In yesterday’s post, “Eliza R. Snow as Dorm Mother and Concert Master” here, I wrote about the challenges faced when institutions fall short of representing their female members’ historical presence, and how the limited efforts of BYU and BYU-Idaho have tried to meet those challenges in sometimes interesting ways, but have often fallen short. In contrast, I have also found an example, right here in Rexburg, Idaho, of how private individuals, families, or businesses, when equipped with adequate resources and far-sighted motives, can advance the purposes of public history, choosing to represent the contributions of women and other underrepresented groups in ways that tradition-bound institutions might not.
The Hemming Village complex in Rexburg, Idaho, was begun in 2007 as a community revitalization project, in anticipation of the expected growth of both the university and the larger community. See the Village’s website here. Val Hemming, a local boy made good, and his wife, Alice, turned their investment resources toward the economic development and historical preservation of the neighborhood of his youth. The $25 million, 14-acre project included both the conservation—rather than the destruction– of his own family homes, and the homes of his boyhood friends (the latter to be used as single-home rentals for male students; see image above right), as well as the new construction of a multistory apartment complex for women, a commercial shopping area with a Deseret Book, boutiques, restaurants, and a reception center that would appeal to both local residents and the college student clientele (see image at left). Many locals were initially circumspect. However, beyond just the usual unchecked development of growing college towns, with all of the giant complexes butted up against sidewalks, girded with labyrinthian parking lots (you can see plenty of those in Rexburg, too.), Hemming Village aimed to be something different. The Hemming design included plans for appropriate landscaping, street lighting, walkways, green spaces, and sidewalk-adjoining seating for an inviting, old-fashioned feel with a contemporary edge.
Val and Alice wanted Hemming Village to stand as a shrine to Val’s cherished Rexburg boyhood, paying homage to the family members, neighborhood friends and townspeople who affected his life and trajectory toward success. Historical preservation was top on their list, especially notable for a community where very little historic architecture survived the 1976 Teton Flood and subsequent community changes. Throughout their new, contemporary-design Willow Apartments for women (see image of entrance at right), the Hemmings carefully chose to honor the history of Rexburg—with particular emphasis on women’s participation in the economic, educational, and social growth of the area.
Throughout the hallways in the multi-story apartments, the Hemmings placed large floor-to-ceiling photographic posters of Rexburg historical scenes, printed on hard block. Each photo is matched with an aspirational value layered on the picture in graphic print. The values presented reach out beyond any the usual expected nods to pop culture or shallow inanity one might expect in some student living spaces. Instead, the principles demand the viewer to claim the high expectations of spirituality, a strong work ethic, education, spirituality, and integrity, while also including the fun of romance, love, play, and leisure. Here listed in no particular order: Spirit, Pioneer, Teamwork (see below), Leisure, Prosperity, Journey, Pride, Progress, Scholarship, Work, Friendship, Romance, Community, Confidence, Roots, Promise, Leadership (see below), Purpose, Work, and Forever.
What stands out most in the Hemmings’ photographic choices are the numbers of female subjects among those for viewing. Val has particular adoration for his mother, Cora, her sisters, and school friends, and he chose to honor them with scenes from their youth and college years. He and Alice hoped that the Willows residents would look at these women of eighty or ninety years ago, and see their own hopes and ambitions. While the photos certainly include the usual Rexburg cast of male characters: Thomas E. Ricks as Pioneer, and various presidents of Ricks College and President David O. McKay—all who were instrumental in keeping the college alive through troubled times, Val’s photos of young Ricks College women in the early decades of the 20th century are what truly capture the viewer’s intrigue. I present some of my favorites to you in this forum, as seen at the end of this post (See Below).
As a final effort toward the memorializing of Hemming family history and Rexburg’s early pioneers, Val and Alice commissioned a bronze statue of Val’s parents, to be displayed in the front yard of the restored Hemming family homestead, for both private and public viewing, and with an access walkway for locals to appropriately honor Grover and Cora Hemming. (See image below; the family came together for the statue’s dedication just a few weeks ago.)
The success of Hemming Village reminds us of how private investors as individuals and families, when possessed of adequate resources and personal passion, can move forward the discussion and representation of community history in diversity-affirming ways, where other institutions might lag behind. Certainly, the opposite can be true more often than not, but in the case of Val and Alice Hemming, they desired a space that would honor the contributions of Rexburg’s early pioneers—both male and female—and they got what they wanted. They controlled the message, the money, the vision, and the final product. The Hemmings have demonstrated the possibilities of the intersections of private and public interest, with the promise of long-term community building, substantive historical preservation, and appropriate economic development all met in a singular purpose. Val and Alice Hemming remind us that when it comes to the saving of our historic structures and the commemoration of our collective past, those who can, should—and sometimes—do.
Below are some of the other photos from my tour, starting with this photo of Chief Washakie, which the Hemmings also included.
What a pleasant find at the end of my building tour, to find this book on a reception area table in front of the main office. This published survey of women’s history, complied by Val’s and Alice’s own daughters, Heidi Hemming and Julie Hemming Savage is available at Amazon here!
The Hemmings also displayed large prints of the Proclamation on the Family, the Living Christ, and the Relief Society, the latter incorporated here as part of the contemporary design of the common areas.
Below are other examples of the wall mountings.