If these papers could talk, what would they say about Idaho?

From the Idaho Statesman

Rows of records in Boise warehouse tell state’s story – minus Kempthorne’s chapter, for now

BY HEATH DRUZIN – hdruzin@idahostatesman.com
Edition Date: 05/13/08

Recent talks between officials with former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and the Idaho State Historical Society finally could open Kempthorne’s gubernatorial records, which he has controlled since leaving office two years ago.

If they can reach a deal, the former governor’s papers would join a historical record of Idaho used by scholars, lawyers and curious citizens alike that documents everything from the Indian Wars to Micron.

Though Idaho law requires governors to turn over their records to the Historical Society, as every other former governor has done, Kempthorne has not complied.

But Kempthorne officials contacted the Historical Society last week after the Idaho Statesman reported Kempthorne was hanging on to his records, Historical Society Executive Director Janet Gallimore said.

Gallimore said she has not discussed a timetable for receiving the papers, which chronicle Kempthorne’s more than seven years in office but is willing to work out a deal with the former governor. Kempthorne originally wanted to give his papers to the University of Idaho.

“If they want them to be here, we’re happy to talk to them,” Gallimore said. “If they want them to be somewhere else, we’re happy to work with them.”

Before last week’s phone call, Historical Society officials say they had no contact with Kempthorne officials since shortly after Kempthorne left office in 2006 to become secretary of the interior.

A statement sent to the Statesman Monday by Kempthorne’s press secretary, Shane Wolfe, said Kempthorne officials are studying arrangements other former governors have with the Historical Society.

“Secretary Kempthorne’s representatives are in active and productive discussions with the Idaho Historical Society in hopes of forging a partnership to resolve any issues about Kempthorne administration records,” Wolfe said.

The flap over Kempthorne’s papers put a spotlight on the Historical Society, where the story of Idaho is stored box by box.


If Kempthorne’s records do make their way to the Historical Society, they will join tons of documents held within the organization’s modern stone building on the eastern edge of Boise. The actions of everyone from prisoners to legislators are available.

Included in the archives is the paper trail of nearly every former Idaho governor’s time in office since statehood and many documents from the state’s rough-hewn territorial days, Historical Society Archivist Rod House said. The few gubernatorial records that are not housed in the building, save Kempthorne’s, are on loan from the society to institutions like Boise State University.

Rows of cardboard boxes and worn leather-bound books stacked 10 feet high in chilly, temperature-controlled rooms in the bowels of the building represent nearly 150 years worth of Idaho governors, from 19th century territorial leaders to Jim Risch, who served a whirlwind seven-month term in 2006.

Among the folders in the tightly packed boxes is Idaho’s history.

An 1876 letter to territorial governor David Thompson asks for a six-shooter and a carbine rifle to help mail carriers protect their Boise to Rocky Bar route. Another contains a “plea to have guns and stores ready for possibility of Indian trouble,” with the 132-year-old cursive nearly perfectly preserved on brittle, faded paper.

There are stacks and stacks of personal letters. A folder from 1956 includes letters to then-Gov. Robert Smylie complimenting him on his appearance on the Groucho Marx show.

Other letters are less cheery. In one, a woman complains to Gov. Phil Batt about ice and dead animals in the roads around Hailey; another decries a lack of school supplies.

“This is Idaho’s documentary heritage,” House said.

Most administrations have hundreds if not thousands of pounds of papers, everything from hand-scrawled constituent mail to orders for weapons.

Ironically, one of the few documents the society has from the Kempthorne administration is a proclamation in honor of Documentary Heritage Month, aimed, in Kempthorne’s words, as maintaining documents “crucial to the way we understand our past and plan for the future.”


Governors’ papers are just a fraction of the about 80 tons of records housed at the historic society, but they are among the most highly read, House said. Already this year scholars, lawyers and curious citizens have requested 115 cubic feet of governors’ records, equivalent to about 345,000 pages.

The role of the state in preserving the historical record goes back to an 1864 act by Idaho’s territorial government, calling for newspapers to be bound and sent to the state archives. The Idaho Legislature created the State Archives in 1947 and gave them authority to catalog state records.

Many governors were of both state and national importance, said Todd Shallat, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics. Gov. Moses Alexander, for instance, was a leader of the Progressive Movement and the first Jew elected as governor in the United States.

The records also provide puzzle pieces needed to determine whether the outcome of policy decisions reflects the intent, Shallat said.

“Ultimately, the governors’ papers are important for accountability in government,” he said. “We have to be able to see not only who did what, but we have to measure the impact over time. Who won and who lost?”

Businesses also use the archives. Barbara Perry Bauer, president of Tag Historical Research, said the archives are a “treasure trove” for her company, which compiles historical research reports for government agencies and private citizens.

“They’re invaluable,” she said. “There’s no way we can do the work that we do without accessing the state’s archives.”

Lawyers, too, rely on the archives. Correspondence can provide a window into a governor’s mind, which can be crucial in the courtroom, said Bob Cooper, spokesman for the attorney general’s office.

“They would be valuable in the way that legislative history is valuable,” he said. “In litigation, you are trying to demonstrate in some instances what the parties were thinking.”

Most of all, though, the records represent Idaho, warts and all, House said.

Echoing Kempthorne’s proclamation, he said, “The historical records of Idaho are crucial to the way we understand our past and plan for the future.”

Heath Druzin: 373-6617

From the Idaho Statesman

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