Using digital technology to solve a century-old mystery in Special Collections

For more than a century, the old ledger book was a mystery. Inside were the names of some of the most prominent men in 19th century Idaho, as well as some obscure ones, with a record of the dues they paid to an organization during the years 1884-1887. Nowhere in the book, however, was the name of the organization recorded. And no one seemed to know.

Donated to Albertsons Library Special Collections in 1989, the ledger book stumped all the Idaho historians who examined it. It came from the historic Warm Springs Avenue home of C.W. Moore (1835-1916), prominent businessman and banker in Boise. His name is one of 75 in the book, so it was presumed to be connected to one of his many activities. But even Carol Lynn MacGregor, who donated the ledger to Boise State along with other historic records from C.W. Moore and his descendants, did not know its origin. Nor did any other living members of the family. The occupations of the well-known men in the book--bankers, merchants, hoteliers, a brewer, a clergyman--did not reveal a common thread. The best guess was that it belonged to some long-forgotten social organization.

The power of digital technology finally unlocked the mystery. Earlier this summer, twenty-two years after he first accessioned the book as an "unidentified ledger," Boise State University archivist Alan Virta turned to the Idaho Statesman Historical Archive, a new online database available from the Boise Public Library containing digitized copies of every issue of the city's oldest newspaper between 1864 and 1922. The beauty of the digital database is that every word is indexed via OCR (optical character recognition), and thus searchable. Virta hoped that by searching for the names of some of the people listed in the book he might find articles linking them to a common organization. And it was only a matter of minutes, on his fifth search, that he struck pay dirt. On entering the name G.W. Gess, he found an article from 1886 naming Gess as a newly-elected officer of the Central Idaho Stock Growers' Association. C.W. Moore, in whose home the ledger was kept for more than 100 years, was named as the organization's president. Every one of the other twelve officers listed in the article was also listed in the ledger. So a century's old mystery was solved. With the name in hand, it was easy to learn more about the association. Again, with only a few keystrokes at his computer, Virta was able to find an online electronic edition of the 1885 publication "Marks and Brands of the Central Idaho Stock Growers' Association." The electronic edition, made from an original copy in the Newberry Library in Chicago, was purchased by Boise State a year ago. A pictorial record of some of the earliest brands used in the state, it can be consulted via the Library's catalog at library.boisestate.edu. No paper copies of the original publication are known to be in Idaho; only the Newberry, the University of Arizona, and Texas A & M University list original copies in their catalogs.

The case of the unidentified ledger is a prime example of the value of digital collections. As for the Central Idaho Stock Growers' Association, it apparently was short-lived. Both the ledger and the association's brand register indicated that it was founded in 1884. The Idaho Statesman Historical Archive reveals no articles about it after December 1886, a few months before the ledger ends. With its ledger book finally identified, the only mystery remaining now is why the Central Idaho Stock Growers' Association, representing one of the most important industries in the state, was disbanded after only a few short years.

To see some of the historical resources Albertsons Library is digitizing and putting online, go to Boise State Digital Collections (http://digital.boisestate.edu/) and ScholarWorks (http://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/uni_docs/)

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