The History of the Idaho State Historical Society
Idaho Pioneers reunion, 1899
Photo Credit: ISHS #1846
A Closer Look
In 1881, a room of visionary early settlers contemplated their shared and unique experiences. Eighteen years after the establishment of Idaho Territory, and nine years before statehood, they created the Historical Society of Idaho Pioneers to collect and preserve information connected with the early settlement of the Territory.
Twenty-six years later, on March 12, 1907, the Idaho legislature established the Idaho State Historical Society. The State Historical Society became the steward of the array of “literary and scientific artifacts” gathered by the Pioneer Association and was charged to collect materials illustrative of the state’s history, including procuring pioneer narratives, preserving information on Indian tribes, collecting artifacts, and cataloging books, manuscripts, pamphlets and newspapers. John Hailey, packer, stage line operator, and historian, served as the first secretary/librarian of the Society until his death in 1921. From his appointment until 1956, the head of the Society served under a variety of titles, including secretary, librarian, historian, and sometimes all three at once.
At the time it became a state agency, the Society’s collections were housed in a building on Eighth Street, as well as in the home of Ella Cartee Reed, who became Hailey’s assistant and succeeded him. Two months after the State Society’s establishment, the collections were moved into the State Historical room in the Territorial Capitol and placed on exhibition. The Society then moved around the Capitol mall and eventually into the new Capitol building. In the early 1930s, the legislature authorized funding in 1939 for a new facility that would feature the agency’s collections and the Idaho State Historical Museum opened in Julia Davis Park in 1950. The Franklin Relic Hall was acquired in 1936.
With the enthusiastic support of Governor Robert Smylie and funding from J.R. Simplot, the Board of Trustees in 1956 hired its first trained director, H.J. Swinney. The Swinney era, which lasted until 1965, marked the beginning of the professional Idaho State Historical Society, with the establishment of a membership program, initial publication of Idaho Yesterdays and The Mountain Light, creation of the highway historical marker program, and the beginning of the research Reference Series, as well as the Children’s Program at the Museum.
Under the direction of Dr. Merle Wells, the State Historical Society provided national leadership which resulted in the establishment of the Federal- State Preservation Program in the late 1960s.The State Historic Preservation office was established in Idaho in 1972 and located in the Assay Office. The Society focused on historic preservation and program expansion during the 1970s and 80s with the acquisition of the Pierce Courthouse (1972); Old Idaho Penitentiary (1975); the Hatch and Doney House and ZCMI Store in Franklin (1979-2002); Rock Creek Station and Striker Ranch (1984) and the Accreditation and expansion of the Idaho Historical Museum in 1972 and 1980, respectively.
The Idaho State Historical Society commemorated the Centennial of Idaho in 1990, enhanced exhibitions at the Idaho Historical Museum, and served in a leadership role for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial (2003-2006.) The Idaho State Archives re-opened in 2005 in the new Idaho History Center, located in the Old Pen Historic District.
Today, the Idaho State Historical Society is an extraordinary system of cultural and historic resources whose mission is to preserve and promote Idaho’s history. The State Historical Society is a trusted guide through our state’s history, offering programs that essential to the State on all levels. Committed to its statewide leadership role, the Idaho State Historical Society actively engages communities throughout Idaho to share information about Idaho’s history and build history literacy.
The Governor of Idaho appoints a board of Trustees to govern the State Historical Society. Through a staff of 50 professionals, 150 volunteers, and numerous affiliates, the State Historical Society provides essential and dynamic services to 110,000 people and serves an additional 700,000 on its web-site.
The Idaho State Historical Society illuminates our state’s future and helps people of all ages explore and appreciate Idaho’s rich past and learn more about themselves.