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Gift of Time - History

History of the W. C. Cheney Americana Collection 1900-1960

In March 1961, W. C. Cheney wrote to University of Idaho President D.R. Theophilus offering a significant – and unusual – gift.  University of Idaho Reports, June 1962 announces the gift.

In his sixties when he wrote to President Theophilus, W. C. Cheney had operated a machine shop in Seattle, Washington for most of his life. A machinist by vocation who specialized in manufacturing custom-built torches, Cheney’s avocations were astronomy and history. As an amateur astronomer, he built his own observatory and the equipment within it. Cheney’s interest in history led him to collect a large volume of textual materials and material objects that he felt were “an authentic cross section of events” that occurred during his life.

The textual materials Mr. Cheney gathered were the common information sources of the first half of the 20th century, such as newspapers and magazines. He also collected catalogs; posters; concert programs; calendars; playbills; restaurant menus; advertisements; and correspondence of all sorts, including business letters, love notes, and even “junk mail.” In addition to the paper items, Mr. Cheney collected material objects, such as milk bottles, toys, and tokens.

Cheney also preserved historically significant radio programs and announcements. “On wax (and even on glass during World War II) he recorded history as it was being made – the landing of Charles Lindbergh in Paris in 1927…the stock market crash of 1929…the “blood, sweat and tears” speech of Winston Churchill in World War II…the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” writes Rafe Gibbs in his history of the University of Idaho, Beacon for Mountain and Plain.

Beginning in 1960, Cheney began placing the materials he had collected in unique storage containers:  55-gallon steel drums formerly used to hold oil. Eventually there were 17 barrels.

The University of Idaho was first on Mr. Cheney’s list of schools to which he would offer his collection, and at their April 1961 meeting, the University’s Board of Regents accepted his gift. According to Rafe Gibbs in Beacon for Mountain and Plain, Mr. Cheney had selected the University of Idaho, “which he knew only by reputation,” because of the institution’s “concern for America’s heritage” and its “desire to build upon it.”

In accepting the gift, the Regents willingly agreed to the two stipulations Mr. Cheney specified in his March 16, 1961, letter to President Theophilus: that the drums “be stored in a clean dry place, and, NOT OPENED ‘TILL 2010.” After their receipt, the barrels were stored in the basement of the University of Idaho Library where they remained undisturbed until February 2010 when Library staff began processing the collection.

Documentation and letters between Cheney, Gibbs and Theophilus.

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