Gem County has a rich history – one that is entwined with the settling of Idaho and one that has some of its own unique roots. Efforts to research, verify, maintain and share centuries of lore and factual history is recognized each year by the Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS), and this year two “Esto Perpetua Awards” have been awarded in Gem County.
The Gem County Historical Society was the lone organization selected for 2020 by the ISHS and its curator and director, Meg Davis was one of fourteen individuals recognized.
The Esto Perpetua Award takes its name from the state’s motto, “let it be perpetual”, and for the past twenty one years the ISHS has “recognized people and organizations who have preserved and promoted Idaho’s history through professional accomplishments, public service or volunteerism, and philanthropy. The work of those honored reflect a lifetime of achievement of their commitment to and passion for Idaho history.”
Since 1999 the ISHS has recognized more than 150 individuals and organizations. Gem County historians have been the recipient of two previous Esto Perpetuas – Janie Shaut in 2016 for her work on the Gem County Veteran Project and the Sweet-Montour Syringa Club in 2018 for its restoration of Syringa Hall in Sweet.
This year’s dual awards in Gem County are appropriately separate and yet shared.
In making the nominations to the ISHS, the Gem County Historic Preservation Commission cited the works of the Gem County Historical Society (GCHS) since 1974 when it first opened the doors of the Gem County Historic Village and Museum complex in Emmett. Meg Davis was nominated as an individual not just as curator and director of the GCHS since 1998, but also because of her passion and willingness to share history in a creative and inspiring manner to all ages. Their stories, however, are inseparable.
Established in 1972, the GCHS meets regularly and actively oversees the operations of the museum village south of the Gem County Courthouse complex. Over the years it has grown into a seven building complex anchored by a two floors of exhibits, storage area, office space and research library. Additional buildings are actually exhibits in themselves.
There is a blacksmith shop, a fully furnished one room schoolhouse, a covered wagon, a bunkhouse, an two-hole outhouse, a natural history exhibit, and the Gov. Frank Hunt Memorial House.
The Hunt House is a Victorian style residence furnished with many of the belongings of Idaho’s fifth Governor (1901-1903). The Historic Society has recently been awarded grants to refurbish and preserve the outside of the structure.
The museum complex serves as what Davis calls a “living library.” While it has glass-cased exhibits to protect artifacts, every effort is made to make a trip to the museum a hands-on experience.
Hands-on and a desire for interaction with history was the motivation behind the creation of the GCHS’s River Through Time. Since 2002 the GCHS has sponsored the free outdoor event at the Gem Island Sports Complex. Fittingly placed on the island, bound on all sides by the historically pivotal Payette River, the event demonstrates the various themes that underlie the historic development of the region during the last 200 years.
River Through Time is traditionally staged the first weekend of October. Plans for this year are currently in a cautionary hold according to Davis. “The entire point of the River Through Time is the hands-on and interactive nature of the featured performances and activities. We are still trying to get a grasp on how that experience can be achieved and still be considerate of health concerns this year.”
Perhaps no one has been born to a position as Davis has to her role as curator and director.
“My great grandmother, Ella Knox Parrish, was an “official” county historian in the 1950’s” Davis said. “I would guess that’s where my interests have been rooted. The family history goes back to the settlement of this area in the 1800’s. Even being away for several years never diminished that sense of being part of the foundations of this area.”
Davis has been the curator since 1998. She pays homage to her predecessor, however, for building the foundation of the GCHS and the museum.
“Jessie Goodwin was the key to putting this on the right track,” Davis said. “She was an exceptionally talented and gracious contributor to preserving previous Gem County artifacts and documentation.
Davis has continued that pattern by encouraging researchers to carefully access records and examine exhibits to fuller understand the historic peoples and events of Gem County.
In the Esto Perpetua nomination forms, the Preservation Commission refers to Davis as “quite simply the heart and soul of the museum, and the face of history in Gem County.”
As her emphasis on hands-on would dictate, Davis is not just an administrator but also an interpreter and in many cases an actress in the dramas reenacted for school children throughout the year and for the visitors attending the River Through Time.
“Generations of school children in Gem County see Meg Davis, in her hoop skirt and prairie bonnet, when they think local history,” the nomination says.
A virtual Esto Perpetua awards ceremony by the Idaho State Historical Society will be held August 20. More information is available at history.idaho.gov.