TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Owner Herman Stricker in the 1870s sold opium to Chinese miners who worked and lived in the Snake River Canyon. The foundation of his China House opium den still stands near the rock outline of “Stagecoach King” Ben Holladay’s stage stop.
West of the site lie the remains of Bill Dowdle, who shot up the “town” during a drunken rampage and was shot and killed by Lucy Stricker’s brother Charles Walgamott. Some buried alongside Dowdle in the small cemetery died while following the Old Oregon Trail; others died while on the intersecting stage route and Kelton Freight Road.
Yes, there’s plenty to intrigue at the historic Rock Creek Station and Stricker Homesite south of Hansen. And the site is a prime example of what’s possible when public funding and private efforts combine.
The Stricker family eventually sold the farm ground. But it donated to the Idaho State Historical Society the home site with its 1900 Victorian mansion, log store and two dirt cellars carved into the basalt bedrock — one of which was used as an early jail. Today the site is managed by the nonprofit Friends of Stricker Inc., whose volunteers give tours and host events to help cover the cost of its operation.
The site, surely an oasis to travelers on the old trails with its cool mountain stream and plentiful shade trees, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It now draws 2,500 to 3,000 visitors each year, said Jennifer Hills, Friends of Stricker president and a Stricker descendant. Local history and prehistory are displayed onsite in a modern interpretive center.
But few community museums in south-central Idaho have such strong backing as Stricker Ranch.
Museums’ confines — both physical and financial — determine much of their potential. Financial backing for historical museums varies from zero in Gooding and Lincoln counties to more than $20,000 per year in Twin Falls and Cassia counties and double that in Minidoka County.
And the amount of support given each is evident.
Minidoka County Historical Society received nearly $42,000 this year from the county coffers. Its displays are attractive and well organized, and its paid staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The museum, open year-round, has an air of optimism — based partly on the knowledge that its operation is secure well into the future.
“It gives everyone an incentive knowing there is some money to work with and we aren’t going to have our lights shut off tomorrow,” said Gary Schorzman, a former board president. “It keeps the museum alive, looking good and bringing people in.”
Schorzman is spearheading the historical society’s project to digitize 111 years of old newspapers, a project that costs $10,000 per 25 years. So far he has raised enough donations to finish the first 50 years. He expects those pages to be available to the public by the end of the year.
The future of other local history museums, however, is shaky. They need money and manpower, and both are hard to get.
In the past, small museums ran on the energy of volunteers. If someone from the local historical society was available that day, the museum was open.
But times have changed, Cassia County Commissioner Bob Kunau said. Many museums are struggling financially and for lack of volunteers.
“If you can’t pay someone to keep the museum open,” Kunau said, “you might as well lock the doors.”
Cassia County embraced that new reality. Jolynn Gummow, 44, of Heyburn is one of two part-time county employees at the Cassia County Historical Museum. She turned down a higher-paying job elsewhere to replace longtime museum curator Valerie Bowen, who resigned to go on a mission.
The Burley museum holds live history days for hundreds of local students every September. Black powder demonstrations, cheese making, yarn spinning, gold panning, Dutch oven cooking, fiddlers and mountain men educate and entertain. Schoolteachers organize the entire event.
Gummow — one of the few paid museum workers in south-central Idaho — enjoys her job but could use some help. Gone are the days when folks would volunteer to arrange exhibits, greet visitors and polish displays.
“I have no volunteers,” Gummow said. “No one wants to do it. No one wants to come in here unless they get paid.”
Cassia County over the years has increased its financial support for the museum. Burley also chips in, Gummow said, by providing the park and structures that house its artifacts.
Still, the museum has a lot of work to do: A log schoolhouse needs to be moved to a new foundation before the rare structure collapses, and warehouse space needs to be converted for expanding exhibits.
It’s more than Gummow can do by herself.
As volunteer labor declines, public investment must rise if a museum is to survive.
Somehow Jerome County has kept two historical sites open with little financial support from the county: The Depot Museum in downtown Jerome and the Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum just off U.S. 93 north of Twin Falls.
Until three years ago, the county contributed just $1,000 per year to the Jerome County Historical Society, longtime volunteer Linda Helms said. The rest of the museum’s expenses are paid by donations and society membership dues.
The county now chips in $5,000.
“There’s a big push now for us to look at our heritage and genealogy,” Jerome County Commissioner Charles Howell said.
But even the bigger county contribution can’t erase another loss.
In past years, the Jerome society maintained a robust volunteer base, Helms said. But 20 of the group’s volunteers have died in the past decade, and many of the remaining volunteers are 80 and older. Only four are younger than 70. It’s a challenge to get young folks involved, let alone interested.
“The only young people who come to visit are grade school children who come on a tour with their teachers,” Helms said.
The historical society draws its largest crowd at its Live History Day each September at the IFARM, and the event’s $5 admission charge brings in a small income.
The museum has reached a critical point, volunteer Sue Black said. The group has had to get creative in finding other ways to raise money; it now rents buildings at the IFARM for special events.
“If we are going to continue to operate this museum,” Black said, “it needs to go on the tax roll.”
In Oakley, a particularly supportive community means a museum can thrive without either public funding or plentiful volunteer labor.
The Clark family of Oakley donated two spaces on Main Street for the Oakley Valley Historical Association’s museum, which was built in 2000 and later expanded. Several local businesses donated funds and labor. Community members donated artifacts and money.
And certain residents welcome strangers into their homes again and again for the museum’s sake.
The town got its start when Mormon pioneers moved from Tooele County, Utah, into the Goose Creek Valley in the early 1880s. Many — just one generation away from their British homeland — built stately Victorian homes, which a century later put the town on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, Oakley’s biennial tour of Victorian homes raises money for the museum every other summer.
The Oakley association’s board of directors includes two appointed positions for liaisons from the Oakley City Council and the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, which gave the association its start with a large donation of artifacts.
The museum is a subchapter of the city, and the city owns the building. The historical association owns the artifacts. And the community is proud of it all.
More than ever, Hagerman needs what Oakley has.
The donation of a priceless collection means the Hagerman Valley Historical Society must take on a bold project: a building suitable for housing it.
The society was given about 600 oil paintings from the estate of renowned artist Archie “Teton” Teater, an impressionistic landscape painter who spent his later years in the Hagerman Valley. But in its current museum — a tiny old bank and post office building in downtown Hagerman — the society has no ability to display the pieces, stored for now in a First Federal Bank vault in Twin Falls.
To launch the fundraising campaign for a new museum, the historical society will host an Aug. 5 dinner and tour of Teater’s Knoll, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Society leaders hope other Hagerman folks share their excitement.
In some towns, however, the locals can be the hardest audience to interest. At the Twin Falls County Historical Museum, a sizable share of the signatures in the visitor register are from out-of-towners.
Yet the museum’s own origins reflect a desire to teach the locals.
The Twin Falls School District sold the 1914 Union School building and grounds at Curry to Twin Falls County after the building was decommissioned in the late 1960s. The agreement between the school district and the county rests on the stipulation that the building would house a museum with free admission to students.
At that point, the Twin Falls County Historical Society, started in 1957, was using a building at the county fairgrounds to house its collection. The two entities have collaborated ever since. While the county owns and maintains the building and grounds, the historical society owns the artifacts and operates the museum.
The county allots about $20,000 per year to the society for utilities and payroll, said Steve Westphal, the nonprofit’s president.
“We keep it going with grants and donations,” Westphal said. “(It’s) probably one of the most cost-effective places in the system.”
Museums draw tourists, but local history can surprise even someone with deep roots here.
Visiting great-aunt Gladys Stricker on the old family homestead at Rock Creek was a normal part of Curtis Johnson’s childhood; he didn’t understand until years later the importance of the property locals called the Stricker Place.
“Growing up, I didn’t realize the significance of the history here — I feel bad about that,” said Johnson, a great-great-grandson of Herman and Lucy Stricker. “I want people to learn about our history.”