Take a walk through 150 years of Idaho history

‘Essential Idaho’ at Historical Museum tells a rich tale

doland@idahostatesman.comJuly 26, 2013 

Idaho State Historical Museum Director Jody Ochoa talks about Pickney Lugenbeel’s sabre, scabbard and belt buckle (back right). The ensemble was presented to him upon his 1840 graduation from West Point, and is her personal-favorite display in the “Essential Idaho: 150 Things that Make the Gem State Unique” exhibit currently at the museum. “He would have been wearing it when he rode into Idaho for the first time in 1863.”

KYLE GREEN / KGREEN@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM

  • ESSENTIAL IDAHO:

    9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 31, Idaho Historical Museum, 610 N. Julia Davis Drive, Boise. $5 general, $4 seniors, $3 children 6-12 and students with ID. Free for 5 and younger. Admission by donation 5 to 9 p.m. First Thursday. 334-2120, History.Idaho.gov.

Stroll, walk, amble or saunter — no matter how you do it you’ll find the journey through the Idaho Historical Society’s “Essential Idaho” wonderfully fascinating.

The exhibit commemorates Idaho’s territorial sesquicentennial. Thanks to an interactive, community approach in compiling its pieces, the story it tells is rich, deep and fun.

“I think it’s the best thing we’ve done in the 30 years I’ve been here,” says Jody Ochoa, director of the Idaho State Historical Museum. “It’s the most comprehensive and the most interesting to people. I’ve lived in Idaho all my life and there were stories I didn’t know.”

“Essential Idaho” is filled with more than 150 interesting and captivating tales of history.

Did you know about Psychiana, the mail-order New Thought religion created in Moscow in 1928? Or the story of Ed Pulaski, the heroic firefighter who saved his 45-member crew during the “Big Burn” of 1910 by securing them in a mine tunnel? Did you know about the amazing exploits of Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce rodeo star whom novelist Ken Kesey mythologized in “The Last Go Around”?

Ochoa and her staff culled 101 of these historic gems from more than 700 submissions from people across the state. Added to that is one from each of Idaho’s 44 counties and one from each of the state’s five Native American tribes.

A panel of historians vetted each story, then the staff foraged the archives and the state to find artifacts to match. They also sneaked in a few “Quirky Idaho” factoids for added fun. (Did you know that skiers in Sun Valley are thought to be the first to do the hokey-pokey dance?)

It’s not organized chronologically. You encounter different decades at every turn, from the millions-year-old Hagerman horse through cyclist Kristin Armstrong’s second gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I call this the ADD exhibit,” Ochoa says.

You can listen to music from the late, great jazz pianist Gene Harris, Gary Eller’s recording of old Idaho folk tunes, and new songs from some of today’s best Idaho musicians, including Built to Spill, Curtis Stigers and Josh Ritter. You can build a replica of the Idaho Statehouse with wooden blocks, watch a bird’s-eye view of Idaho’s terrain, put together a historic picture puzzle, dress up like Lewis and Clark and have your picture taken in a giant Idaho potato wearing a “sour cream” cape and broccoli hat.

Exploring the territorial sesquicentennial has given history a voice in this community that it didn’t have before, says Janet Gallimore, executive director of the Idaho Historical Society.

You can see and feel that in this multidimensional and honest portrait of Idaho’s past and present that includes “the good, the bad and the ugly,” she says.

“You can’t just talk about how great you are, because history’s not that way,” she says. “We want to have things in here that have impacted the state and the country, whether they are proud moments or not.”

So, you’ll find chapters from the darker side of Idaho history: the door to Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge cabin, Ku Klux Klan regalia found in Payette, items from the Aryan Nation compound in Coeur d’Alene and a small swath of fabric from Gov. Frank Steunenberg’s coat, found in a tree after he was killed by a bomb in 1905 at his Caldwell home. The explosion launched “The Trial of the Century” that brought Clarence Darrow to Idaho.

The 150th territorial anniversary is a statewide celebration that coincided with Boise’s sesquicentennial. When planning began more than a year ago the state’s economy was at an all-time low.

“It was at the height of the economic downturn,” Gallimore says. “So there was no money to do anything. We had to find a new way to do it.”

Gallimore and the Historical Society staff called on like organizations in all 44 counties to create their own sesquicentennial events.

“We had templates for proclamations and press releases and tips for what makes an era important that they could download from our website,” Gallimore says. She also met with tribal and civic leaders across the state to get everyone on the same page.

The way this exhibit came together started out as a necessity but it turned out to be a boon that will change the way the museum interacts with the community.

“It’s not just about we’re the experts, we know best, so we’re going to do it this way,” Gallimore says. “That’s an old model and that doesn’t work any more for cultural organizations. Every time we do an initiative we now think broadly about how we can engage people in our process. Now we rely more on our community to share their expertise.”

The result is a gratifying array of statewide celebrations that captured the essence of each community, Gallimore says.

“Everyone’s history makes their community distinct and gives it identity,” Gallimore says.

That identity builds values that are embed in that geographical location, and that’s what gives people pride in where they live.

That’s the real prize of this exhibit, she says.

Dana Oland: 377-6442, Twitter: @IDS_DanaOland

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