(Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final installment in a series of Sunday feature articles on the historical museums of Bonner and Boundary counties.)
SANDPOINT — A single light bulb glows above a small kitchen table. The surroundings are dim, by modern standards, but back in the day, this smattering of light was seen as a masterstroke of illumination.
The year would have been about 1936, after the Rural Electrification Act brought power to outlying parts of Bonner County. Or, as people said at the time, “they brought the lights.”
One lone bulb was a huge improvement over the kerosene lamp that sits unlit on the table. The refrigerator in the corner trounced an old icebox for convenience, just as the electric range against the wall ran laps around a wood cook stove.
This historical snapshot — a testament to the monumental impact of the REA on places like North Idaho — is only the most recent addition to the exhibits on display at the Bonner County Museum. Cheek-to-jowl along the horseshoe shaped path through the exhibit hall are displays on the Kalispell Tribe, the fur trade, early settlers, logging, mining, the steamboats that plied the waters of Lake Pend Oreille and the railroads that followed.
On the mezzanine level, a well-appointed David Thompson exhibit titled “Canoes for the Journey” features two hand-made boats of the type Thompson would have used for his travels, along with artifacts revealing his skills as a surveyor, mapmaker and naturalist. Best-known as a fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company and, while in this region, The North West Company, Thompson built a trading post called the Kullyspell House in 1809 on what today is known as the Hope Peninsula.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the museum got its unofficial start nearly 20 years earlier, in 1953, when a group of local women began meeting at Sandpoint City Beach to discuss ways to collect and protect area history. The closest thing they had to artifacts at the time was a box containing the rock, mineral and fossil collection of Dr. Ethel Page Westwood.
“That box of rocks was dragged from museum to museum from then until now,” said the group’s vice-president, Barbara Botsch, adding that retired Louisiana State University professors Tony and Barbara Lewis recently began to inventory the collection that started it all. “After all these years, those rocks are finally being cataloged.”
In need of a physical space, the ersatz museum bounced around from one available space to another, including a classroom at the original Sandpoint High School and what is now the Boy Scout Room at Sandpoint Community Hall and, later, the hall’s basement.
In 1972, the historical society was officially organized and plans took root to construct a building. Fundraising started in 1975, and by the following year, the exterior of the current location was complete. Inside and out, the museum collection blossomed until it included a reconstructed log cabin, a Spokane-International caboose, a water wheel and the downtown siren that once announced both the noon break and 10 p.m. curfew for generations of Sandpoint citizens.
While the museum collection continued to grow apace, local awareness of this trove had hit the wall. In 2011, the museum started to research its own history and reached out to the community with a membership drive called “What the museum can do for you.” Several groups made donations and Dr. John Snedden handed over a $5,000 matching grant. Suddenly, it was as if the dust had been blown off the entire organization as the museum raised money and awareness at the same time.
“The board also took an active role in reaching out to new members,” said museum executive director Olivia Luther, who took the position just last month. As a result, museum membership has nearly doubled, from 150 to almost 275 thanks to the outreach program.
Which brings us to current events.
Exploding out of its present site, the Bonner County Museum still finds itself in the position of having an enviably large collection with limited knowledge that it exists.
“The community is not aware of us,” Botsch said. “They have no idea of what we do over here.”
“Or that we’re even here, in some cases,” Luther said.
For 2013, the organization plans to mount a larger outreach campaign, designed, in Luther’s words, to “create awareness and create relevance.” One large component in that effort will be letting people know what the museum has to offer and then inviting them to immerse themselves in it all. This direction runs precisely counter to a rap the group has had in the past, that it was adept at collecting things but fell short in the area of sharing that information with the public.
“I think that’s true,” said Kathy Osborne, president of the group. “In an effort to become more available to the community, we have to open up and be more accessible to them.”
“We are the caretakers of Bonner County history, so we have a responsibility there,” Luther said. “On the other side, I’m a big believer in having an open door policy.”
With that door swung open, visitors will discover not only a wealth of historical exhibits, but a print archive of local history that dates back to virtually the first photographs and news items captured in Bonner County. The collection of artifacts goes back considerably farther.
Leading a brief walk-around of the building, board member Bob Camp showed off some of the back rooms and behind-the-scenes materials that make up the museum inventory. Obituary files reach well into the 1800s and newspaper clips date back to 1902. A full set of county assessor record books chronicles property from the early 20th Century to present day and a North Idaho-centric research library of more than 700 titles touches on everything from native plants and wildlife to cookbooks, historic industries and works of fiction by local authors.
The artifacts room is awash with Native American items, wartime memorabilia, early hand tools and objects of every description — not to mention an equally large number of artifacts stored off-site.
“The county was gracious enough to give us two rooms for storage, because we had stuff overflowing into the aisles,” Camp said. “We could do exhibits from here to eternity.”
Stopping at a space that has long been known as the Sandpoint Room, Camp points out that it will be cleared in December to make way for an Idaho Department of Transportation exhibit displaying artifacts unearthed during the archeological dig that took place before construction of the Sand Creek Byway project, which today covers the site of the original Sandpoint township along the banks of the creek.
Museum officials also are working toward an eventual exhibit on the work of legendary Sandpoint photographer Duane “Cap” Davis, whose family recently donated his entire collection of negatives, prints and photo equipment to the museum.
“Every day is a treasure hunt for me,” said Luther, who is still becoming familiar with the building and its contents. “I get excited about coming in to see what I’ll find next.”
Camp and a museum sub-committee have been working on a more adventurous project in concert with Dennis Hayman and members of the local antique tractor club. That group has offered to donate its entire collection of tractors and trucks with one caveat — the museum needs to find a place to display them.
As it happens, the historical society owns a five-acre piece of land in Kootenai, where a tipi burner once fumed on sawmill land between Highway 200 and the railroad tracks. The land was donated 10 years ago and the current board and its elected officers feel the time is right to use it for museum expansion.
“I really feel like, for the first time, we have a board with the momentum to get this accomplished,” Osborne said.
“What we envision, at this point, is several buildings out there on the five acres that we own,” Botsch explained, adding that initial construction could include an exhibit building and adjoining shop “so that people can actually watch (the club) working on the vehicles.”
In the bigger picture, the museum would transfer its exhibits to the new site, while maintaining the present location as a research facility and library.
“That way, we keep everybody happy — the city of Sandpoint, the city of Kootenai and the museum, which gets added visibility by being located right on Highway 200,” Botsch said.
For the present, however, the organization has its hands full setting up new exhibits, cataloging the donated artifacts that come in daily and letting the community know the museum is a place worth looking into.
A visiting couple found that out last week, as they discovered a photo of a family member sitting atop the Cornish & Co. parlor organ that came to Bonner County by wagon in 1898. When they learned it was a family heirloom of sorts, the visitors asked if the museum could provide further information on their relatives who owned it.
By the time the couple left, Luther and the museum volunteers had loaded them up with obits and other facts about their pioneer ancestors.
“We have thousands of artifacts here and tens of thousands of photographs,” the executive director said, adding that more than 11,000 pictures have been scanned as part of the museum’s move to digitize its photo library. “From steamboat whistles to historical clothing, there’s not a single area of Bonner County history that we can’t touch upon.”
The Bonner County Museum, located at 611 S. Ella Ave., next to Memorial Park, is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., with abbreviated hours in winter. The research library is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Information: Bonner County Museum; phone, (208) 263-2344; or online, www.bonnercountyhistory.org