Preserving the past for the future, the Museum features a rich and in-depth collection, focusing on the history of North Central Idaho, specifically, mining, ranching, farming, the Chinese in Idaho, the Nez Perce, local characters, antique weapons and more.
Mission & Vision
Our mission is to preserve the rich heritage of the Monastery of St. Gertrude, Camas Prairie, Snake River, Salmon River and surrounding areas.
Historical Museum as Ministry
The scope of the Museum’s work is the heritage of the Monastery of St. Gertrude and the Camas Prairie region of North Central Idaho.
Rooted in the tradition of Benedictine spirituality, the sisters sponsor the Museum and direct it to be a permanent, public, non-profit educational institution, which provides for the systematic collection and care of its artifacts.
Societies build upon the past. In order to preserve the past for future generations, the Museum staff accepts, preserves, and re-tells the stories connected to the artifacts. The Museum is a cultural and educational resource for guests of all ages.
The Historical Museum will:
- Preserve artifacts within the scope of the Museum.
- Provide a quiet, peaceful, beautiful environment in which visitors can muse on multi-cultural artifacts which bridge the past and the future.
- Provide an experience of stability and of reverence for the past in a time of increased mobility and its resulting rootlessness.
- Provide cultural and educational experiences for all people regardless of age, ethnic, socioeconomic status, and religious preference.
- Make materials available for researchers, including families tracing their heritage.
- Welcome guests with hospitality in the spirit of our founders and our Benedictine Rule.
Through the ministry of our Historical Museum,
we and our visitors are made more aware of – and are grateful for – the accomplishments and lives of our ancestors.
History of the Museum
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.
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 Wars.
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 1800s, 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 Junior-Senior 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.
The Rhoades Emmanuel Memorial Collection arrived when Samuel Emmanuel donated an array of exquisite Asian and European artifacts after his wife, Winifred Rhoades, passed away. Winifred was a famous organist of the silent movie era who 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, Sister Joan Smith joined the Museum staff and the work of accessioning the artifacts began. In February 1990, the first lay employee, Wendy Heiken, was hired, working at the Museum until 1998. In 1996, Steve Marsh was hired and remained until early 2000.
As the 20th century came to a close, the Museum building was in need of additional work. The original design included 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 as office space and restrooms, moving them from their original location at the rear of the structure.
In 1993, the Museum held its first Fair and Auction in the high school gymnasium. Shorty Arnzen served as auctioneer. The items had initially been set up in the monastery’s front yard one sunny Saturday but, by 4 p.m. a hail storm drenched the articles. Sunday morning, the staff and volunteers wiped down the auction articles and moved them into the high school gymnasium. Approxmately 600 participants attended this first annual event. In 1994, the name was changed to Raspberry Festival and continues as the Raspberry Social.
Soon after, the Museum also began its annual Victorian Tea. The first of these was held in the Museum with about forty participants. In succeeding years, the tea was moved to the monastery dining room, continuing for many years.
Another renovation to the Museum took place in 1998, increasing the storage area for artifacts not on exhibit. Around this time, the building (which was cold in winter, hot in summer) was insulated. A memorial board with copper “leaves” was created for those wishing to have their deceased loved ones remembered. This is presently inside the Museum to the right as one enters.
In 2000, Lyle Wirtanen was hired as the first museum director. He began Echoes of the Past, a historical journal published during his years as director. Lyle also organized several conferences for the public, bringing diverse cultures together for better understanding. This included both the Nez Perce and the Chinese Remembering events. Lyle also initiated 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 Museum collection continued to grow. 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 Book and Gift Shop was moved from the main monastery building to the Historical Museum.
A major remodel of the exhibits began in 2015, concluding in 2021. Mary Schmidt served as project manager, and former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen – along with Mary Reed – were among the volunteers on the project. The remodel has been supported by grants from the Idaho State Historical Society, Idaho Humanities Council, and the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation. The Museum also celebrated the arrival of Carla Wilkins as the new manager in the fall of 2020.
We hope you will stop by throughout the year to see all the new things that are taking place at our Historical Museum!