I remember him as a knowledgeable, gentle mentor with a quiet sense of humor. But my memories would not do the man justice, so I asked Judy Austin, long-time friend and associate of Merle’s to do a short guest post. Judy herself was honored in 2015 with the Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities Award from the Idaho Humanities Council for her work as an Idaho historian, and as the long-time editor of Idaho Yesterdays.
Here is Judy’s remembrance:
Have you noticed the historical highway markers scattered across the state? The vast majority–well more than 200--were written by one man: Merle Wells, Idaho’s first state archivist, first state historian, first state historic preservation officer. December 1, 2018, is the hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Born in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, to parents who were United States citizens, he came to Boise in 1930. He attended Boise Junior College and then The College of Idaho before going to the University of California, Berkeley, for his master’s in history. He planned to go on to law school; but Gene Chaffee, historian and president of BJC, convinced him to return to Berkeley for a Phd in history. Between work on the two degrees, he taught at C of I. And when he’d finished the PhD he taught for several years at Alliance College in Pennsylvania.
Each summer in those years, he returned to Boise. And in the summer of 1947, he made a remarkable discovery: official papers of Idaho’s governors, jammed into a closet in the state capitol. Thus began his work as an archivist—and the Idaho State Historical Society’s role as state archives. But only in 1959 did he become a full-time staff member at the society. Two years earlier, he became founding editor of the society’s journal, Idaho Yesterdays (no longer published).
Merle said that his greatest compliment was being called “the conscience of the historic preservation movement.” And that was probably his most wide-ranging contribution to the history of far more than just Idaho. As the national government’s historic preservation program got underway with federal funding in the 1970s, Merle did not hesitate to figure out ways to do things right even if the regulations didn’t quite agree—and, also without hesitation, to let the feds know if something wasn’t working properly or constructively (usually with recommendations on how to fix it to everyone’s benefit).
Through all these years, and until his death in 2000, he was a mentor to a vast number of younger historians, archivists, archaeologists, preservationists. He introduced us to Idaho’s history on the ground (and often on rough and unmarked roads), and he introduced us to Idaho’s people past and present. He wanted us to understand who and what had shaped the state over the decades—and at the time.
There was more to his life, professionally and otherwise. He wrote widely; he was active in groups of professional historians and archivists and was a co-founder of regional and Idaho conferences. And he saw each person, no matter background or training, as an equal. Among the results was his role in founding the Idaho Farm Workers Services and the Southern Idaho Migrant Ministry and his service on the National Council of Churches’ Migrant Ministry Committee. He served on the board of Zoo Boise. And, caring about history far beyond Idaho, he served on the board of the Presbyterian Historical Society.
No one has known and understood Idaho’s history better than Merle Wells; no one has cared more to share that knowledge and understanding with everyone.