Retiring history museum director's Kitsap County roots run deep

Carolyn Ferguson Neal retired June 30 as the executive director of the Kitsap Historical Society and Museum. - Robert Christensen
Carolyn Ferguson Neal retired June 30 as the executive director of the Kitsap Historical Society and Museum.
— image credit: Robert Christensen

Carolyn Ferguson Neal, who retired June 30 as executive director of the Kitsap County Historical Society's Museum in Bremerton, has deep roots in Kitsap County.

Neal's great-grandparents homesteaded in Breidablick in North Kitsap in the 1880s and her parents moved to Bremerton during World War II.

Today, she lives about a quarter mile from where she was born in East Park and drives past the Schley Street home she grew up in on a daily basis.

"I never got very far, but there's something to be said for being grounded in a place, especially for a job like this," Neal said. "I think it makes it more special. It gives you knowledge that somebody else might not  posses, but it also gives you a great sense of stewardship."

Prior to taking over at the museum two years ago, Neal was a librarian in Kitsap County for 32 years and became manager of the Bremerton branch in 2006.

"I got my library card there when I was 6 years old and 50 years later I was in charge of it," she said. "When I was 6, I  couldn't do anything but be quiet, but when I was in charge I could rearrange things and eat cookies in there. The librarians from the 50's would not have approved."

When Neal retired from the library in 2006, she took a part-time job on Sundays at the museum. Before long, she took over as executive director.

"They basically just drafted me, which was a real honor," she said.

Neal actually trained as a historian, not a librarian, earning a masters degree from Central Washington State University before working on a PhD at the University of Washington. While pursuing her doctorate, though, Neal was already working here in Kitsap as a librarian and ran out of steam at the UW.

She eventually co-authored "From Canoes to Catamrans, Ferries of Puget Sound."

"If I had written that for my dissertation, I would have been done," she joked.

Neal said she was an avid reader as a child, especially when it came to biographies and histories, which, she says, is the way many lifetime historians get started.

"It's almost an artificial extension of your individual life timeline," Neal said. "You've got from zero to 80, but the more you know about the time before you live, whether it's the Romans or World War II, your life is broader somehow. If you know a lot about a topic, it feels like you were there."

Neal concedes that she is not the world's leading expert on Kitsap history, but she's no slouch either.

"There are people that know way more about Kitsap history than I do, but I know a little bit about a lot of it," she said.

That ability to learn about local history from friends and neighbors, Neal says, is part of what makes it so much fun. For example, she said the historical society recently had a whole room full of people from Holly looking at old photographs. Folks were able to identify people in the pictures and discover new family relations hitherto unknown.

"We brought together that group around the history of a place and that's a really neat thing. So much of what the role of  a historical society is, is not so much to be a storehouse of things, but to go out and let communities explore their history," Neal said.

Neal said that there are currently about 250 members of the historical society, but more are always welcome.

"Mainly it's about supporting the mission, which is to preserver and share the history of the county," Neal said. "A lot of people think that's important, even if they do nothing, they support that idea that somebody needs to be doing it and they understand that the organization needs support"

Neal said she knew when she took over as director that she would only spend a couple of years on the job. She looks forward to spending more time with her family and writing, perhaps mysteries set in and around libraries or historical museums.

"The stairs right by my office would be a pretty good way to kill off somebody in a  mystery!" she joked.


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