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Lincoln's Idaho

“To memorialize these ties of Idaho to Lincoln, that’s so exciting.”

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Janet Gallimore needed a moment.

"It's going to make me cry when I think about it," she said before pausing a beat.

As executive director of the Idaho State Historical Society, Gallimore celebrates the past, but on this occasion she was thinking about the future.

"Think of a child or an adult who is struggling," she said. "What is truly inspiring is that this collection could give anyone with a challenged background some hope to think more broadly about their potential."

Gallimore and her colleagues are spending much of 2013--the busiest year in memory, she said--preparing to host one of the nation's most considerable collections of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia.

"Lincoln was a child from a broken home. He did not have a lot of opportunities," said Gallimore. "He read by candlelight and went from little to no means all the way to the presidency.

"I love that story for any child," she said. "If you work hard enough, if you have grace, you can find greatness. If we can change one or two lives through this exhibition, isn't that a gift?"

But Gallimore has little time to wax poetic. Designs need to be completed. Hundreds of books, documents and priceless memorabilia have to be catalogued. And a fair amount of construction is needed to remodel the society's library on Boise's Old Penitentiary Road, all in preparation for the October opening of the Lincoln Legacy Collection and Exhibition.

Gallimore pointed to artist renderings of the soon-to-be permanent exhibit.

"The first part of the exhibit will be an exact replication of Lincoln's cabinet office," she said. "This is meant to be the first big 'wow' of the exhibit. It will transcend the fact that you're standing in a 21st century library and instead you will start a journey through Lincoln's life. We'll have a series of rooms that represent Lincoln as a youth, lawyer, legislator, candidate and president."

The cornerstone of the exhibit will be the awe-inspiring original documents, photos, portraits, sculptures, campaign posters and more than 1,000 books chronicling the life of the 16th president. The collection comes to the state of Idaho through a donation from its owners, former Idaho Attorney General and Lt. Gov. David Leroy and his wife, Nancy.

"We're transferring, by actual count, 1,026 books to the Historical Society just for the research library," Leroy said.

The former state lawmaker and current private attorney sat in his Boise law office surrounded by the memorabilia.

"This law office has been a personal museum for 20 years," he said. "And now we're getting ready to move it down the street."

Leroy needed only point to a framed document several feet away.

"Here you'll see Lincoln's signature on a Civil War military commission," said Leroy. "It was signed by the president and countersigned by Secretary of War [Edwin] Stanton. Lincoln said he didn't want to send any person into harm's way whose name he had not looked upon and commission he had not signed personally."

Leroy gave Boise Weekly a tour of his office/museum, pointing to busts, paintings and documents, each more priceless than the previous. He carefully opened a cabinet, revealing two life masks.

"This first one shows Lincoln as he was in 1860," said Leroy. "He had just been elected president. Look at the strong and handsome features."

Leroy reached for the second mask.

"And this mask was done in early 1865," he said. "Notice how in just those few years how incredibly aged he was, clearly from the cares and worries of the Civil War."

But for all of its historical wonder, the collection also has great relevance to Idaho in 2013.

"Idaho, more than any other state, is related to Abraham Lincoln, and here's why," said Leroy. "He appointed 15 of our earliest officers, he signed a bill to create the Idaho Territory, he mentioned the Idaho Territory in his 1863 and 1864 addresses to Congress, he considered the business of the Idaho Territory on the last day of his life, and he even invited the Idaho Territory governor to go with him to Ford's Theater on that fateful night."

Monday, March 4 is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's personal signature on the document that created the Idaho Territory.

"And that's why the timing of this new permanent exhibit is so significant," said Leroy. "It's wonderful to be a part of the remembrance of the legacy of Lincoln in such a year as 2013."

Lincoln is hot. Gracing the covers of no less than Time, Newsweek, the Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly, the 16th president's legacy has been deconstructed to analyze everything from the Obama administration to immigration reform to the nation's current debt crisis.

"It's true," said Leroy. "Lincoln ran up a huge national debt. Financing the Civil War was every bit as tricky, in some regards, as financing our current overspending. Lincoln had little choice than to finance the war and save the Union.

"And Lincoln's lessons would be useful to use in his well-crafted foreign policy," he said. "It was necessary for Lincoln to carefully administer relations with France and England so as to keep them out of the Southern side of the Civil War. And of course, Lincoln's emphasis on a strong defense would be a useful paradigm today."

But Leroy was quick to caution any modern president from comparing himself to Honest Abe.

"I suppose every president thinks he has Lincoln-esque moments, but no president ever faced the problems or rose to the heights of success as Lincoln did as chief executive," said Leroy. "And we've certainly never had a president who was as simple and unaccomplished before becoming president."

Hollywood has embraced Lincoln as well, and if most critics are right, Daniel Day-Lewis is a lock to take home his third Best Actor Academy Award on Sunday, Feb. 24, for the lead role in director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

"On balance, it was a great movie," said Leroy. "The thing I liked about Daniel Day-Lewis is that he became Lincoln. It was very ... [Leroy paused and smiled] ... Lincoln-esque."

Gallimore couldn't agree more.

"When my husband and I went to see Lincoln, there was actually a long waiting line," she said. "We're blessed that there's such public interest in Lincoln this year."

Gallimore added that she hopes to reach out to DreamWorks Studios for possible use of clips from Spielberg's film to include in the Idaho exhibit.

"It's on my list of tasks," she said, adding that the Historical Society had some "pretty big marketing plans for the exhibit."

Artist rendering of Lincoln period room to be constructed at the Idaho State Historical Society

And the rewards are deep, said Gallimore, not just to the state agency but also the local economy.

"A recent study done by Americans for the Arts looked at the economic impact of arts and cultural visits to Boise," she said. "Their document said that visits to Boise arts and cultural amenities generated nearly $50 million to the Treasure Valley economy. And we're adding to that cultural milieu."

But beyond any economic benefit, Gallimore is more interested in the hands-on learning opportunity.

"We're working on weaving this exhibit into school curricula, and we're reaching out to Russ Heller" she said.

Heller, the Boise School District's history curriculum coordinator, is reaching back.

"We're pretty excited about it," Heller told BW. "The more you can make history come alive, the more we want to take advantage of that."

Heller said Boise elementary school students will be a wonderful target audience.

"Fourth-graders in Boise are studying Idaho history, and the Lincoln exhibition will truly help them make connections from Idaho to the president," he said. "And fifth-graders who are studying U.S. history will, of course, be interested."

Heller added that middle school students, particularly ninth-graders, will be keying in on the Lincoln years.

"In ninth grade, Boise students study the United States up to 1900," he said. "We see so many ways for students to mine this exhibit as they plumb the depths of what happened during cabinet meetings in Lincoln's day."

And none of this could have happened, Gallimore said, without Leroy's donation.

"David has made Lincoln his life's passion," she said. "It's very exciting to have someone like him in our midst."

Leroy is happy to share that passion.

"To memorialize these ties of Idaho to Lincoln, that's so exciting," he said. "Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act and the Transcontinental Railroad Act. There would be no University of Idaho; there wouldn't be the thousands of farm families that grew up in Idaho on federal lands that were turned into private land. None of that would have happened without Lincoln."

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