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A Rock and a Car, and Why They Matter

Published online: Feb 19, 2021 Articles, Lifestyle, Looking Back Jeff Carr
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Museum of Idaho: Way Out West from Harris Media Services on Vimeo.

The objects and stories at the center of a new Idaho exhibit

Objects have stories to tell. 

Stories teach us about life, expand our horizons, and make us feel. 

In a nutshell, this is why museums exist. It’s why the Museum of Idaho exists, and it’s also why the MOI staff spent the last four years planning, writing and collecting artifacts for a new flagship exhibit telling the story and stories of eastern Idaho. The exhibit, Way Out West, opened to the public in late January, capping a multi-year effort to double the museum’s usable space and make it the largest science and history center in the state.

Museum staffers decided early on that Way Out West would be centered on artifacts, not technology. Those who have visited the exhibit know that it includes several new, high-tech interactive experiences, but those aren’t the focus. Digital technology can do wonders, but it can’t replicate the experience of engaging with a real object with a real story. Knowing that the fur trader Andrew Henry explored this remote region in 1810 is one thing, but standing in front of the actual rock his team carved their names in that winter, freezing and on the brink of death, is another. As fate would have it, they survived, and Henry’s Rock – which the museum owns – contains the oldest known English-language markings in the Northwest.

The best kinds of objects can tell multiple stories. Such is the case with one of the museum’s largest new acquisitions: a 1927 Ford Model T in perfect working condition. One is a story of family and discrimination, and it belongs to the car’s original owners, the Hansen family of Idaho Falls. This Model T, one of the last ever made, sat in the showroom window of Hansen Ford, once a staple of downtown. The dealership’s owner, Farrel Hansen, Sr., was a businessman and farmer who had made a significant impact on agriculture in the state. But he died suddenly in 1949, at which point, his wife Lily took over the dealership. Although Lily was successful, and although the Ford Motor Company allowed women to work in their factories, they were not as forward-thinking with their dealerships. 

Once Ford discovered Lily’s ownership, the company revoked her dealer license.

After the dealership closed, the Hansen family drove the car to their farm in Osgood, where it was left to the elements. Many years later, Farrel and Lily’s son John D. Hansen, the former state senator, restored it to authentic factory standards in time to drive it in the Idaho Falls bicentennial parade on July 4, 1976. John’s widow Michele donated it to the museum in 2019.

The Model T also tells another story – a story of ingenuity and Idaho’s most famous crop. The car’s location in the museum – on a mezzanine looking out into downtown – is in a gallery titled “Idaho Impact.” And few Idahoans have had as much impact on the state as Joe Marshall.

In the early 1920s, potato farming in Idaho was suffering. Farmers faced disease and quality problems, and many had serious financial troubles as well. Joe Marshall, of Twin Falls, managed several farms and was in a unique position to help the industry. He bought a Model T Ford and constructed a pickup-type box on the back. Then driving it night and day, from one farm to another, he advised growers on all aspects of their operations, from irrigation to cultivation and harvesting, ultimately saving numerous farmers from bankruptcy. He also introduced quality seed potatoes and established a seed industry in the Ashton and Driggs areas, where the high altitude and isolation kept disease problems from developing. 

But Marshall wasn’t just a farmer. He was an extremely talented marketer. 

He took his best spuds to shows around the country to show off their quality, hobnobbing with officials and restauranteurs, and becoming known as the “Idaho Potato King.” He even wore a crown. 

Marshall’s efforts, as well as the work of the Idaho Potato Commission that he helped found, have succeeded in making “potatoes’’ the first thing most non-locals think of when they picture our state.

What does this all mean? That’s for the visitor to decide. Whether people walk away from the Model T with greater insight into gender discrimination, a more nuanced view of Idaho’s identity, or they just realized that old cars are cool, the museum considers that a win. Those visitors have just examined primary-source information with their own eyes, and they’re drawing their own conclusions. 

Real objects and real stories defy easy labels and oversimplification. They don’t move us left or right – just up. There’s a reason surveys show that the American public considers museums the most trustworthy source of information in the country, above local newspapers, nonprofit researchers, academics, and the U.S. government. Rocks don’t have agendas. 


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