Editor’s note: This is the second in a series highlighting the stories behind local museum artifacts.
IDAHO FALLS — Amid the ever-changing exhibits on display at the Museum of Idaho is a static section of the building highlighting the early history of Idaho Falls.
People of all ages enjoy looking at a representation of the Eagle Rock townsite on the bottom floor that gives viewers a glimpse of the city’s Wild West beginnings. Patrons also can’t help but notice the giant wooly mammoth on the main floor, an animal scientists believe lived in the area in ancient times.
But there are other items inside the downtown building that aren’t as well known, which have a unique story behind them.
Two of those items are a velocipede, a reinvented version of the bicycle that dates back to the 1860s, and a wreath made of human hair between 1865 and 1875.
The velocipede is a two-wheeled vehicle with one giant wheel in front and a small wheel in back.
In a 2022 interview, author Jody Rosen explains the contraption was particularly popular throughout Europe among the rich and was seen as an alternative to the horse because of its height.
The one owned by MOI, which curator Kristina Frandson says is in their warehouse and not currently on display, was acquired from the Blasius family. Charles Blasius co-owned The Blasius Brothers Bicycle Shop on Broadway from the 1920s to the 1960s. It had been hanging on a fence in Lemhi Valley for many years when he found it. He restored it and often rode it in parades.
But its original owner was a traveling doctor living in eastern Idaho during the 1800s whose name is unknown. He apparently used it as his only source of transportation while practicing medicine among the Native Americans in Lemhi Valley.
“The roads were bad at that time, nothing more than rough trails through the sagebrush. But the young doctor managed somehow to pedal his contraption (through the area),” according to a 1928 article from the Pocatello Tribune. “The Indians — and whites, too — used to gather in clusters to watch him go by.”
His rides through the countryside often caused a spectacle, spooking horses and cattle.
On his way to visit a sick woman one day, he came around a bend in the road and met two Native Americans driving a hot, tired old bull who was on the fight.
“At just that moment, the bull spied Doc on his bike … rushed (him) and plowed right through the big wheel, tossing Doc high in the air,” the newspaper reported.
The bull snorted and bucked wildly with the bike’s wheel stuck around his neck. He eventually galloped off through the brush and the men found the Doc crawling out from under a sagebrush.
The Native Americans got the bull rounded up and took the wheel off his neck. The bike was damaged beyond repair, and the Doc got around on a horse from that day on.
In the newspaper article, a man identified only as Mr. Sharp found the old bike draped along a fence in Lemhi Valley years later. Once the story was published, Blasius picked it up. It was donated to what is now the Museum of Idaho in 1991.
The second item, which is on display in the museum’s Way Out West exhibit, is a hair wreath. The information available from the museum indicates Margaret Daly, a teacher from Iowa, made it out of her students’ hair sometime between 1865 and 1875.
Daly’s daughter, Mary Ethel Wells, later moved to Idaho Falls and took the wreath with her. Wells’ daughter, Marie Peterson, inherited it and eventually donated it to the museum, where it sits behind glass.
Chloe Doucette, the museum’s managing director, says hair wreaths were popular during the Victorian Era and were usually made by women to remember a loved one.
“They could be a way to mourn the dead by turning a remnant of someone into a lasting memorial. Or, they could symbolize friendships and personal connections during a time when exchanging locks of hair was like friends sharing yearbook photos today,” according to the Maine State Museum.
Though details about the wreath are sparse, Zen Hansen, who owns a hair jewelry business in Rigby, says making items out of hair was a common practice between 1500 and the early 1900s.
She’s spent a lot of time researching this topic and her main goal, as stated on her website, is to explore the role hair plays as a natural resource and art form today.
Hansen says using hair to remember someone was once popular because it was a tangible thing that could be passed down.
“It was common for people to save hair for a myriad of things, whether it was making jewelry wreaths or stuffing pin cushions. It was just seen as a natural resource,” Hansen explains.
In Idaho, Hansen points to historical accounts of women bringing this tradition to the area. Female members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reportedly made chains and wreaths out of their own hair to send to their husbands, who were serving missions elsewhere.
She says prisoners frequently made hair trinkets “to trade with each other” and cowboys used to make ropes and lariats out of horse and human hair to scare snakes.
“They thought that rattlesnakes would not cross hair ropes,” Hansen says.
Around 1920, making things out of hair started fading out of fashion for several reasons.
“People started thinking hair was unclean and that it carried germs, so no one wanted to keep it anymore,” says Hansen. “Fashion changed and women started having bobbed hair. Very few were growing it out long.”
During World War II, Hansen says the U.S. War Department asked women to donate hair to make hygrometers, a tool that measures humidity. They’d send it up in a balloon and determine how humid the air was based on its shrinkage. This was helpful, as one article points out, for manufacturing certain aircraft components and other war materials, like nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Though making hair wreaths isn’t common today, Hansen says there are organizations that collect human hair for various purposes. One of those is to make fertilizer.
“My biggest wish is to educate people that there is a material here that could have some usage we are overlooking,” Hansen says.