The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Old Idaho Penitentiary

Behold, a Hidden Gem of Firearms at the J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit

Photos by Q Concepts

When the rest of the nation thinks of Idaho, potatoes might be the only things that immediately come to mind. However, the state is not only home to picturesque vacation areas and some of the best freshwater fishing in the country, but is indeed a gun lovers paradise, both in legislation and recreation. Before RECOIL ventured out that way, we got word of some locations that most people beyond the state’s border never hear about and don’t get the publicity they deserve. We were privileged to go behind the scenes at one museum in particular that firearms enthusiasts are sure to devour.

The 1893 Administration Building and main entrance to the Old Idaho Penitentiary Historic Site. The J. Curtis Earl Exhibit is featured behind the walls in part of the former Shirt Factory Building.

The 1893 Administration Building and main entrance to the Old Idaho Penitentiary Historic Site. The J. Curtis Earl Exhibit is featured behind the walls in part of the former Shirt Factory Building.

This J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit is an impressive assortment of weapons, some of which date back thousands of years, and is tucked away in what could have easily doubled as the prison seen in Shawshank Redemption. The Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, formerly known as the Idaho State Penitentiary, served as the state’s prison from 1872 to 1973. While formidable in appearance, the state worked to preserve it as a historical landmark after its functionality as a working prison became obsolete.

The 1898 Dining Hall was designed by inmate George Hamilton. In 1973, inmates started fires and destroyed the building during a riot.

The 1898 Dining Hall was designed by inmate George Hamilton. In 1973, inmates started fires and destroyed the building during a riot.

Four cell houses greet visitors to the "Old Pen." Over 60,000 people visit the site every year.

Four cell houses greet visitors to the “Old Pen.” Over 60,000 people visit the site every year.

Visitors can participate in guided and self-guided tours to learn about its lineage and walk through the corridors of one of the few remaining 19th century prisons that wasn’t demolished in favor of apartments and strip malls. Astute readers may recognize it from an episode of Ghost Adventures or the movie Soda Springs. Most features of the prison, such as the cell houses, solitary confinement, and even the gallows where an actual execution took place were left essentially unaltered from when the prison was operational.

In 1975, the historic Bishops' House was moved to the Old Pen Historic District from its original downtown location. It housed the Episcopalian bishop. It currently is operated by the Friends of the Bishops' House and can be rented for parties and events.

In 1975, the historic Bishops’ House was moved to the Old Pen Historic District from its original downtown location. It housed the Episcopalian bishop. It currently is operated by the Friends of the Bishops’ House and can be rented for parties and events.

According to Amber Beierle, site manager of the Old Idaho Penitentiary, “J. Curtis Earl was a pilot, member of the Civil Air Patrol, had a degree in wildlife biology, and was a Class 3 arms dealer. He spent his later years splitting time between Idaho and his home in Arizona. He gifted an extensive collection of weapons to the Idaho State Historical Society to create his legacy and, according to him, honor military veterans.”

Rare weapons and other artifacts from World War I are displayed in this dynamic exhibit. Visitors can also experience a replica World War I trench in the J. Curtis Earl Exhibit.

Rare weapons and other artifacts from World War I are displayed in this dynamic exhibit. Visitors can also experience a replica World War I trench in the J. Curtis Earl Exhibit.

Prior to his death in 2000, J. Curtis Earl had spoken to individuals at the Idaho State Historical Society to find a suitable venue to house his massive collection in its entirety. It was decided that the J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit would be built as an adjunct to the prison, which opened in 2002. Admission to the penitentiary also includes admission to the J. Curtis Earl Exhibit, so there’s no extra cost to check it out.

Soldiers practice early ingenuity as evidenced by this anti-aircraft machine gun. They mounted it to a wheel for better range and control.

Soldiers practice early ingenuity as evidenced by this anti-aircraft machine gun. They mounted it to a wheel for better range and control.

Visitors receive a map of the site and a volunteer at the J. Curtis Earl Exhibit is there to answer questions and explain the layout of the galleries, as this portion of the tour is all self-guided. Lectures are held periodically and plans are currently in place to expand the J. Curtis Earl facility and create a mobile app to provide digital exhibits and oral histories for educational outreach purposes. An exhibit called the “Weight of War” is another program scheduled to launch in the summer of 2017 where people will be able to actually put on a backpack or hold replica items in the museum’s collection to experience what a solider would’ve had to carry during a particular war.

Swords like these were used by knights, sultans, and conquistadors. Rare Bronze Age items can also be viewed daily.

Swords like these were used by knights, sultans, and conquistadors. Rare Bronze Age items can also be viewed daily.

You can enjoy a somewhat chronological order of the exhibits that aren’t just limited to guns. Swords and fighting implements starting from the Bronze Age show the development of weaponry through the Middle Ages and how it evolved into the Industrial Revolution. Even walking through the Civil War displays, one can see how the weapons were reduced in size, but became more powerful as the conflict endured. Artifacts from the Spanish American War lead to a mock trench built to reflect the fighting conditions of WWI. There you can go right in and get a sense of what it looked like before you heard the dreaded whistle to go up and over.

The exhibits continue with WWII, Korean, and Vietnam-era weaponry. Both the European and Pacific fronts of WWII are acknowledged with artifacts from the respective theaters. The exhibit also honors Idaho’s own servicemen and women with relics specific to state residents who served in various wars.

Experience what it was like as a soldier in the Great War as you enter this replica trench. Other unique armor and weaponry from the war are also in full view.

Experience what it was like as a soldier in the Great War as you enter this replica trench. Other unique armor and weaponry from the war are also in full view.

Temporary exhibits are also periodically put on display. The J. Curtis Earl collection is quite extensive, and features some 2,000 pieces, so periodic rotations of the collection help keep the experience fresh for repeat visitors. Flash photography and video are allowed. We’re not sure a museum like this exists anywhere else in the United States. Where else will your kids get scared straight about what prison life is like and enjoy an amazing cross section of weaponry all in one? Check out this gem of firearms in the Gem State for yourself, and you’ll see what we mean.

Old Idaho Penitentiary
Address: 2445 Old Penitentiary Road
Boise, ID 83712
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m.
Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day): 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
J. Curtis Earl Exhibit hours: Noon to 4:30 p.m.
Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Admission: Adult: $6
Senior (60 and older): $4
Child (6-12 years old): $3
Children 5 and under: Free
Closed most state holidays
*Free during summer months for active-duty military and their families
Telephone: (208) 334-2844
URL: https://history.idaho.gov/old-idaho-penitentiary
Visitors can marvel at this rare, mounted Gatling gun. A miniature model, complete with horses, demonstrates its practical purpose during the Civil War.

Visitors can marvel at this rare, mounted Gatling gun. A miniature model, complete with horses, demonstrates its practical purpose during the Civil War.

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