My great grandfather Nels Just, who had recently become a naturalized citizen, was proud of his adopted country. When his brick house along the Blackfoot River was finished in 1887, he ordered a four foot by six foot General Land Office Map of the United States, mounting it to the wall in the hallway of the new house.
The house doubled as the Post Office for Presto, Idaho Territory, then Presto, Idaho beginning in 1890. My great grandmother Emma Just was the postmistress for 13 years, welcoming postal patrons into her home, handing them their mail, and often talking with them about current events, using the map as a conversation tool.
The large map, varnished to ward off fingerprints, had hung unprotected for 127 years. Small pieces of the map had flaked off and it had discolored over the years. In 2014 our family decided to restore and protect the map so it would last at least another century.
With help from the Idaho Heritage Trust, we contracted with a restoration specialist in New York City. To get it to New York, we had to take it off the wall and ship it. That was a process that took several hours. Textile Conservator Diana Hobart Dicus supervised the work.
The map had been mounted on the wall by Nels with lath strips using tacks. The process of safely taking it down included the use of a large “folder” built from fiber board to assure the map stayed flat and did not fall and crumple.
Once we got the map down flat on the large kitchen table in the house, we began removing the lath and tacks. It was then that we discovered that about a one-inch strip at the bottom of the map was missing. Nels had cut it off, none too cleanly. Why? We can’t know, but my guess is that he cut the lath to fit the map, then discovered he’d trimmed the side slats an inch too short. He wasn’t about to harness up a team to take into town to get more lath. So, his solution was just to haggle off the bottom of the map. No one would know. And no one did know until 127 years later. I confess, I would have done the same thing.
We rolled the map on an acid-free cardboard tube, wrapped the map with acid-free paper, placed it in an acid-free box, then placed the box in a length of plastic sewer pipe, filling it out with packing material. We used fitted sewer pipe ends to seal the map and shipped it to New York City.
Restoration on a wall map of this nature first involves removing the map from the original linen backing and then removing the glossy varnish coating the recto. The caustic glues common in the 19th century and the slowly degrading varnish, and exposure to temperature variation, had caused the moderate yellowing and chipping to the map. By having both the linen backing and the varnish removed, the restorer could then access the printed paper map to begin the repair work. When that was finished, the map was laid down on fresh linen and the edging was replaced.
A few months later, the map came back. We had Todd Hanson of Hanson’s Design and Fabrication in Meridian custom build a handsome case for the map, using museum grade Plexiglas to protect it. We displayed the restored map at the Idaho State Historical Archives for a few weeks, and at the Boise Public Library. The Idaho Statehouse hosted it for a day, then it headed to Blackfoot. It was displayed at the Blackfoot Library for a time, then returned to the hallway where it belongs.
The 1887 Just house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the summer of 2020. The family had hoped to open the house to the public in the fall of 2020, marking the sesquicentennial of Nels and Emma settling in the Blackfoot River Valley. Covid-19 canceled those plans, as well as so many others. We will be opening the house for tours sometime next summer, COVID-19 permitting. I will keep readers informed when opportunities to visit the house and the map are available.