Idaho's Most Unique Birthday Gift

Permanent Lincoln exhibit will feature recreation built by Idaho offenders


The men and women who helped construct one of the most eagerly anticipated public projects in recent Idaho history (and history has everything to do with the project) won't be able to attend its grand unveiling Tuesday, Nov. 19. They'll be behind bars.

"Their day will come, when they're released," said Martin Thomas, general manager of Idaho Correctional Industries. "They've seen it. They just haven't seen it put together."

The Lincoln Legacy Exhibition, a multi-room permanent display, soon to grace a prime location at the Idaho State Archives on Old Penitentiary Road, is the much-buzzed-about chronicle of the 16th United States president and how his life aligned with the times of the Idaho Territory. Most important, the exhibition will be the new home to arguably the most significant grouping of artifacts ever assembled relating to Lincoln and the Rocky Mountain West--gifted by David and Nancy Leroy.

"Mr. Leroy told me that, in talking with the Idaho State Historical Society, they were looking for something unique to become the front end of the exhibit," Thomas told Boise Weekly. "He asked, 'What can you do for us?'"

At any one time, Thomas and his staff manage more than 180 minimum- or medium-security offenders in the prison system, working through the ICI program to build office furniture, or working in garment, metal fabrication or print shops.

"This particular project is a great give-back for the offenders," said Thomas. "We teach them the hard skills--the technical ones--but then there are those soft skills--like how to give back to society. There is such great value in this; it helps them move forward and gain confidence."

The offenders have crafted an exact replica of Lincoln's upstairs White House office (there was no such thing as an Oval Office at the time). To the slightest of details, using paintings and rare photographs, ICI workers constructed furniture, designed wallpaper and built fixtures so that visitors would get a sense of the simplicity of Lincoln's inner sanctum.

"You might think this is a relatively small construction but, in fact, it's very complicated because they're working in the state archives," said Janet Gallimore, executive director of the Idaho State Historical Society.

Private donations of $100,000 completed the exhibition, but the Society now needs to raise additional funds to develop school programming and collateral materials. On Thursday, Aug. 8, at what Gallimore calls "Wine, Eats and Artifacts," the public will get a sneak preview of the show for a $40 donation toward educational materials.

The grand opening is Tuesday, Nov. 19.

"And that, of course, is the date of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address," said David Leroy. "Sit right there; let me show you something."

Leroy, former Idaho lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as the state's foremost expert on all things Lincoln, stepped away for a moment but returned to sit, alongside his wife Nancy, and show Boise Weekly just a few of his thousands of gems of Lincoln memorabilia, many of which the couple has donated to the exhibition.

"Take a look at this," said Leroy, holding a piece of paper a tad bigger than a playing card. "This is the first printing of the Gettysburg Address in freestanding form, the only one printed during Lincoln's lifetime. It was the first printing of its kind."

In previous visits to Leroy's law office, BW has viewed life masks, portraits and scores of documents. But as David and Nancy Leroy inspected the progress of the ISHS construction of the soon-to-be Lincoln exhibition, he brought along some extra artifacts.

"All of these items can certainly educate, but David really wants people to catch his passion," said Nancy, pointing to a small document in her husband's hands. "This particular one is one of my favorites."

Leroy held out a bi-folded piece of paper; the printing was faded but the words were still quite legible.

"It's a dance card from Lincoln's first inaugural ball," Leroy said with a grin. "The owner of this particular dance card was a little lady named Agnes Dewey, wife of a New York City attorney, H.M. Dewey. Here, you can see a list of all of the songs they played at the inaugural ball--23 songs, some polkas, some waltzes. You see that the first name on her dance card was her husband. Dance No. 9 was Hannibal Hamlin, the vice president of the United States. And take a look at dance No. 3."

Handwritten next to No. 3: "A. Lincoln."

"We truly understand the fragility and wonder of each of these things, but they're all still in relatively good shape," said Nancy.

BW asked Leroy about a small, hand-carved, hinged black box sitting an arm's length away.

"Go ahead, open it up," said Leroy.

Inside the box, to the left, was a tiny photograph of Lincoln; to the right, was a wisp of dark black strands.

"That's Lincoln's hair, taken at his autopsy," said Leroy. "And yes, that will be one of the items in the assassination portion of the exhibit."

In addition to panels on Lincoln's death, the show will also include sections on Lincoln's youth, law practice, political campaigns for Congress and the presidency, the Civil War and a separate panel on Gettysburg.

The exhibition, a unique collaboration involving a man who was once Idaho's top lawman and a group of Idaho prisoners, is certain to become a sesquicentennial gift that should enthrall visitors, quite possibly, until Idaho's bicentennial celebration.