It started as a simple calendar project: Christmas gifts for his they’ve-already-got-everything-they-need brothers.
Eight years later, Mac Eld has visited and photographed every highway history sign in Idaho. The project has taken him to every corner of the state on his three-wheel motorcycle, to an appearance before the Idaho Transportation Department board and to a state of obsession with Idaho’s roadside history markers.
Using maps, GIS data, Google, and ITD and Idaho State Historical Society documents, logs and databases, Eld found history markers that didn’t officially exist and found markers that were missing or mis-identified. He documented, categorized and photographed the condition of 269 highway history markers (plus three duplicates he found), and in the process became the one person who knows more about Idaho’s history marker program than anyone else.
The program dates to 1956. Mac concluded that 39 percent of the signs need to be repaired or replaced. He shared his spreadsheet with the ITD board and staff in hopes of having the state dedicate more money and staff to protect and preserve this historic asset.
“It’s a gem that the Gem State can be proud of,” says Mac, “and it’s gotten broken and tarnished and it needs to be spiffed up.”
He told the ITD board that he first likened the markers to an orphaned program, but changed his analogy: “I said it’s actually like the grandpa who’s being left out of family activities. After all, he’s 62 years old.” Mac adds: “I think that drove home the point, in a relatively humorous fashion.”
Humorous, persistent, diligent, aggravating, obsessive — however you characterize Mac and his quest, he’s made his point.
“To me the takeaway is that well-informed public engagement is a really powerful tool, because it has already made a difference in the policy of the Transportation Department,” said Dan Everhart, the new outreach historian for the Historical Society. “Mac came in with a body of knowledge that he collected … a very thorough list.”
Mark Munch is the state highway archeologist for the ITD who went to his supervisors even before Mac spoke to the board and shared Mac’s data about the conditions of signs. Munch’s bosses said: “We can do this.”
“That says we recognize the value and the importance of this program and these signs to the public, and we’re looking into ways to make sure we are improving the program,” said Munch. “We are taking care of these signs, and this is the first step.”
That first step will be to make sure that any planned highway project includes a review and repairs for the markers along that highway. A plan for repairing signs on highways not due for upcoming work will come later.
Munch said ITD’s mission has three aims: safety, mobility and economic opportunity. “Many people would argue that part of economic opportunity is heritage tourism,” Munch said. “And that is what Mac has really focused on. He says there are people who travel around the state and go to look at historic sites in Idaho. … This program fits in with ITD’s mission.”
A LABOR OF LOVE
I learned about Mac in November writing about the highway history program and my determination to stop passing them by. I now try to stop to appreciate state history and this state asset that helps us learn about our past and break up our travels. ITD and Historical Society officials told me then that they were hiring employees who would give the program new attention and new champions, and that both agencies are interested in an app that would connect travelers to the markers. The 1990s-era printed handbook is long out of print, and there is no one place on the web – as Mac and I found in our research – where a traveler can get comprehensive info on all the signs.
While my interest and advocacy is new, Mac has been obsessed with the signs for years. He’s eager to have allies in his quest to preserve and promote the markers.
So how did a red-suspendered, red-flanneled retiree in Parma decided to take on such an historic quest?
It’s not really because history runs in the family, which it certainly does. MacArthur Eld is one of six brothers – four still alive – who grew up in the 1940s and ’50s on the family farm near Donnelly. Mac’s younger brother, Frank Eld, was the moving force behind preservation of the Valley County town of Roseberry, and more recently bought and relocated the 1893 Jones house in Boise. The Eld brothers always helped Frank when he needed assistance relocating buildings or doing other tasks.
Mac traveled around the country in a variety of careers, then spent 22 years with the federal government and retiring from the Strategic Oil Reserve program in Louisiana in 2006. When he returned to Idaho and settled in Parma, he didn’t imagine that he would become Idaho’s highway history honcho boss.
CALENDARS FOR THE BROTHERS
His Christmas calendars long featured photos of outings with his brothers. When that ran its course, Mac looked around for new calendar ideas. Like most of us, the brothers’ travels took them past the highway history markers, always with the sense that they needed to stop and read them when they didn’t have miles to go and a schedule to keep.
“So I decided, well, I’ll go out and take pictures of them and put them on the calendar,” Mac told me. “Instead of the brothers going out to see the signs, I’ll bring the signs to the brothers.”
That first year, Mac included 32 signs on his calendar pages. It didn’t take him long to figure out that with between 250 and 300 markers – he didn’t know the exact number – he’d begun an odyssey. “I had, unwittingly, taken on an eight-year project.”
And did I mention that Mac is slightly obsessive? As he prepared his calendars each year, he wanted to correct faded colors and crackling backgrounds on markers that were worn or weathered. He used his photo-editing skills to brush away cracks, restore colors and replace missing elements. He learned that the signs had their own type font – Goldburg, created by George Bowditch in the 1950s — specifically for Idaho’s signs. He downloaded the font so he could correct faded or missing lettering in his digitally perfected signs.
Several years into his calendar project, it dawned on Mac just how many sign photos needed correcting. As he traveled and researched, he started to compile the single-most thorough documentation in the state. Highway crews in one part of the state might be familiar with the signs in their districts, but no one had seen them all, photographed them all, documented them all. Without intending it, Mac became the state’s foremost authority on Idaho history markers.
In his U.S. travels, he hadn’t seen a sign program better than Idaho’s. The markers are solid, 4-foot-by-8 signs that can be read from inside your car. He likes the distinctive design and lettering, the variety and choice of historic and geologic topics. He thinks the crisp, concise writing is worthy of study by students of English.
“Plus,” says Mac with characteristic enthusiasm, “they’re just plain fun to read.”
Mac’s crusade is more than a simple matter of ensuring better sign maintenance and longevity. He worries that aging, hard-to-read signs diminish or deter history exploration.
“I really hate the idea of someone stopping to read the sign and realizing what condition it’s in and have the condition of the sign depress the quality of the experience, the fun,” he said. “Especially for tourists, if they have an enjoyable experience, they’re more likely to hang around and spend money in the state.”
He’s set to give his presentation to the Historic Society board in February. But he’ll preach to fellow believers: Both agencies have seen his data and are on his side about preserving the markers and finding new, high-tech ways to share them with would-be and should-be history buffs.
The most memorable history lessons he’s learned along the way are stops at the Sacred Heart Mission at Cataldo, Idaho’s oldest building near Couer d’Alene, and the statue of Sacajawea in Salmon. He likes the history sign north of Weiser that attests to 11,000 years of human habitation there. I’ve stood there, too. I agree with Mark and Mac: We have an excuse to stop and reflect about the people whose lives preceded ours thanks to the very fact of those signs in those places.
“I’ve gotten pictures of all that I know to exist, and in the process I’ve traveled all around Idaho, I’ve been to places I’ve never been to before, and will probably never be again,” Mac says. “It’s been a real interesting and rewarding project.”
Bill Manny is a longtime Statesman editor and writer and a producer at Idaho Public Television. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.