Ask Arthur Hart a question about Idaho history and more than likely he'll not just know the answer, but will have written a book on it. Whether area agencies commission his work or if it's "just for fun," Hart has published 17 books on the Gem State's history, and it doesn't look like he's stopping any time soon.
BW: What's on the burner?
AH: I'm working on a story of true crime in early Idaho called Wicked Men and Wayward Women. It deals with the most interesting crimes in Idaho. For some reason people are eager to read about prostitution, so I deal with the notorious madams in town ... including Diamond Tooth Lil [who was the story behind the Hollywood movie Diamond Lil].
I also have a book coming out Dec. 1 that's a history of the Ada County Courthouse. From what the state paid for the building and the land compared to the cost of tearing it down, the state will face a net loss of over $1 million. I argue it doesn't make sense to pay money recklessly, especially on this historic structure. [Tearing down the Courthouse] ignores the historic value of the building. If the state is running out of room at the Capitol, here's a building ready to move into. For very little money, they can start using this building right now. It's sitting empty.
You tell the story of Idaho's history, but what's yours?
I came to Idaho to teach at the College of Idaho in 1948, and lived in New England for 16 years. I came back to direct the Idaho State Historical Society (in 1969). I was there for 17 years before I retired. Since I've been researching and writing books about Idaho and leading tours all over the world.
How did you get started writing about Idaho history?
I started writing what nobody had written about. Things I find interesting. Things Idaho people would like to know about this state. For instance, there was no book about Idaho pioneer photographers. So I did a book called Camera Eye on Idaho. It's a history of pioneer photographers over first 50 years of Idaho history.
Is writing on Idaho history lucrative?
Not at all. Idaho's a very small book market. If you sell 5,000 books here in Idaho it's a big seller. So what we have done is whenever we've sold enough books, we take that money to publish more, and so on. So starting with virtually nothing, we continue to have these books in print.
Who will you pass the torch on to when you stop writing?
I must have 150 loose-leaf notebooks crammed with material and several hundred thousand cards of notes that will all go to the state historical society.
What's your favorite topic of Idaho history?
It's all fascinating. Someone asked Matisse, the French painter, what's your favorite painting, and he said the next one. That's a pretty good answer.