libraries.wsu.edu/scalar/wsu-buildings-landscapes/, which went live on December 18, 2018.

“I have information on ten more buildings I could add right now, as well as some on older barns and sheds,” says Andrew. “We’re really hoping to fill in information and write more in-depth narrative descriptions of the current buildings on the website.”

Andrew spent much of last summer exploring campus and taking photographs of buildings for the website—but of all the historic buildings on the WSU campus his favorites are College Hall and the Lewis Alumni Center. Last summer he also worked for the Museum of Anthropology and found out about the “Centennial Digs” that began in 1984 by the Washington State Archaeological Research Center and continued each spring up to WSU’s 1990 Centennial Celebration. In spring 1985, under the supervision of WSU archeologists, three students began digging at the Beef Cattle Barn—now the Lewis Alumni Center—looking for artifacts from the past. The Beef Cattle Barn was built in 1923, burned down in 1924, and was rebuilt in 1925. In March 1989, the highly remodeled old barn was re-opened as the Lewis Alumni Center.

The Centennial Digs continued for four more years. Recovered artifacts, although ordinary, record the tools of everyday life—like bottles, gum wrappers, hat pins, and ink pens. These everyday articles help archeologists understand what life was like for the ordinary Washington State college student.

This information inspired Andrew as he built the website.

“I started paying a lot of attention to things on campus,” he says, “like the old water fountain near Bryan Hall, the sun dial next to Thompson, the peace garden near Murrow, and the cupola on arboretum hill.”

These historic landmarks are records of all the WSU Cougs who walked this ground before us.

When Andrew completes his doctoral degree in 2020, he plans to be a college professor and continue his research. No doubt his passion for history will be a guiding force in his journey. To have a look at Andrew’s personal website, visit https://andrewgillreathbrown.wordpress.com/.