The Nez Perce (or Nimiipuu)
The original inhabitants of north central Idaho were the Nimiipuu – or Nez Perce, as they were later called. Having lived in the region for over 12,000 years, these people continue to influence life in the area today. The Museum’s Nez Perce collection consists of cornhusk bags, a beaded cradleboard, moccasins, and objects from the Nez Perce War of 1877, which had its initial skirmishes only two miles from the Museum.
Sister Alfreda Elsensohn, founder of the Museum, was a science teacher at St. Gertrude’s Academy. In 1931 she received a geological collection that had originally come from the U.S. National Museum (now a part of The Smithsonian) in 1910. This collection plus additional acquisitions from other sources has produced an extensive collection representing a vast array of minerals not only from Idaho but from around the world. Included in the collections are fossils from a variety of areas, geodes, varieties of basalt, varieties of quartz, opals, garnets, gold, and many more.
The Benedictine Sisters of the Monastery of St. Gertrude opened the first hospital in Cottonwood in 1930. Our Lady of Consolation Hospital was later to become the current St. Mary’s Hospital. Dr. Wesley Orr was the first physician at the hospital. Today, the Museum exhibits Dr. Orr’s collection of medical instruments and equipment used at the hospital; they date from about 1900 and were used until the 1950’s. Some of the artifacts include: a replica of a lab (1930); a needle sharpener (1940); a Dare hemoglobinometer (1922); a Burbick rhythmic constrictor (1940); a fetal monitor (1900); and a tonsillectomy chair.
The Chinese in North Idaho Collection
The Chinese first arrived in Idaho in the 1860s to work the newly discovered gold fields. They were excellent miners and were especially efficient at mining an area previously thought to be exhausted of gold. There was a time when the Chinese outnumbered the White miners in many of the mining communities.
The majority of the Chinese came to earn a “nest egg” in order to return to their families in China. The money they earned in America would make them wealthy due to the extreme poverty in China at the time. Since most planned to return to their homeland, the Chinese maintained much of their culture in the mining camps in their language, food, clothing, and recreational activities. The artifacts in this exhibit connect the lifestyles of the Chinese in the mining camps and towns of north central Idaho.
Many of the Chinese never did return to China. The “Chinatowns” of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C. became safe havens for these new citizens who had been denied rights based upon their ethnic origin. Only a few families stayed in Idaho.
Pioneer Life Collection
The daily life of the early settler in north central Idaho was a constant struggle. Men and women worked from dawn to dusk to survive and make a living. Occupations included ranching, farming, mining, carpentry, and merchandising. Daily life involved cleaning, washing, cooking, food preparation, and childcare. All of these things were done without the modern conveniences that we take for granted. The Museum has a vast array of artifacts reflecting pioneer lifestyles. They include a cobbler’s bench with sewing machine, shoe lasts, and leather tools, a Hoosier cabinet with a variety of old bowls and serving pieces, a kitchen work table (circa 1900), a dining table (circa 1920), a harness buck (1914), saddles, bridles, branding irons, handmade tools (1834), clocks, dolls, butter churns, kitchen tools, and lanterns dating to 1865.
Religion and Monastery of St. Gertrude Collection
A unique part of the Museum’s collection tells the story of the Benedictine sisters of Idaho including three founding sisters of the Monastery of St. Gertrude, who came to this country in 1882 from Switzerland. Their journey to Gervais, Oregon (1882-1884), to Uniontown, Washington (1884-1894), to Colton, Washington (1894-1907) and ultimately to Cottonwood, Idaho (1907-present) is a most compelling story. The courage and foresight of the founding Sisters exemplifies the true pioneer spirit of the westward expansion.
The Rhoades Emmanuel Gallery
The Rhoades Emmanuel Memorial is a collection of exquisite Asian and European artifacts. Some Asian items date from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and European artifacts from the 18th century. Sam Emmanuel donated the collection when his wife, Winifred Rhoades, passed away. Winifred was a renowned organist of the silent movie era that had grown up on the Camas Prairie. The collection is in pristine condition and reflects some sixty years of serious collecting.
Historic Personalities of Idaho County
Polly Bemis (1853-1933) was sold by her father to Chinese brigands who, in turn, sold her to a Chinese Company that shipped people to the United States. She eventually ended up in the mining camp of Warren, Idaho. Her life after arriving in Idaho is a story of tragedy, endurance, and love. The Museum houses some of Polly’s personal items as well as interprets her story to the public. Idaho County’s Most Romantic Character: Polly Bemis and Idaho Chinese Lore, both written by Sister Alfreda Elsensohn, chronicle Polly’s life.
A new book, written for children, Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer by Priscilla Wegars gives additional insight into Polly’s life.
Frances Wisner (1913-1986) arrived in Idaho in 1940. Through a marriage, she lived and worked at Campbell’s Ferry. In 1945 she contacted the editor of the Idaho County Free Press in Grangeville who agreed to give her a weekly column through which she was able to share her daily experiences and observations along the river. She continued to write her column for some 40 years. She used the column to advocate for issues which she believed in, including prohibiting air spotting (hunting from aircraft) and radio-detected hunting as well as promoting the eventual placement of the Campbell’s Ferry Bridge. She was a true pioneer ecologist who composted garden waste, hiked miles of remote trails, protected wildlife, and tread lightly on the soil long before these ideas were popular. Her book, My Mountains, details her life on the Salmon River. The book, Haven in the Wilderness by Carol Furey-Werhan, tells Frances’ life story.
Sylvan “Buckskin Bill” Hart (1906-1980) was a “modern-day mountain man”. He arrived on the Salmon River in 1932 during the Depression and remained until his death. His story is one of survival in the harsh environment of the Salmon River canyon. He raised his own food, built his own home, and created unique items to survive in the wilderness. The Museum has a large collection of Buckskin Bill’s handmade artifacts including utensils, rifles, knives, and buckskin bags. Two books, A River Went Out of Eden by Chana Cox and The Last of the Mountain Men by Harold Peterson, tell the story of this Idaho loner.
The Museum also holds artifacts pertaining to education, military and weaponry, mining, music, photography, technology, textiles, and much more.
Historical Museum Research Resources
Including Cottonwood, Elk City and Dixie.
Several Camas Prairie genealogies
Historic Maps of Idaho
Many photographs pertaining to the area
10,000 books, journals, archival materials
St. Gertrude’s Academy Yearbooks
Sister Alfreda’s original source material
The basis for her books and other research.
The Historical Museum at St. Gertrude has published a variety of material including:
PHOTO Sister Alfreda Elsensohn, founder of the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude, with volume 1 of Pioneer Days in Idaho County.
Sister Alfreda Elsensohn (1897-1989), founder of the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude, wrote four books pertaining to the state of Idaho. Her extensive research and personal contact with historic figures of the day allowed her to record colorful and historic accounts of early North Central Idaho.
Pioneer Days in Idaho County, Volume 1 (1947) and Volume 2 (1951)
Her two volumes of Pioneer Days in Idaho County are treasures of firsthand source material. In Volume 1 (535 pp.) she attempted to discover through historic and geographical associations the origin of the place names in the county, and to pen a thorough history of each of its settlements through primary sources. Volume 2 (618 pp.) expanded her original research.
Idaho Chinese Lore (1970)
Sister Alfreda’s two other books followed Chinese themes. Idaho Chinese Lore (1970) relates an historical account of Chinese activity in Idaho from 1865 to 1969. Idaho's Most Romantic Character: Polly Bemis tells the story of a local healer and heroine.
Pioneer Days in Idaho County and Idaho Chinese Lore are available for purchase in the Gift Shop and online.