The Kam Wah Chung Museum has a new curator.
Don Merritt started Jan. 3 and is looking forward to re-opening the museum and interpretive center in May.
Merritt said starting in the off-season is nice because it allows him to familiarize himself with the position and history of the area.
“For the first few weeks, all I did was read all the books, all the documents and all the histories that were around so I had some familiarity with what’s going on,” he said.
He has been preparing for the season by completing small maintenance projects and continues to scan a plethora of documents written in Chinese that were recovered from the Kam Wah Chung building. Roughly 20,000 documents — from personal correspondence to legal documents and medical records — are being scanned to more effectively share with translators. However, some documents are written with traditional Chinese characters, making them more difficult to translate, Merritt said.
Many of the letters are from Chinese immigrant and former Kam Wah Chung owner Lung On, including personal correspondence between him and his father in China and business dealings pertaining to his car dealership.
“It’s just amazing how much stuff they found that was in boxes,” Merritt said. “They were pack-rats. You couldn’t hardly walk into the building because they had so much stuff.”
Prior to being hired at Kam Wah Chung, Merritt worked as an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management and, before that, as a curator at the Fremont Indian State Park in Utah.
He earned a master’s degree in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology from University of Montana in 2010.
Merritt was drawn to the area because of its remoteness and proximity to the outdoors. He enjoys hiking and studying the genealogy of his family, and is currently writing a book about Fort Owens, a trading post established in 1849 near Stevensville, Montana. He completed his thesis there and wants to document its transformation from an early outpost to a state park.
In the coming years, Merritt would like to work with the Forest Service to host archaeological events and encourage more local connection and volunteerism.
He said he’s noticed many residents haven’t been in the Kam Wah Chung Museum, something he hopes to change.