Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Panic of 1893 Hits Latah County

One hundred and twenty years ago, to the day, M.J. Shields (or a representative of his company) penned the following letter:

Copy of letter from M.J. Shields correspondence ledger.  LCHS LC Shields, MJ.02
“Whitman & Barnes Manufacturing Co.,
                Chicago, Ills.
                Yours of October 25th to hand, calling our attention to our note for $374.00 which is due on November 1st.  We have delayed writing you, expecting that our collections would come in fast enough to take care of our little outside indebtedness, but everything is against us in this country this year.  We had a fair crop of wheat, but it has been raining here for the last 60 days off and on, to such an extent that the farmers have not been able to harvest their crop, or but very little of it, and owing to the financial situation we are not able to borrow a dollar in the country.  Out of $150,000 falling due and past due the 1st of October we have not collected so far this month $2,000, nor is there any prospect until the farmers have a chance to harvest, which they are doing now, as the weather has been favorable for several days.  If you send your note we will have to ask you to have patience with us for a little while until our collections begin, and out of the first money we receive we will pay your note. 
                Hoping you will grant us this favor, we are, Yours truly”

The M. J. Shields & Co. was not the only business in Moscow struggling to pay its creditors.  1893 proved to be a difficult year for businesses across the country.  A financial panic, attributed to a number of factors, sent shock waves through the American economy.  Widespread failures in wheat crops, from Argentina to the Palouse, compounded the nation-wide depression.  As Shield’s letter noted, most farmers in the area were left unable to pay their bills when near constant rain kept them out of the fields. 

M.J. Shields Company, on the corner of 4th and Main St in downtown Moscow, 1890s.  LCHS 01-03-040

Agnes Healy Jones reminisced about the hardships of 1893 when she was interviewed for the Latah County Museum Society’s Oral History Project in 1973.

Interviewer: “How was your family affected by the first depression – the 1893 depression?  Was that hard on you out here?”
Jones: “Well, my father and mother were – you see, Dad rented the ranch out and that’s how his renter couldn’t pay the rent.  And that’s why he had to move back, you see, to run these hogs and make good, you see.  The renters couldn’t pay the rent and it rained so much that fall.  That was an unusual year, it rained so much that the stacks turned green.  They couldn’t get them threshed…”

Another Latah County pioneer interviewed for the same project in 1975, John Eikum, was also asked about the unfortunate details of 1893.

Interviewer: “What happened during the 1893 wet harvest?  Did many people go under in that?”
Eikum: “They all went under.  All but two or three.  Then they moved out.  In 1895 they opened the Nez Perce Indian Reservation for settlement.  Some of them went there and lots of ‘em went up to Troy, settled around Troy.  Well, it was pretty hard times.  No money.  They couldn’t pay their debts.  And there was no chance of borrowing any money in those days…”
Despite these financial hardships, M. J. Shields was not among those who “went under,” although he was forced to restructure his business.  Governor William McConnell was not so lucky.  The Panic of 1893 left the Moscow mercantile McConnell, Maguire & Co. disastrously underwater. 

From Evening Capital Journal April 25, 1893. Accessed Oct. 30, 2013 at
The Evening Capital Journal (Salem, OR) reported the shuttering of McConnell, Maguire & Co. in April 1893 under title “The Mixture Causes a Big Failure in Adjoing State” and went on to report that “the firm made large purchases of wheat and it was thought profited largely thereby.  The recent depression in the wheat market, however, is said to have caused heavy loss and the firm was unable to meet its obligations.” 

M.J. Shields Planing Mill at SW corner of 6th and Jackson St., Moscow, 1890s.  LCHS 01-03-179.

The letter from M. J. Shields & Co. comes from a correspondence ledger recently donated to LCHS by a former owner of the Shields Building in downtown Moscow.  We are fortunate to have a large collection of letter books and company records for Shields’ multifaceted enterprise.     

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Historic Halloweens

In honor of Halloween, please enjoy these photos from our collection.


Kendrick school children in Halloween costumes.
Front row, 3rd from left is Ethel Nichols, b. 1890 (LCHS 10-11-21)    

(LCHS 30-05-10)

Halloween Store Window (LCHS 30-05-01)

Halloween Store Window (LCHS 30-05-04)

(LCHS 30-05-07)

Will you be trick or treating in the Fort Russell area on Halloween night? Stop by McConnell Mansion for a treat! We'll be handing out candy from 5:00 p.m to 7:00 p.m.

What are your favorite memories of Halloween in Latah County? Feel free to share stories in the comments below!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Williamson's Great Fall Fair

Nathaniel Williamson (SC WIL 1)

Irish immigrant Nathaniel Williamson was owner of Williamson's Store, "Idaho's Price Maker and Pace Setter". Williamson's Store was located in the McConnell Building, occupying all three floors plus units in an adjoining building, with goods ranging from furniture, ladies' wear, millinery and dressmaking, to men's wear, dry goods and shoes. Units in the adjacent building housed a restaurant, grocery and hardware store (LCHS Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. 5. No. 3, 1976, "Williamson's Store" by Frank Williamson & Dick d'Easum 15-23).

Williamson's Store had been preceded by The Boston store and then The Greater Boston store. With the culmination of his store's expansion, Williamson's was the only store with a passenger elevator, and an electric sign that was almost the full height of the building. The glowing ornament at the top of the sign was "visible from the summit of Viola grade and became a landmark of Moscow" (Williamson & d'Easum, 17). The second and third floors of the store were open, looking down to the ground floor. Taking advantage of the open area, Williamson's installed a large tree every Christmas that would occupy the height of the space. Contests were held to determine the height of the tree.

Nathaniel's showmanship extended to his advertising as well. "Business [at Williamson's] was brisk, particularly at special events he whooped up for the Fourth of July, fall fairs and January white sales. Fairs at The Boston were the forerunner of the Latah County Fair. He staged street parades, gave prizes for vegetalbes, flowers and horses, and conducted contests for old and young" (Williamson & d'Easum, 17). The first of the "Great Fall Fairs" began around 1908, with the expansion of the Boston Store into The Greater Boston ("A Great Good Country" by Lillian Otness, 30).

Great Fall Fair, Williamson's Store can be seen on the right. (LCHS 01-02-47)

(LCHS 25-10-05)
(LCHS 25-10-01)

(LCHS 25-10-03)
Nathaniel Williamson was one of the area's early entrepreneurs. After closing the Williamson store, he bred pedigreed cattle and operated several farms and farm related businesses.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Artifact Spotlight: The Unofficial 39 Star Flag

This flag came in to our office as part of a recent donation from the former owner of the M.J. Shields Building in downtown Moscow.  Can you figure out why this flag is unique?

At first glance, this might look like a rather unremarkable 19th century American flag.  In fact, with its notable signs of deterioration, I was initially hesitant to accession it into our artifact collection.  Upon attempting to date the flag, however, I realized that we had a curious piece of history on our hands.  With its 39 stars, this is actually not an official American flag!  

In the late decades of the 19th century, the United States government admitted most of the western states in quick succession.  Instead of issuing a new flag with the appropriate number of stars each time a state was admitted, the government would wait until July 4th to “update” Old Glory.  For example, Colorado was admitted on August 1st, 1876 as the nation’s 38th state, but the 38-star flag was not unveiled until July 4th, 1877.  

In the early fall of 1889, flag manufacturers were gearing up for the admittance of the Dakota Territory.  A small number of producers bet that Dakota would be the only new state added before July 4th, 1890.  As it turned out, however, North and South Dakota were admitted as separate entities in November of 1889.  In fact the gamble taken by the makers of the 39-star flag had been exceptionally ill-informed, because Montana and Washington were also added during that month as the 41st and 42nd states.  On July 3rd, 1890 Idaho was admitted, meaning that the next official American flag would have 43 stars.  

The 39-star flag is, therefore, unofficial and rather uncommon.  We are excited to add this unique piece of American history to our rich flag collection.    

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Recap of the Idaho Heritage Conference

Last week I (Dulce, museum curator) had the good fortune of attending the Idaho Heritage Conference in Boise.  The conference was a first-of-its-kind gathering, co-sponsored by the Idaho State Historical Society, the Idaho Heritage Trust, Preservation Idaho, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Idaho Archaeological Society, and the Idaho Association of Museums.  This broad-based coalition of organizations brought together professionals and volunteers from dozens of heritage organizations across the state, along with a number of independent historians, to discuss topics ranging from building preservation to educational programming to digital humanities.  Experts led panel discussions on issues like engaging a younger audience and how to write successful grants.  After just two and half days, I came away from the conference with countless new ideas for enhancing the experience of visitors to LCHS and strengthening our mission of preserving and sharing Latah County history.

For those interested readers, I'd like to share just a few of my favorite moments from the Idaho Heritage Conference, along with some snapshots.

  • On the first afternoon of the conference, I got the chance to tour Idaho's State Archives.  What an amazing collection and terrific resource for anyone researching Idaho history!  We have an impressive selection of personal correspondences, records, publications and photos here at our own Centennial Annex, but the volume of material preserved in the State Archives is truly remarkable.  Their map room alone houses thousands of historic records, which have been utilized by genealogists, scholars, and lawyers, just to name a few of the groups that benefit from the good work of the Idaho State Historical Society.  If you'd like to learn more about the resources available at the State Archives, see

The Archive's research center also happens to be a beautiful and comfortable space to visit and utilize.

Just a tiny fraction of the materials the ISHS preserves and protects

  • Later that evening, conference attendants were invited to an opening session at the Idaho State Historical Museum where we could make new connections.  This also provided us with an opportunity to check out "Essential Idaho - 150 Things that Make the Gem State Unique," an exhibit that commemorates the sesquicentennial of the Idaho Territory.  I absolutely adored this showcase, and I encourage everyone to visit it before it comes down in December.  The exhibit is so wonderfully curated, with installations from across time and place.  Latah County is particularly well represented, with notable mentions of Frank Robinson (Psychiana), Carol Ryrie Brink (Buffalo Coat), agriculture on the Palouse, and Dan O'Brien (UI decathlete). 
    The history of Potlatch is spotlighted in "Essential Idaho"

    Potlatch native and UI graduate Malcolm Renfrew created Teflon

    Latah County plates welcome visitors to the State Historical Museum
  • I enjoyed listening to all of the panel presenters I heard from during the conference, but there was one contributor who really inspired my creativity and imagination.  During the session titled "Get Out of the Classroom," the communications director for the Boise Department of Arts and History and the curator for downtown Boise's Sesqui-shop, Rachel Reichert, discussed the ways in which she and her team have been drawing on an existing enthusiasm for history within the community to develop a dynamic space to tell the story of the city.  I was fascinated by her examples of how the Sesqui-shop has consistently engaged a diverse audience with programs and exhibits.  By moving beyond any "traditional" concept of what a museum should look like, the folks at the Sesqui-shop have both commemorated Boise's first 150 years and fostered new relationships throughout the city, which will no doubt benefit it's next 150 years.  I hope to explore how we here at LCHS might be able to capture some of that same energy to draw in a larger audience through innovative events and programs, and through-provoking exhibits that allow Latah County community members to take ownership of their history.  If you are in downtown Boise, please check out the Sesqui-shop,

Small displays are curated using objects loaned by community members, making the exhibits both personal and relevant

An open concept allows the Sesqui-shop to hold numerous events, performances, and workshops each month

  • Thursday evening's plenary speaker, Dr. Brent Glass, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History, also provided some wonderful food for thought.  As he noted, museums are among the most trusted sources of history for most Americans, and with that comes a significant responsibility to provide visitors with accessible, engaging, and meaningful experiences.  In light of this week's government shutdown, which has forced institutions like the Smithsonian and National Parks to close, the value of our nation's heritage institutions has been on the minds of many.

Dr. Brent Glass
  • Also on Thursday evening, conference attendees were treated to a delicious dinner and delightful entertainment on the Basque Block in downtown Boise.  The Basque population of Boise has a long and rich history, which was shared with us that evening.  While most people might think of archaeological digs taking place in open fields or old battle sites, archaeologists working in the Basque Block continue to make new discoveries and learn more about the history of that neighborhood through excavations in and around the Jacobs Uberuaga House.

The Jacobs Uberuaga House

LCHS Member Barb and LCHS Trustee Lynne enjoying the festivities

Yummo!  Paella at the Basque Center

The venue for our evening's activities

Basque dancers
  • Finally, both the venue of the conference and my traveling companions were of the highest quality.  I had never been to the State Capitol before, and so I enjoyed the opportunity to explore both the building and the grounds.  Two of our Board of Trustee members joined me at the conference, and I know that Harriot Hagedorn and Lynne McCreight are equally as excited to share what they learned with our members and the communities we serve.
Idaho State Capitol building

Idaho State Capitol Senate Chambers
Interior view of State Capitol dome

Myself, Lynne and Harriot enjoying the "Essential Idaho" exhibit!