Historical Perspective 

Glenns Ferry's past could solve present dilemma

Dustin Fink and Rifka Helton stand outside the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum, which has not been heated since the 1960s.

George Prentice

Dustin Fink and Rifka Helton stand outside the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum, which has not been heated since the 1960s.

A portrait of the Elmore County village of Glenns Ferry could have rivaled Norman Rockwell as an example of Americana. Practically everyone waved hello as they drove by, dozens of homes displayed the American flag and there were plenty of children riding their bikes or walking neighborhood streets.

Everything about that particular early fall morning in Glenns Ferry seemed perfect--with one major exception: It was a weekday.

A quick drive by the Glenns Ferry school building confirmed that classrooms were dark and no one was around the building, which normally houses 450 K-12 students. It doesn't take long to realize that Glenns Ferry is one of nearly 40 communities throughout the state that has reluctantly shifted to a four-day school week--due, in large part, to the Idaho Legislature's refusal to restore pre-recession funding for public schools. And when Glenns Ferry voters in May turned down a $1 million two-year levy for staffing and building maintenance, school officials started crossing out Fridays from the school calendar, beginning this fall.

Sitting quietly, and underused, a piece of Glenns Ferry's past may be a solution to its present dilemma.

"The importance of that building to our kids could be huge" said Glenns Ferry School Superintendent Cody Fisher.

"That building" is the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum, an early 20th century wonder built from sandstone blocks that were quarried across the Snake River in 1909 and carried to the site by wagons. The building served as the main school from 1909-1965, when a new facility was built near Interstate 84. The old school boasts a gorgeous front lawn and is tucked into a tree-lined neighborhood, but it was ignored until the 1980s, when the city bought the building, hoping that it would house the region's historical treasures, which today it does.

The artifacts and displays inside the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum rival any history museum in the state, showcasing hundreds of artworks; classic photographs; antique furniture and appliances in re-creations of kitchens and living rooms; a full classroom packed with antique school desks representing a century of learning; a full room dedicated to Glenns Ferry's railroad legacy (trains still roll through the town every hour); and, in the museum's Three Island Crossing Room, a covered wagon to memorialize the pioneers' crossing of the nearby Snake River.

"Our fourth-graders learn Idaho history every year. What more could you ask for than that museum in our town?" said Fisher.

But the contents, and even the fate, of the museum is in cold storage--literally.

"The heating hasn't operated here since the 1960s," said Dustin Fink.

He should know. Fink is a Glenns Ferry insurance agent, but quite a bit of his sweat equity is in the building that has gained a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

"I joined the board of the museum 10 years ago. Within a few years, I was a reluctant president," he said with a smile. "It's a passion."

More than that, Fink is primarily responsible for bringing the building back to life. Boise Weekly looked at some of the photographs representing the neglect and serious water damage to the building over the years--that is all but a memory now. A visitor today would be hard pressed to realize that the building was anything but pristine.

"We started with the roof and then we went room by room by room, writing grants for each room," said Fink, adding that most of the artifacts were on the first floor of the two-story structure. Since the renovation, each of the rooms has been packed with art and antiques that would be the envy of Antiques Roadshow.

"We had a gentleman from Europe visit recently and spot one of our antique saddles, and he insisted that these are only seen in the world's best cowboy museums," said Fink.

But because there isn't any heat--or cooling in the summer, for that matter--the building is buttoned up at the first sign of frost and not opened to the public again until spring.

"And the children in this town need us now more than ever," said Rifka Helton, director of arts and culture for the museum.

Helton is the face and voice of the museum. She's surrounded by volunteers and an active board of directors, and of course there's Fink, who knows every inch of the museum; but it's Helton's mission to turn the building into a thriving education and community center while showcasing the Gem State's once-hidden treasures.

"When we met Rifka, she opened our eyes to so much more," said Fink.

Helton, a one-time Boise resident who visited the museum several years ago, said she was "electrified."

"To have this much under-utilized space is unheard of," said Helton. "So I decided to write a grant."

In 2013, Helton wrote to the Idaho Women's Charitable Foundation, asking for one of the organization's much-desired grants, which are doled out to a select few recipients each year.

"For them to win one of these grants the first time they tried was against astronomical odds," said IWCF President Dana Kehr, whose organization gives out a total of $160,000 to eight grantees each year. "But their story blew our socks off."

Helton described to IWCF how her community struggled with "cultural poverty."

"The people at the museum are so passionate," Kehr told BW. "They were doing so much with so little and that met all our needs to award a grant."

That triggered $24,654 to help fund a summer venue on the museum's front lawn, including tables, chairs and an outdoor movie screen and projector. The funds have also purchased state-of-the-art technology for the museum's so-called family history room.

"Now imagine, if you will, students coming in every Friday and we'll teach them how to research and archive history, based on a model program from the Smithsonian," said Helton. "They can help us archive the thousands of items that we have in the museum, plus we'll teach them this amazing skill. Additionally, this would help their public service requirements for graduation. It's a win-win-win."

Still, none of that will happen until the heat comes back on.

"We talked to Advanced Heating and Cooling in Meridian and they gave us an amazing bid to heat the whole building and bring this place to life for the kids and community," said Fink.

The work will require $35,000 in fundraising, and Helton said the biggest challenge is the opportunity to tell the community's story.

"Our dream is to get this done this winter and get open on Fridays as soon as possible," she said.

Over at Glenns Ferry City Hall, Mayor Connie Wills, who is also a lifelong educator, said the museum could help fill some of that significant cultural gap in her community.

"As an educator, I knew then and I know now that arts helps kids with all their other subjects. You take the arts out, and you have an uneducated community," said Wills. "There's not much for anybody, especially the kids, for culture in our community and the museum is helping with a piece of that."

Meanwhile, the museum is also planning to bring back the original school bell, which swung from its rooftop tower through the 1900s.

"I'm hearing that bell now," said Helton, looking to the tower. "We'll ring it before all of our events and it will be our symbolic resurrection."

First, somebody has to turn the heat back on.

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