Idaho's Mystery Warehouse

A rare glimpse at the Gem State's amazing artifacts


State officials don't want you to know the name of the building, much less where it is. Suffice to say, it's in Boise and hundreds of pedestrians or motorists pass the nondescript warehouse every day. But inside is a jaw-dropping collection of historical and cultural artifacts, all the property of the Idaho State Historical Society. And, yes, it's a bit like the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In a rare treat, the society swung open its warehouse doors for a couple of hours so that historians and archeologists from across Idaho could gawk at the wonders within. Idaho's own Indiana Jones-like treasure hunters were visiting Boise Sept. 25-27 to participate in the society's Idaho Heritage Conference on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Idaho's founding.

"We thought how cool it would be to have this giant collaboration of organizations that are really important to our state's history," said Jody Ochoa, Idaho Historical Museum director and conference organizer. "We're all kind of historians--all preserving the past and all telling the stories about the past."

Boise Weekly joined a select group of three dozen historians to get a rare glimpse of the warehouse. Down one aisle was an iron lung, down another was an execution table. Also inside the storage facility was a bullet-riddled neon bar sign from Boise's old Cub Tavern, 1920s-era Japanese friendship dollars and even a stagecoach.

"History museums have a huge variety of different artifacts, and we're no exception," said Sarah Phillips, the curatorial registrar who oversees the storage facility.

Ochoa added that the historical society was compelled to keep tens of thousands of oddities--some of them rescued, some of them donated--even if they're not put into a regular exhibit.

"Some things are unique in their history and you've got to keep them," she said. "They have to be there for the history, and they have to be there for the future."

Visiting historians also spent some time at the Idaho State Archives on Boise's Old Penitentiary Road.

"Historical records are preserved here; and sometimes we don't know what their values in the future will be," said David Matte, deputy state archivist.

And while many of the archived records are in the process of being digitized, that doesn't make the stacks of century-old maps and documents obsolete.

"I can't tell you how many times that I have been saved by a paper record," said Matte.

Amber Tews' eyes lit up as she perused the archives. She's the anthropology collections manager at Pocatello's Idaho Museum of Natural History.

"You could open any one of those boxes, pull out a diary and read it and be like, 'This is so cool,'" said Tews."Historical exhibits are really about the story. And if you can make it engaging, people will get more interested in it. We're always asking ourselves: 'What's the story? What is going to keep people engaged to continue with your exhibit?'"

Ochoa said that while curating the current "Essential Idaho" exhibit, it was important to include controversial items such as Ku Klux Klan hoods and other sordid artifacts from Idaho's past.

"We tried to have the good, bad and the ugly. I think there was a lot of angst in our leadership about that, because it's scary. But this is history," said Ochoa. "You need to keep looking back at history and have it slap you."