They are known as “boater” or “skimmer” hats – flat-top, straw chapeau in the style of the 1920s. It’s something you might see Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton wear in a silent, black-and-white film before talkies hit the cinema.
Boaters were popular at the inaugural All-Valley Picnic in Liberty Lake back in July 1922, some 79 years before the area to the north of the lake would become Spokane County’s latest incorporated city. A decade after the first picnic, the Spokane Valley Herald reported that 6,357 attended the summer celebration with the town baseball game – featuring some participants in boaters – acknowledged as the highlight of the festivities.
Ross Schneidmiller does not play on a baseball team or even live within the city of Liberty Lake – but he does own an authentic straw hat and has emerged as the caretaker of the area’s history. Schneidmiller was born and raised in the area, graduating from Central Valley High School. His wife, Kelli, can track her family tree in Liberty Lake back to 1889 with some of the first white settlers to the region.
Tom Specht (left) and Ross Schneidmiller were catalysts in organizing the Liberty Lake Historical Society a year ago. The group works to preserve and call attention to the heritage of Spokane County’s easternmost community. Photo by: Craig Howard
Last year, Schneidmiller who lives south of Sprague Avenue, near the namesake of Liberty Lake, launched the Liberty Lake Historical Society. The group currently includes eight residents on its board of directors.
“Whether you’ve lived here a long time or just moved to Liberty Lake, you can appreciate what the community represents,” Schneidmiller said. “I talk to people from places like California, Minnesota, Seattle and Spokane Valley who readily associate with the history here.”
Schneidmiller first remembers hearing about Liberty Lake’s past years ago from Mildred Brerenton, co-author of a book called “Memories of Liberty Lake” that was popular in the 1950s. When Schneidmiller began interviewing old-timers several years ago for a compilation of recollections, he took his wife’s grandfather along.
“This place represents a very special time in their lives,” said Ross. “They just thought it was wonderful that someone was willing to listen to them, but I thought I was the one who was blessed.”
One of the society’s long-range goals is to have digital files of the interviews available at the Liberty Lake Library. Next year, Schneidmiller said the society will work with the library to set aside a month to commemorate local history, though the details have yet to be worked out. The group also hopes to install historical markers at Pavillion Park and other landmarks. Over the past year, LLHS has been publishing a monthly article on well-known lake resorts in Liberty Lake’s weekly newspaper, The Splash.
When Robin Briley was compiling a documentary about the history of Liberty Lake several years ago, she turned to the Schneidmillers for artifacts and commentary. “Liberty Lake’s Inland Shore” was released in 2002, chronicling the area’s textured past going back to the original inhabitants, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and including the years of 1909 to 1929 when the resort town was known as “Coney Island of the West.”
The society set up a makeshift museum at Pavillion Park last month during the community celebration known as Liberty Lake Days. A steady crowd of festival goers strolled through the display of vintage photographs and other mementos of the past.
“It’s about bringing the community together,” said Tom Specht, a board member who was integral to the formation of the Liberty Lake trail system in the late 1990s.
Specht grew up in Oklahoma but has lived in Liberty Lake for the past 27 years. He was working in Everett when he paid a visit to the Inland Northwest and decided to relocate.
“I lived near the Wichita mountains in Oklahoma,” Specht said. “I always told myself if I could live near the mountains and see the lake, I would. Liberty Lake has that.”
There are no dues currently required for joining the LLHS. Specht and Schneidmiller both say the emphasis right now is more on generating interest and a continuing appreciation for the history of their home.
“History does add a richness to things,” Specht said. “When you realize the importance of something to the people that have gone before, it makes it important to you.”
Want to find out more?
To learn more about the Liberty Lake Historical Society, call Ross Schneidmiller at 255-9604.