Keith Petersen, Mary Reed, and Krista Green in the emerging attic exhibit.

Siamese twin piglets perfectly preserved from when they were stillborn on a local farm decades ago, a mounted golden eagle with wings outstretched, an antique trumpet. These types of artifacts comprised Sister Alfreda Elsensohn’s emerging collection that she began to display in 1931 in the old St. Gertrude’s Academy attic. So began the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude. A replica of the attic has just been completed as part of a five-year exhibit remodel plan.

“We created Sister Alfreda’s attic museum experience as a way to creatively share the Museum’s beginnings,” explains CEO of External Ministries Mary Schmidt. “It was a mechanism for bringing together many of the artifacts that she first collected and it provides a context for why we preserve these artifacts that at first might not appear to fit in a museum. In addition, it allows us to honor the woman who was one of our state’s first historians and a leading author on the history of our area.”

Historically, Benedictine monasteries have served as preservers and protectors of the arts, history, and culture. Mary Schmidt and the exhibit remodel team saw the need to create a more dynamic museum that expressed the Monastery values of reflection and learning. The new exhibits are meant to tell the stories behind the artifacts in such a way that people are able to truly learn from them.

Former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen is also on the exhibit remodel team: “The Museum has always had outstanding collections. Artifacts maintained by the Museum on Buckskin Bill, Polly Bemis, settlement of the Camas Prairie — and of course the Monastery — are one-of-a-kind. But simply having artifacts in a case leaves most visitors wanting. Museums are at their best when they use artifacts to help tell stories. That is what we are trying to do with the new exhibits. By preserving such artifacts and by using them to interpret history in a unique way the Museum is fulfilling its mission as a major resource of historical information.”

Sister Joan Smith and Shirley Gehring working in the Museum’s climate-controlled storage area.

The Museum remodel team also included Frank Halter, Sister Mary Geis, Sister Joan Smith, Krista Green, Debra Graham, Shirley Gehring, Mary Reed, Calvin Bakie, Sister Carlotta Maria Fontes, and Theresa Henson.

The five-year remodel plan began in 2015 and the first exhibit to be completed focused on the history of the Benedictine sisters. Sister Alfreda’s attic is the second exhibit to be completed. The remaining remodel phases and completion dates: Idaho County’s interesting characters (2018); temporary exhibit gallery (2018); treasures gallery (2017); and history of local people (2019-2020).

This project has been supported by Museum donors and grants from the Idaho Humanities Council and Idaho State Historical Society. Visitors can experience the two new exhibits and the rest of the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 to 4:30, at 465 Keuterville Road, Cottonwood, Idaho. Learn more at or call 208-962-2054.