(Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a series of Sunday feature articles on the museums of Bonner and Boundary counties.)
PRIEST RIVER — The back-story of this riverfront community can be found on the mural that greets drivers as they enter from the east. Early scenes of wildlife and wilderness quickly give way to saws and log drives and the timber harvests that, by the 1920s, made Priest River the fastest-growing city in North Idaho.
It earned that distinction one railroad tie at a time, as local mills provided lumber for construction of the tracks that grasped for the horizon in both directions. The timber boom brought jobs and the railroad delivered the people who filled them.
That, of course, is an extremely simplified version of how a complex little town came together.
“Our whole community is steeped in history,” said antique expert and author Diane Mercer, who owns an antique store on Priest River’s historic Beardmore Block.
It was Mercer who had what local historian and writer Marilyn Cork called the “crazy idea” of moving a dilapidated old house from the outskirts of Priest River to a downtown location back in 1993. She knew two things about the home: It was the veritable birthplace of what would become this riverside city and it would serve perfectly as a town museum.
“Priest River never had a museum before then,” Cork said. “That just amazes me.”
Judging by the shape the home was in at the time, local residents were probably just as amazed that anyone would think this collection of crumbling shingles, shattered windows and doorless entryways could be turned into anything at all, much less a showcase for the area’s tales and traditions. Mercer, though, knew what was underneath the rough-looking exterior.
“It was the first lumbered house built in Priest River by the first white settler — Henry Keyser — and it was going to be bulldozed,” she said. “I love the history of this town and I couldn’t stand to see that happen.”
At first convinced the renovation would take about two years to complete, Mercer, Cork and another dozen or so volunteers ended up spending five years on the project, finally opening the museum in 1998 with the aid of a $10,000 loan from the Priest River Chamber of Commerce, a charity lease from Burlington-Northern Railroad for the property, a grant from the U.S. Forest Service and endless donations of time and materials from the local timber industry.
Timber veterans were just as eager to supply artifacts for what now was known as the Priest River Museum & Timber Education Center.
“The loggers would just show up and say, ‘I think you need a Peavey’ or ‘Here’s a cant hook for your collection,’” Mercer said. “Then I’d throw something out like, ‘It sure would be nice to have some cork boots’ and, sure enough, a pair of cork boots would show up.”
Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen and representatives from the Smithsonian Museum each had kind words to say about the way things were coming together in the building that now houses some 2,000 photographs and 250 artifacts.
“Keith Petersen said it was one of the nicest exhibits of timber memorabilia he’d ever seen,” Mercer said. “Even the Smithsonian was impressed.”
The Smithsonian, which came to town to promote the local showing of its traveling exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” encouraged museum volunteers to restore the main floor of the old place to the way it might have looked when Henry and Elizabeth Keyser had it built on the family homestead in 1895. Today, the house that once was home to the man known as “the father of Priest River” greets museum visitors with the Keyser Bedroom, filled with furniture and clothing that belonged to the pioneer family. The piano in the parlor, donated by Keyser granddaughter Elnora Veltri, was also an original fixture.
What is now the exhibit room once served as a birthing room, since the Keyser girls were often called on as midwives for the growing community. Renovation currently is underway on a new exhibit that will be called the Pioneer Kitchen. The room located off the parlor — which had been turned into a bedroom at one time — is being reconstructed to show what life in a timber town kitchen might have looked like just before the dawn of the 20th Century.
Another upcoming exhibit will show the important part Italian immigrants played in the history of Priest River.
“The Italian heritage in this community is very strong,” Mercer said. “They came with the railroad and they stayed.”
For years, there was tension between the other immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia and the people who lived in what was called the “Italian settlement.” Part of the friction came from a language barrier, since few of the Italians spoke any English. In addition, there was the rub that “their daughters were beautiful and their sons were handsome,” Mercer noted, not to mention the fact that the Italians attracted positive attention from employers based on a strong work ethic.
Apart from the Italians — who mostly traveled directly from their mother country to join other settlers already in Priest River — the town was developed primarily by settlers who came west from Wisconsin, looking for work in the timber trade.
“They were leaving the Great Lakes area because the timber was played out there,” Cork said.
To this day, Cork continues to help families looking for traces of ancestors who moved west and were never heard from again. The reason, Mercer pointed out, was that they simply found jobs and scattered out into the woods to make their pay.
“Most of them just started whole, new lives here and left that old life behind,” she said.
Not everyone came to cut trees or help build the railroad, however. One town father, who took the long way to Priest River, came to bring a taste of the high life.
“Charles Beardmore rode his bicycle from Wisconsin to Butte, Mont.,” Mercer said.
“And then he took the Great Northern to Priest River, because he thought Butte was too tough,” Cork said, picking up the string of the story.
Beardmore went on to become part of the upper crust of town society, owning a hotel and sawmill and building the namesake establishment that had not one, but two ballrooms on the top floor.
“This was kind of a formal town to begin with,” Cork said, categorizing the city dwellers as gentrified business owners and the immigrants who did the manual labor as those who were thought of as the lower classes.
In recent years, downtown Priest River has been undergoing a slow but steady reawakening, thanks in large measure to the historic renovation of the Beardmore Building by Beardmore’s great-grandson, Brian Runberg. For some time prior to that, the business district had struggled — a fate that was shared by the museum itself. In 2007, the museum’s volunteer organization disbanded, leaving only a few exhibits on display and opening only when chamber of commerce staff was on hand to unlock the doors for interested visitors.
“Then we got our act together and started moving forward again,” Cork said. “When we brought this museum back to life, it was literally supported by bake sales.”
The museum has added to its cash flow by selling a DVD called “Indian Creek Flume Logging” and a book titled “Kaniksu Country: Priest River and Priest Lake.”
The organization will add to that catalog later this year, when production of a new DVD called “The Last Log Drive” is complete.
“We hope to have that one out by Christmas,” Mercer said.
“But we’re still having those bakes sales,” Cork added.
Cork and Mercer see their role and that of the nearly all-female museum board as carrying on a tradition where women have been responsible for things like building the Priest River City Park, the public library and, now, the museum.
“Women have always played a big role in getting things done in this community,” Mercer said. “We’re just carrying that history forward.”
Priest River Museum & Timber Education Center is open Friday-Monday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Museum tours are available by request during the off-season by calling board member Donna Jones at (208) 448-2464.