Writings and observations

Keeping Idaho history alive

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

About a dozen years ago, Martin Peterson and I started work on a book project. Peterson, who had spent a career and then some in the core of Idaho state government, is an Idaho history obsessive, and we had latched onto the idea of writing a book about the 100 most influential drivers of Idaho history.

We had a lot of ideas about who should populate the list and how to rank them, but we wanted to run those ideas (and our understanding of the facts and context) past an unimpeachable authority who knew enough about Idaho history to be able to tell us, conclusively, if we were somewhere running off the rails.

Exactly one name came to us both: Judy Austin. And from the beginning of the project until shortly before it went to print, she looked over our lists, provided sage background and suggestions, and kept us on track. At least, as much as anyone could have.

This week, Austin is receiving the annual Idaho Humanities Council Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities award for her work on Idaho history. That work, which has been ongoing since 1967 and continues at full speed today, is so wide-ranging as to defy any further definition. The center of it, probably, is her more than two decades as editor of Idaho Yesterdays history magazine, up until its closure in 2002. (That closure by state officials, depriving the state of its only major historical publication, was and is a travesty.) Along the way, as the IHC noted, she “became a mentor, writer, bibliographer, co-author, consultant, and general encourager to countless researchers, young and old, engaged in exploring the history of Idaho and the American West.”

Those range from national bestselling author Anthony Lukas, whose magisterial Big Trouble (about the Haywood murder conspiracy trial) benefited greatly from Austin’s help, to Lin Tull Cannell, an amateur historian at Orofino who turned her interest in the pioneer William Craig into a book (which – disclosure here – I published) called The Intermediary. And, among many others over the years and on other efforts besides the 100, me.

When she arrived in Boise in 1967, she went to work for the Idaho historian who more or less founded the field, Merle Wells. During the two decades they worked together and into his retirement, a foundation was set for research and publication of Idaho history. It was institutionalized, with strong staffing and steadily improving collections and public service.

The Idaho State Historical Society has better quarters these days, near the old Idaho Penitentiary on the eastern edge of Boise, than it did then. But budgets have been cut, and the hard-working and skillful staff there is increasingly stretched thin. Preservation and research into Idaho history has not been a state budget priority, especially not in the last decade. A lot of the institutional building, developing the field of Idaho history that made such progress in the mid-to-latter 20th century has been chopped away in the 21st.

These have been difficult times for many history programs around the country, and Idaho’s has been hit especially hard. A state that ties itself to tradition the way Idaho does – you hear it in state political campaigns every cycle – could benefit especially from a very strong understanding and recording of the facts instead of the myth.

Judy Austin richly deserves her award this week, not least for her work keeping the facts and the myths in their relative places.

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