‘The story of Bonner County’

The Bonner County History Museum preserves the past while looking toward a bright future

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

When Helen Newton took a U.S. history class at Sandpoint High School in the late 1950s, she was required to do an oral presentation on the topic of her choice. She chose the history of Sandpoint.

Her greatest research asset at the time lay in the basement of the Sandpoint Community Hall — an early rendition of a local museum.

“It was dark and dank down there,” Newton said.

Helen Newton holds a check for $5,000 amid other members of the All ’50s Reunion committee. The donation will go toward the Bonner Co. History Museum’s newsletter. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert.

Since then, the museum has come to occupy the building at 611 S. Ella Ave., where Newton and several of her friends gathered Feb. 17 to donate $5,000 to the Bonner County History Museum to help aid the organization’s newsletter. Newton said the latest rendition of the newsletter was “fabulous,” and that she wanted to support it going forward. 

With the permission of her fellow All ’50s Reunion committee members — who decided they’d thrown their final reunion in 2015 — Newton and company donated the large sum from what was left in their reunion coffers.

“The great thing is, I heard many of these people say when they came in, ‘Gosh, I haven’t been in the museum for years,’” Newton said of reunion committee members who gathered at the museum Feb. 17. “So hopefully this will be a little impetus for more participation and financial support.”

A place for the past

Bev Kee, current treasurer on the museum’s board, has childhood memories of her mother dedicating her time and energies to the museum.

“I grew up here,” Kee said, referring to the museum. “I just love the history of my town, and I’m really interested in getting the young people and all the people that are moving here engaged in the history of their community.” 

Though demographics have certainly changed since the idea first took root for a dedicated museum in Bonner County, that love for local history has remained steadfast. Museum Interim Director Heather Upton said the institution as it currently exists can be traced back to Dr. Ethel Page Westwood, who wanted a place to display her collection of geological specimens. 

“She was really the roots of it all,” Upton said.

The Bonner Co. History Museum after it first opened in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy of the museum.

Westwood started the ball rolling in the early ’50s and, by the ’70s, the official Bonner County Historical Society took shape. The group spent the decade raising funds and laying the literal foundation of what is known today has the Bonner County History Museum. Boxes of artifacts began making their way into the building in 1979, and the museum celebrated a grand opening in July 1980.

Though the property has seen changes, the museum remains at Lakeview Park 40 years later.

‘The heart of the museum’

Upon walking into the Bonner County History Museum, there’s a lot to take in. An eclectic gift shop occupies the wall to the left. To the right, the exhibitions beckon visitors to explore the past. When the staff member behind the front desk asks how they can help, the answer today involves another part of the museum entirely: research.

In the museum’s research room, volunteers bustle about, scanning photos and postcards, casually cataloging history on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Books line one wall, computers line the other, and in the middle lies a huge conference table complete with a container filled with fresh-baked cookies — a research room mainstay. A volunteer offers to head into the back room and gather information on any Bonner County topic of interest. Would-be researchers are invited to take a seat at the table and settle in.

Upton said the museum is home to more than 1 million objects, not to mention 98% of the newsprint in the county. She said it averages out to receiving about a donation per day. But how do they wade through it all?

“The one thing that this museum represents is Bonner County,” Upton said, “so I always have to consider, when an object is coming in, how it can help tell the story of Bonner County.”

A snapshot from the “Women Who Shaped Bonner County” exhibit, currently on display at the Bonner Co. History Museum. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert.

Upton characterized the museum volunteers, who help determine how to best tell that story, as “the heart of the museum.” She said no matter the skill set, there is a task for anybody at the museum. The key is finding those people.

“That’s really how I’m looking at the museum right now: Who can we bring on to help us rise to that next level?” Upton said.

One way Upton has helped the museum level up in the past five years is through her exhibit curation. She has applied her backgrounds in art history and interior design to both permanent and temporary exhibits.

The museum is currently showing a temporary exhibit titled “The Women Who Shaped Bonner County,” showcasing influential female citizens from past decades. Permanent exhibits explore the local histories of forestry, agriculture, the Ice Age floods, early North Idaho settlers, the railroad and more. Westwood’s geological collection is also on display.

Though class field trips to the museum are common, Upton said the museum began a “traveling trunk” program last year in an effort to get more history curriculum into classrooms. Trunks are filled with hands-on artifacts to help supplement textbook learning. The two trunks currently available cover local archeological history and the Native Americans of Idaho.

The future of local history

As Upton makes the transition from focusing entirely on curating to tackling more directorship tasks, she’ll have Hannah Combs, the museum’s new administrator, as her right hand starting March 1.

Upton said Combs’ strong background in nonprofit work with the Pend Oreille Arts Council will be a great asset for the museum moving forward.

“I mean, where do I begin with Hannah?” Upton said. “I’m so impressed by her.”

Combs said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity and knows that POAC will continue to thrive.

Heather Upton and Hannah Combs look to turn a new chapter at the museum. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert.

“Heather has done a lot of work to establish a beautiful collection, [and] a really creative way of presenting it, and I’m excited to bring the organizational skills I have to help manage the day-to-day operations and contribute to making it a great place to visit for locals and visitors to the area,” Combs said. “I still have so much to learn, but I’m excited to jump in.”

One potential change to the museum, which has made its way through the Sandpoint rumor mill, is that the institution might be making the move to the historic Granary building between Oak and Church Streets. Upton said that while the board was offered the space and considered transitioning there, a two-year feasibility study revealed that the move might not be in the museum’s best interest.

“We are so thankful for the [feasibility] study, though, because it really helped us understand the museum and where we need to relate more to the community, what changes we need to make, and so forth,” Upton said.

Beyond its exhibits, collections and educational programs, Upton said the museum is always seeking to reach people by branching out beyond the confines of 611 S. Ella Ave. Some examples of such projects include the history of Schweitzer exhibit located at the ski resort; the museum’s contributions to the city of Sandpoint’s Historic Walking Tour; and even the vinyl wraps on First Avenue, which cover the sites of both a condemned building and the downtown fire of February 2019. 

The vinyl wraps, which Upton said were “400 feet of curating opportunity,” share a taste of the museum’s extensive knowledge of how downtown Sandpoint has changed over the years.

“If there’s an opportunity to put forth history, we are so excited to share that with the community — especially outside the museum walls,” Upton said.

As much as a museum is meant to pay tribute to the people of the past, Upton said it’s the people who are still here — volunteering their time, offering financial support and exploring their curiosities through research — who make the Bonner County History Museum a vital piece of the community.

“To think that I’ve been here for five years, and I walk through the doors and just get filled with excitement — that’s a really good thing, and that’s just the energy of the people that are here,” she said.

To learn more about the Bonner County History Museum call 208-263-2344 or visit bonnercountyhistory.org. Current hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and the first Saturday of each month, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. The museum’s next event will take place Saturday, Feb. 29: the “Drink in History’’ historic Sandpoint pub crawl from 2-5 p.m., which takes place throughout downtown Sandpoint. There are only 30 spots available on the crawl. Tickets are $45 and available through the museum’s website or by calling 208-263-2344.

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