Vibrant Long-Ago Era Comes Back to Life at Lost River Museum


As Shirley Jones casually looked at a replica of a mine tunnel built with weather-worn timbers at the Lost River Museum, receptionist Lela Warner warned her.

“Fire in the hole,” Warner shouted before pushing a button at the nearby kiosk. The sound of a dynamite blast reverberated throughout the museum in Mackay, a town nestled in central Idaho’s scenic Lost River Valley, where the state’s tallest mountains tower to the east and west.

Startled, Jones jumped, then grinned, at the lifelike experience of working in a mine.

Seeing her reaction, museum curator Earl Lockie smiled.

“Everyone  loves  that  sound  effect.  Mick Hoover,   our   special   effects   expert,   wired  in   lighting  and  sounds  to  make  the  exhibits realistic.”

The nearly 5,000-square-foot museum, operated by the non-profit South Custer County Historical Society, opened last spring at its new location, 109 Main Street in the former Western Store hardware building.

More than a dozen themed displays re-create a vibrant glimpse into life a century ago in the valley when the economy depended on mining and ranching.

Exhibits focus on long-ago movie theaters, schools, early-day businesses, a typical pioneer homestead, military uniforms, musical entertainment, old-time fashions, farming and ranching, an early newspaper and print shop, and a large gallery of historic photos.

“This is a first-rate museum with how the exhibits are organized,” said Jones. “It’s impressive what volunteers in a small town can accomplish. They’ve kept their local history alive.”

Retirees Lockie, Dave Wilson, and other volunteers renovated the building, a labor of love that took 2½ years.

The original museum, a small, uninsulated wooden church, opened in 1987 with donated items. With limited floor and wall area, there was not enough room to display all the items in collections.

In the fall of 2014, the owner of the hardware store decided to close and sell his building. Lockie, Wilson, and other volunteers renovated the building, paying for new building materials with grants and donations.

“It was a perfect location and size, so the society used its savings of 25 years and bought it outright with all the shelving and fixtures inside,” recalled Lockie. “What we couldn’t sell, we gave away. It took months to clean out and prepare it for conversion to a museum. Members of the Preservation Committee were a tremendous help in tearing out and removing the old ceiling and floor tiles.”

While  volunteers  were  working  one  day, local  insurance  agent  Jim  McKelvey dropped  by.

“We realized he had a great voice, so we drafted him as a narrator,” said Lockie. At several displays, visitors can push a button to hear historical information about mining, the railroad, and the newspaper.

“We thought we’d have plenty of room, but it has filled quickly,” said Lockie. “If people want to donate something, a committee will decide what to accept, using strict criteria. It has to be unique or historic.”

Wilson said the work is not quite done.

“We’ll develop some hands-on exhibits for students on field trips,” he said. “We want to promote the museum as a destination during the school year.”

As for the future, Wilson and Lockie smiled as they envisioned it.

“We’ll probably never be completely done with the work here,” said Lockie. “There will always be something to do with the displays or rotating different historical items. So many people have helped make this happen.”

The museum is open by appointment for groups of four or more at any time. Call 588-4500. From May through September, it is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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