The reopening of Pearson Air Museum under National Park Service management Wednesday drew a mixed response from visitors and the community.
The site, which has been closed for three weeks following a dispute between the Park Service and the Fort Vancouver National Trust, reopened Wednesday with an odd assortment of exhibited items, including a steam-powered car, a Ferrari tractor, a covered wagon and a boat.
Those items were part of interim display called “Float, Drive, and Fly,” about the history of transportation.
Another exhibit about the U.S. Army’s Spruce Production Division at Vancouver Barracks, which made aircraft components at the site during World War I, included two large tents, some short videos and a display with some recovered artifacts.
It’s a stark contrast from the collection the trust had built for the site, which was once packed with classic airplanes, models, hands-on flight simulations and other items.
But the trust, which owned or had secured loan of all the previous displays and historic airplanes, removed them from the site before it shut down the museum on Feb. 6.
Park Service officials said they realize there are a lack of airplanes in the museum, but they plan to remedy the situation as soon as possible. The “Float, Drive and Fly” exhibit was built over the course of about three weeks, said Theresa Langford, the museum’s new curator.
“The interim exhibits we’ll be having here for a few months, but the long-term plan is to get more planes here,” she said.
Two planes still hang from the ceiling. They have remained since the Park Service informed the trust that it was taking over management, and their fate is uncertain. The trust couldn’t safely remove them from the site before the shutdown, but the Park Service hasn’t learned whether the owners want to keep the planes in the museum or take them back, Langford said.
“The owners feel a little caught in the middle, and I can’t say I blame them,” Langford said. “I’m not sure if (the planes) are going to stay here yet.”
Next month, the Park Service hopes to introduce a larger exhibit on the birth of Pearson Field in relation to Vancouver Barracks, she added.
“It’s been challenging because of the time frame (for putting exhibits together),” Langford said. “We’re being creative, and we’re being positive.”
Tracy Fortmann, superintendant of the Fort Vancouver National Historical Site, where the museum is located, said she was proud of the displays the service was able to put together in such a short time. The steam-powered car and some other items, along with new vehicles that will rotate over coming weeks, were loaned mostly by residents in Portland and Vancouver, she said.
“We did do this in three weeks,” Fortmann said. “The community reached out to us.”
A small but steady trickle of visitors continued to pass through the museum after the doors opened just before 10 a.m.
They were surrounded by an equal number of journalists and Park Service rangers.
Attitudes from the visitors echoed the controversy that has split the community.
Asked for comment by The Columbian, one couple declined, with the man saying, “We don’t want to talk to you. You’ve got your point. We’ve got ours.”
Another woman, looking at panels along the museum’s side walls, also refused to comment.
Elizabeth Grace, who lives in Portland, said she came to check out the museum for the first time on Wednesday morning because “there was so much hoopla, I wanted to see what the action was about.”
Grace said she liked the displays.
“I think it’s a really good space, and I don’t really have any problems with the Park Service developing it,” she said.
Paul Rogers, of downtown Vancouver, also said he enjoyed the displays.
“It’s cool to see things that actually happened here,” Rogers said. “For me, it’s cool to see something different. I’m really fascinated by the Spruce Mill. The (Ferrari) tractor’s kind of cute. I’m really into the local history.”
Emotions also ran the gamut for the handful of protestors from the Save Pearson Air Museum group, which has organized through https://www.facebook.com/SavePearsonAirMuseum.
“Half the people (driving by) have been honking their support, half the people have been scowling at us, and one lady came out and she flipped us off,” said Kelly Beckelhiemer, one of the organizers.
Museum operations under the trust enjoyed support from much of the local community. The site had been used for several special events — which the Park Service says it wants to continue — and the trust had also organized several outreach programs for youth in the area.
Protestors said they were especially unhappy with the short time span of about three days that the Park Service told the trust it had before handing over the keys and codes to the museum.
Vern Hartman, a retired Army aviator and one of the protestors, said he felt the Park Service decided to reopen the site to get an advantage should pending legislation from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler go through. That legislation would turn the museum and surrounding 7 acres over to the city of Vancouver.
The trust had managed the site through a contract with the city.
“I think to me it looks like, ‘We’re here, so we get an advantage because we’re here,'” Hartman said. “The federal government, they want something, and they just move in and they take it. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The protestors said they plan to return Saturday around noon to continue their efforts to restore museum management to the trust.
Under the Park Service, the museum will follow the same schedule as before the closing — 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission to Pearson Air Museum, 1115 E. Fifth St., is free.
When the trust operated the museum, admission was $7; $5 for seniors, active military members and students 6-17; free for 5 and younger; $22 for families.