BONNERS FERRY — How much value does Boundary County place on its history? Just take a look at downtown Bonners Ferry to find the answer.
At the northern entrance to Main Street, the Boundary County Historical Society & Museum building takes up the better part of a city block, welcoming both hometown folks and tourists into what, starting this summer, has become three adjoining spaces chock full of artifacts, photos and memorabilia from the state’s northernmost county.
The size of the museum building speaks volumes, but its prominent location says even more about the importance this community gives to the chapters leading up to present-day life.
“We are the only museum in Idaho that’s on the main street in town,” said curator Sue Kemmis. “And once you’re inside, it’s a lot bigger than you think. We actually have a lot of space.”
There’s the main hall, the south wing and the portrait hall, to be exact. The latter space recently housed the Smithsonian’s “The Way We Worked” exhibit, thanks to nearly 800 hours invested by a pool of about 45 museum volunteers and nine board members. Both the latest and the largest area in the museum, the portrait hall is so named for its collection of Bette Myers paintings originally commissioned by Stan and Georgia DeHart for display in their downtown drug and jewelry store.
The 40 portraits of Kootenai Indian chiefs, pioneers and prominent local people who helped develop the region, were at one time broken up between the historical society collection and the walls of the local Safeway store, but now have a permanent home at the museum. In this same, long room, a floor-to-ceiling a painted canvas advertising drop from the early days of the Rex Theater still bears the name of long-closed businesses.
At the far end that adjoins Main Street, display cabinets along all four walls contain the handmade wooden clocks and intricate wooden models of Bonners Ferry resident Ned Dyer, who passed away last September.
The Smithsonian exhibit, which drew some 3,000 people to the museum, is now just a fond memory. Its absence, however, means that Kemmis and the volunteers have room to set up two permanent exhibits in the space.
“We call it ‘Fire & Flames’ so we can have them both close together,” the curator explained, adding that the side-by-side exhibits will recreate an historic fire hall and blacksmith shop, complements of grant support from the Idaho Humanities Council.
“The fire department had a bunch of stuff stored upstairs that they’d like to have displayed here and the Smoke Eaters Club is loaning us a 1923 REO fire truck.”
Turn 180 degrees and you’re greeted by a display that is so realistic it appears the smithy has only stepped out of his shop for a moment and should be back any second. Red coals glow inside the forge and it’s almost as if the ring of the last anvil strike still hangs in the air.
Both exhibits will be dedicated at a fundraising dinner on Oct. 13, with funds going to weatherization projects along the line of brick buildings that house the museum collection.
It’s a collection that Kemmis first was introduced to when she was doing grave research as part of an ongoing genealogy project that provided information to people looking into ancestors who once called Boundary County home. When she finally made it into the museum, the future curator realized she had not only found the mother lode of cemetery records, but an untapped storehouse of local history, as well.
The bad news was that virtually nothing in the building had been numbered and cataloged. The good news — and it was very good indeed — was that museum volunteer Eveline Ruhberg could walk her right to every single item in the place. In 2006, working with Ruhberg, Kemmis volunteered to conduct an inventory and start the process of entering the contents into museum software for future reference.
“It’s six-and-a-half-years later and we’re still going,” she laughed. “But the other day we counted and we have 18,430 things in the program — artifacts, photographs, books and paperwork.”
Circuitous in its layout and eclectic as can be in terms of its contents, the museum is more of a romp through local history than a dry recounting of the past. A clerk looks out from behind the counter of the old Porthill post office, while a recreated Knights of Phythias lodge looks set and ready for secret rites nearby. Tools of every trade are displayed and various corners of the building have been turned into schoolrooms, doctor’s offices and barbershops.
One especially eye catching exhibit features Native American artifacts, with several on loan from the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
“Our relationship with them is very good,” the curator said.
The way in which these three buildings came together is a history lesson in itself. After bouncing from a small, downtown site to the basement of the local library in the 1970s, the museum collection went into storage in the mid-1980s, when the library needed the room for expansion. Local businessman Ray Houck offered an attractive rent opportunity on a structure that was built by Charles Megquier in 1917, later served as a garage and gas station and subsequently became known around town as the Houck Building. Within a year, the museum had found its new home.
Twenty years later, in 2006, the Mary Ellen Thomason Estate provided endowment funds for the historical society to purchase or build a permanent location. The organization snatched up both the Houck Building and the storefront next door.
After locating a bricked-up doorway that once connected the two spaces, volunteers set to work re-opening the passage, almost doubling the museum’s footprint. The third and final piece of real estate became available two doors down in 2009. Part of the brick wall was chiseled away in January of this year to connect the three buildings into a museum space that now attracts more than 2,500 visitors a year.
It wasn’t until she set foot in the building — something she had never done growing up in Bonners Ferry — that Kemmis discovered what can only be described as a glaring historical error. Ever since, she has made it a point to visit classrooms and try to set the record straight for future generations.
“When we were in school, we were always taught that Edwin L. Bonner built a ferry here and 1864,” she said. “It was printed in the history books, so it was gospel, right?
“After doing some research, I found that has name was really Edward L. Bonner, not Edwin, and that he built the ferry with a cousin and a friend named John Walton,” she continued. “Edward Bonner was the money man, but he only stayed here a couple of months. It was John Walton who actually ran the ferry after he left, so we could just as easily have been called Walton’s Ferry.”
As far as Kemmis is concerned, history is not trapped in amber, it’s being born anew every day. That might explain why the museum has a sense of humor that comes out in harmless volunteer pranks and inside jokes. A pair of Groucho glasses can turn up on any of the mannequins at any time and a cartoonish coyote plush toy nicknamed the “Kootenai Kid” makes the rounds of the exhibits, sometimes turning up in the lodge master’s chair, looking out from inside a wood stove or strapped to the birthing bed in the doctor’s office. An entire binder is filled with photos of the Kid’s adventures.
“He travels all over the museum and every time he moves, I take his picture,” the curator said. “The kids love coming in here and trying to find where the Kootenai Kid has gone this time.”
Along with a sense of fun, these keepers of Boundary County’s past also have their eye on its future, according to Kemmis, who makes it a point to collect contemporary items to add to an inventory of photos and artifacts that date back as far as the 1870s.
“What we have here shows Boundary County from its very beginnings right up to the present,” the curator said. “You have to collect now for the future, because what’s going on today is going to become history one day.”
Summer hours at the Boundary County Historical Society & Museum, which end on Sept. 29, are Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Starting on Oct. 1, the museum will be open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10-4. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.
For more information, call (208) 267-7720 or visit: www.bonnersferrymuseum.org