When one lifelong resident of Priest River, Idaho, learned a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution would spend more than a month in her hometown, this was her response:
“I never thought I would see the day the Smithsonian came to Priest River.”
Diane Mercer, a board member of the Priest River Museum, relayed the story, saying it perfectly reflects the feeling in town since residents learned they landed one of six stops on a statewide tour of “The Way We Worked,” a Smithsonian exhibit that examines the history of work in the United States.
Through historic photographs gleaned from the National Archives, along with audio and video recordings, the exhibit takes visitors through the history of work, touching on topics including child labor, progress through technology, family farmers and the dreams and opportunities of immigrants.
Black and white photographs show young women delivering ice in 1918, a workman high on the framework of the Empire State Building in 1930 and a submarine builder in 1943.
“To give our town a boost is really wonderful,” Mercer said. The Priest River Museum is co-sponsoring the exhibit, along with the Rex Theater Foundation. Funding for the Smithsonian program comes from Congress. The Idaho State Humanities Council has provided financial support, along with the Inland Northwest Community Foundation, headquartered in Spokane.
The exhibit is part of a Smithsonian program called Museum on Main Street, which brings high-quality museum exhibits to rural communities.
“The Idaho Humanities Council has received more of these traveling exhibits than any other state,” said Keith Petersen, the state’s historian. “They see it as a really important mechanism for them to get history and the humanities out into these small communities.”
The exhibit will move on to McCall, Burley, Twin Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Bonners Ferry before visiting other states, but Priest River hosted the national grand opening on Saturday.
In addition, the Priest River exhibit is being housed in the 1923 Beardmore Block, which Petersen, the state historian, calls a “national example of outstanding preservation.” Brian Runberg, a Seattle architect and great-grandson of the building’s original owner, restored the building to U.S. Secretary of the Interior standards and also received a gold rating for sustainable and energy efficient construction from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
“This is one of several positive changes that we’ve been trying to put forth for the greater good of the community,” said Runberg, who visits regularly and spends most of the summer at Priest Lake. “I hope people from the larger region can get up there to see it. It really is a unique and dynamic show.”
Communities competing for the traveling exhibit had to show how they would create companion exhibits highlighting the history of work in their region. Priest River, with a population of 1,200, chose to focus on its timber history.
Among the features of its exhibit are a 30-minute video with restored historic footage from logging camps from the 1940s along with historic photographs and displays of traditional logging tools. Outside, visitors can even try their hand at moving a 14-foot-long, 2-foot-thick log section with a peavey, a tool with a handle and metal spike at one end.
Petersen said having a Smithsonian exhibit helps small museums and historic associations gain exposure.
“You put up the banner that the Smithsonian’s in town and it lends a whole new aura to what you’re doing,” Petersen said.