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Sunday, December 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kkk Exhibit Recalls Disquieting Side Of Town's Past -- Astoria Once Was A Klan Hotbed

AP

ASTORIA, Ore. - The eyes that peer through the fraying holes of a Ku Klux Klan hood make Mark Tolonen uneasy.

As curator of the Clatsop County Historical Society Museum, Tolonen is the custodian of the freshly laundered hood that once was a powerful symbol in the northwest corner of the state.

Despite its subject matter, the museum's permanent exhibit on the Ku Klux Klan is meant to show how racist attitudes once flourished in Astoria.

One corner of the small museum displays photographs of Klan events and explains that, in 1922, Astoria's mayor, four city commissioners, the county sheriff, a state representative and a state senator were members of the Klan.

In July 1924, the Klan sponsored the first runner-up for Miss Astoria. A month later, the Klan in Oregon held its annual convention in Astoria, attracting nearly 10,000 people. The mayor gave a speech, parades traveled through Astoria and Seaside, and 150 new members were inducted, museum director Jeff Smith says.

Many visitors tell Smith and the museum staff that the exhibit is a good reminder that history isn't always quaint. But not everyone feels the same way.

Vandals occasionally scribble graffiti on the exhibit, and labels are often torn off, Tolonen says.

The 31-year-old curator takes the preservation of Astoria's heritage personally. He's half-Finnish, and his family has lived in Astoria for almost 100 years.

Tolonen, however, grew up on the East Coast and moved with his wife to Astoria from Connecticut in 1990. When he asked his relatives what it was like when the Klan took over the town, they don't know what he's talking about, he says. They don't even remember anyone who was involved with the group. But anyone who comes to the museum will have to remember. Smith and Tolonen soon will expand the Klan exhibit with a mannequin in full Klan regalia that will greet visitors.

The museum also is working to expand their collection of artifacts to include items from the Greek and Hispanic communities in Clatsop County, Smith said.

"History was written by the winners; the dominant culture gets the most press and gets the most stuff," Smith said.

The museum aims to document racism for future generations - a difficult task because prejudice is rarely as obvious as a white hood.

"A lot of our contemporary history is still locked up in people's houses," Smith said. "We, as the keepers of collective memory, have a responsibility to reach out."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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