Our History


Sister Alfreda Elsensohn in the Museum's first location - the attic of St. Gertrude's Academy.


joanby Sister Joan Smith

In 1910 Sister Rose Hodges, a science teacher at St. Scholastica Academy in Colton, Washington, received a collection of minerals from the National Museum of Natural History, which later became the Smithsonian.

In 1931 Sister Alfreda Elsensohn, a teacher at St. Gertrude's Academy in Cottonwood, Idaho, brought the collection to the Academy and it became the beginning of the Museum. At that time (1931) the Museum was housed in the school attic. She continued to collect artifacts there until 1954 when the new Academy building was dedicated. The Museum was then moved to a large basement room set aside for this purpose.


Sr. Alfreda Elsensohn in the Museum's next location - the basement of St. Gertrude's Academy.

Sister Alfreda continued to work mainly in science areas, including doing taxidermy with her students. Many animals were part of the Museum collection during these early years as well as minerals, insects, and animal specimens. As the collection grew, people began giving her artifacts of a more general nature, and she began to collect more historical items, including the S. S. flag that was flying over Dachau when the Allies liberated the concentration camp. The doctor and his medic took the flag down. When the doctor died later, his widow sent the flag to Sister Alfreda since his medic had been a local man. The Museum continued to receive other items related to both the First and Second World War.

Bringing the story home
Sister Alfreda's interest shifted more toward the history of the Camas Prairie area. She visited many of the pioneers and interviewed them. Much of this information was later used by her in her two-volume work Pioneer Days in Idaho County. Many people made contributions that were related to the pioneers who settled the Camas Prairie during the late 1800's, and many of these can be seen on exhibit at the Museum today.

Sister Alfreda also wrote articles for the small monthly magazine Echoes of St. Gertrude that was published from 1923 until 1940. Some of the early history of various pioneers can be found in these volumes.

A New Era
In 1970 St. Gertrude's Academy was closed and the building was leased to (and soon bought by) the Cottonwood School District. Prairie High School is still located here. The Museum continued to be housed in the basement of the school until 1980 when the present building was erected to house the ever-growing collection.

Sister Catherine Manderfeld began helping Sister Alfreda while the collection was still in the Academy building. After it was moved to the new building she continued to assist Sister Alfreda and became curator when Sister Alfreda was no longer able to do the work of the Museum.

rhoadesThe Rhoades Emmanuel Memorial Collection arrived when Samuel Emmanuel donated an array of exquisite Asian and European artifacts when his wife, Winifred Rhoades, passed away. Winifred was a famous organist of the silent movie era that had grown up on the Camas Prairie. The artifacts were first exhibited in the section in the southeast corner of the new Museum building. Later, in 1988, the multi- purpose room at the rear of the Museum was renovated, and the artifacts were moved to this section. The collection includes many vases, carvings, textiles, and other artifacts. They are in pristine condition and reflect some sixty years of serious collecting by the Rhoades.

Many Sisters worked to bring the artifacts to the new building and spent many hours cleaning and improving their appearance. Among these were Sisters Gregory Carey, Mercedes Martzen, Carolyn Miguel, and Radegunda Bischofberger.

Artifacts and events
In August 1988, I joined the Museum staff and the work of accessioning the artifacts began. In February 1990, the first lay employee, Wendy Heiken, was hired. Wendy moved away in the fall of 1998. In 1996, Steve Marsh was hired and remained until early 2000.

It was at this time that the Museum building was in need of additional work. The original design was with two display pyramids around the two outer support poles. This inhibited the ability of the workers to see what was going on in the Museum. In 1996 the Museum was closed for several months, and the pyramids were taken down; the two exhibit areas on either side of the lobby were renovated for the office and for the restrooms, both of which had been at the rear of the building as originally designed.

rfIn 1993 the Museum held its first Fair and Auction. Shorty Arnzen was the auctioneer, and this was held in the high school gymnasium. It had been set up in the front yard of the Monastery one sunny Saturday. But by 4 p.m. a hail storm came and all of the articles were wet and covered with hail. Sunday morning the staff and others wiped down the auction articles and moved them into the high school gymnasium. There were about 600 participants at this first annual event. In 1994 the name was changed to Raspberry Festival and has continued since.

A year or two later, the Museum also began its annual Victorian Tea. The first of these was held in the Museum and there were about forty participants. In succeeding years it was moved to the dining room of the Monastery and continued for many years.

In 1998 a further renovation took place. This involved taking out the original restrooms and closing off the hallway to increase the storage area for artifacts not on exhibit. It was also about this time that the building (which was cold in winter, hot in summer) was insulated. A memorial board with copper "leaves" was begun for persons wishing to have their deceased loved ones remembered. This is presently inside the Museum to the right as one enters.


Museum programming has focused on justice issues in our local history, including the racism and violence against the Chinese.

In 2000, Lyle Wirtanen was hired as the first director. He began "Echoes of the Past," a historical journal that continued during his years as director. Lyle also organized several conferences for the public to bring the diverse cultures together for better understanding. This included both the Nez Perce and the Chinese Remembering events. Lyle also began the annual Fall Lecture Series. Lyle resigned in 2010, and in early 2011 Sam Couch was hired as director. He served for three years, focusing mostly on accessioning the vast collection.

During all of these years the collection continued to grow so that when Spirit Center was designed, a room was set aside for the storage of Museum artifacts not on exhibit. Spirit Center was completed in 2005, and the storage area holds a large part of the Museum collection.

"Preserving the past for the future"
In October 2013, the Monastery implemented a new leadership structure to diversify administration of all the Monastery's endeavors. Spirit Center Director Mary Schmidt became the CEO of external ministries, which includes the Museum.

In late 2013 it was decided to move the Monastery Book and Gift Shop to the Museum, thus making it more accessible to the public. After it is moved, it will be open during Museum hours, Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 until 4:30.

We hope you will stop by throughout the year to see all the new things that are taking place at our Historical Museum!