MACKAY — An unforgettable moment of serendipity led to the recent Mackay Moonshine exhibit at the award-winning Lost River Museum.
“One of our historical society members stopped by the museum last fall and told me, ‘Ya gotta see this — now!’ ” said Mick Hoover, 62, museum curator.
Her son-in-law had purchased the late Elmer “Pete” Peterson’s house and was remodeling it. He noticed the attic seemed smaller when standing inside the home than what it looked like from the outside.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Hoover said. “There was a string between boards along a false wall in the attic. When you pulled it, a door opened to access a hidden room. Inside was a copper still for making moonshine, half-pint glass whiskey flasks, and stoneware jugs. It looked like he stored those things but didn’t make moonshine there.”
During Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, Mackay Moonshine was renowned nationwide.
“So many people were making it that Mackay was nicknamed the Moonshine Capital,” said Earl Lockie, 84, the former museum curator and local historian who has researched and written about the Lost River Valley. “People came to town just to buy it.”
The moonshine relics are displayed in the 5,000-square-foot museum, at 109 Main St., along with other entertaining and informative exhibits, several with narration and special effects, such as the sound of dynamite exploding at the mining exhibit.
Hoover and Lockie have worked together with other members of the South Custer Historical Society to create a museum that reflects the valley’s vibrancy in the early 20th century. Opened in 2017, the museum’s exhibits focus on mining, the railroad, agriculture, businesses, churches, movies, the military, schools, fashion, and music.
Their efforts were rewarded with the recent presentation of a prestigious statewide honor, the Sister Alfreda Eisensohn Award. Each year, only one museum statewide is selected for honor, given by the Idaho Humanities Council and the Idaho State Historical Society. The award, presented to the South Custer Historical Society, includes a $10,000 honorarium.
“The museum is truly outstanding in telling the history of Mackay and the Lost River Valley,” said David Pettyjohn, executive director of the humanities council.
The honorarium will be used to help renovate the Clock Cigar Store, one of Mackay’s oldest buildings dating to 1901.
After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, residents bought draft and bottled beer and played slot machines at the Clock Cigar Store. The business on Main Street was named for a 14-foot-tall clock that stood on the sidewalk near the front door and for quality cigars sold inside.
The building eventually became a fishing gear store and a woodworking shop. Unused by the 1970s, it began to fall into disrepair. Two years ago, the society bought it to save it from demolition.
Lockie estimates preserving the store and creating displays will cost about $25,000. A $5,000 grant from the Idaho Heritage Trust Foundation will help pay to reroof it.
Hoover and Lockie are restoring the store, an extensive and ongoing project. Once renovated, a mural will be painted inside depicting its colorful past.
Lockie said feedback from museum visitors has been overwhelmingly positive, citing comments on Trip Advisor.
— “The condition of the historical items is amazing. This is an absolute jewel and shouldn’t be missed.
— “Most impressive are the clothing displays — beautiful dresses from the flapper era and before, all in like-new condition.
— “The most interesting museum I’ve seen. I couldn’t take enough pictures!”
“At the museum and store, we want people to look around and say they’ll have to come back to see it all,” Hoover said. “It’s been exciting to find these historical items and preserve our past.”