Pullman’s Keith Petersen served a leading role in the new Idaho State Museum in Boise, authored several books and was the last person to live in Moscow’s McConnell Mansion.
Last week in Boise, Petersen was one of 13 individuals or organizations to accept an Idaho State Historical Society Esto Perpetua award.
Friends of Cordelia, of Moscow, also earned the award for years of maintaining the 136-year-old Cordelia Church — the oldest Lutheran structure in Idaho, located about 8 miles southeast of Moscow.
This year marked the 20th year of the awards, which takes its name from the state’s motto, “let it be perpetual.” It recognizes people and organizations who preserved and promoted Idaho’s history through professional accomplishments, public service or volunteerism and philanthropy.
Petersen, 68, said he was pleasantly surprised and greatly honored to receive the award. His wife Mary Reed received the award 19 years ago, he said.
The Ilo-Vollmer Historical Society in Craigmont and the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood nominated Petersen for the award.
He said he and his wife have volunteered their time and knowledge to improve the two in recent years.
Petersen, a 1973 Washington State University graduate, has worked and studied Idaho history since 1977 when he became the director of the Latah County Historical Society.
He said the job allowed him to live at the McConnell Mansion, which also served as a museum as it does today. His living quarters included what is now the kitchen exhibit, museum store, maid’s quarters exhibit and a bathroom.
“It was an elegant place to live,” said Petersen, who lived there two of the four years he served as director.
However, Petersen noted two problems living at the now 133-year-old building — there was no security and he was always on call.
On the plus side, he met his wife, who became the LCHS director for 24 years, at the mansion.
Petersen spent a lot of time in the 1980s traveling the Gem State, working for state and federal agencies, including the ISHS, to improve small museums and historical societies.
“It’s kind of an interesting way to make a living,” Petersen said.
He worked for the WSU Press from 1991 to 1999 before accepting the state coordinator position in 1999 for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in Lewiston.
Petersen said he coordinated activities for the bicentennial, which mainly took place from 2003 to 2006. But the projects for the bicentennial throughout the state involved years of planning.
One of his proudest accomplishments during the bicentennial celebration was a museum initiative in which the state provided 11 Idaho museums — including the LCHS — $15,000 each per year for five years.
Petersen said the ISHS wanted Idaho visitors to learn about Lewis and Clark but also be able to visit nice museums.
“I saw a real transformation in a lot of those museums,” he said.
Petersen served as acting director of the state historical society for 10 months after the bicentennial ended in 2006.
He remained with the society as state historian and associate director until he retired in 2015 — or so he thought.
The state agency lured him back on a part-time basis to lead the interpretive team for the new Idaho State Museum’s history exhibition galleries.
“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime project to work on a new state museum,” Petersen said.
The museum closed in 2013 and opened last fall. The expanded building has plenty of new “bells and whistles,” Petersen said.
“You don’t do Idaho history justice if you can’t enthuse people about it, and honestly, the exhibits were kind of old school and tired,” Petersen said.
Petersen’s work also includes authoring about a half-dozen books ranging from Potlatch as a company town, to a centennial history on the University of Idaho, to a biography on John Mullan, who built the first engineered highway from Walla Walla, Wash., to Montana.
Although he is officially retired, Petersen and his wife continue to share their knowledge to assist Idaho museums.
“I’m kind of surprised that I found you can actually make a living as a historian if you weren’t going to be a teacher,” he said. “So it’s been fun to kind of bounce around to a variety of things over the years.”
Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to email@example.com.