Longtime Idaho Heritage Trust Board Member and current Treasurer John Hiler will be honored with an Esto Perpetua Award from the Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS) at a ceremony taking place on June 5th. The Esto Perpetua Awards, taken from Idaho’s Latin motto meaning ‘Let it be perpetual’, have been given out yearly since 1999 in order to “recognized people and organizations who have preserved and promoted Idaho’s history through professional accomplishments, public service or volunteerism, and philanthropy.”
Mr. Hiler receives this award in commemoration for his lifelong dedication to preserving, protecting, and sharing the places and stories from Idaho’s past in a way that enriches and informs our present. Mr. Hiler possesses a unique ability to understand and speak to broad historic concepts and convey deeply personal stories passed down to him from his family and his own experience growing up surrounded by the many people who shaped Glenns Ferry, the State of Idaho, and the United States of America into what it is today.
Mr. Hiler has made innumerable contributions to preserving, protecting, and promoting Idaho’s cultural resources as a writer, self-styled History Scientist, and advocate for historic preservation. A fixture of the Mountain Home business community since 1961, Mr. Hiler was appointed to the Centennial Committee by then-governor Cecil Andrus. He was one of the first people appointed to the Idaho Heritage Trust and has spent more than three decades as an active member of IHT’s board of directors. In this capacity, Mr. Hiler was instrumental in securing the purchase of the Glade Creek Campsite, the last undeveloped campsite along the Lewis and Clark trail between Great Falls, Montana and Astoria, Oregon. Following the purchase from Plum Creek Timber Company, the pristine campsite was gifted to the State of Idaho to ensure its preservation for generations to come.
Mr. Hiler has also been a vocal advocate for the preservation, interpretation, and restoration of the Minidoka Concentration Camp used to house Japanese Americans during World War II. The proper treatment of this site has been a personal campaign for Mr. Hiler, as he says, “Historians must not just pass on the good but shine a light on the bad.” He continues, “Minidoka is important in this context, but is all the more important to me, because that is where they took many of my friends.” Several of the detainees in Minidoka worked on the Hiler family farm during this time, as additional labor was needed to support the war effort, and Mr. Hiler fondly recalls the relationships he and his family developed with these folks despite the unimaginably difficult circumstances.
While Mr. Hiler’s advocacy has had an outstanding impact on some of Idaho’s most important historical landmarks, his writing often tends to the more personal in nature and scope. He is currently working on a memoir that will be chalk full of historical facts and observations derived from the vast lived experience of him and his family. Over the past 25 years, Mr. Hiler has numerous articles and publications to his name, consistently contributing to Whistlepig Literary Journal for the Mountain Home Arts Council, El-Wyhee Hi-Lites publications for Elmore County Press, and Owyhee Outpost from the Owyhee County Historical Museum. His style is approachable yet evocative, as the introductory to his article The Lost Treasure of the Sawtooth Mountains illustrates:
“The big gold strikes at Rocky Bar, Junction Bar and Esmeralda on the South Boise district brought thousands of prospectors to Alturas County. These first and very rich discoveries had the Hold Bug singing in the wind, its sweet siren song continuing on for another fifty years and some say that even to this day you can hear its seductive tune.”
The article goes on to examine this era through the trials and tribulations of the amazingly named Isaac T. Swim as he follows the Gold Bug’s call. Through accounts such as this, Mr. Hiler reminds us that history is littered with incredible characters whose stories deserve to be told and told well.
Born from his extensive collection of primary documents and love for the stories passed down through his family for generations, Mr. Hiler’s writings help illuminate the individual experience during some of our nation and state’s most important moments in time. His mother’s family settled in New Jersey in the 1680s, where they signed petitions to support the Continental Congress at great personal risk, and an ancestor of his went on to serve as a General in the Revolutionary War under George Washington. The family would go on to be some of the first Western settlers in the Bruneau Valley, which they dubbed ‘Valley of the Tall Grass’ in 1867. In about 1889, the family relocated to Glenns Ferry, where Mr. Hiler’s uncle Albert instituted a public water system, allowing the fledgling community to thrive.
In a more unofficial capacity, Mr. Hiler routinely shares historic images from his personal collection, adding thoughtful observations and context to everything from hand-colored Christmas cards from the late 1800s to historic photos of Glenns Ferry and the surrounding area. These posts often contain relevant quotes pulled from family journals and diaries, which makes for an approachable way to communicate historic details in a manner that is as engaging as it is informative. As always, Mr. Hiler’s words make history more relatable and understandable to his audience, creatively coloring the space between major dates and world events.
While much of Mr. Hiler’s energy is spent protecting the past, he is equally concerned with the future of historic preservation. “Who is going to continue the preservation work we’ve started 10, 20, 30 years down the road? What is the meaning of these places and these buildings, and who’s stories are you trying to tell?” Like with his advocacy for Minidoka, Mr. Hiler is concerned with presenting the totality of history with an uncommon level of nuance. “Say, for example, we preserve an American fort on Native land, and the local tribespeople were killed and had this land taken from them. What is the meaning of this building and who’s story are we trying to tell?” It is with this in mind that Mr. Hiler looks to inspire and educate the next generation of preservation advocates.
“While everyone has a story to tell,” says IHT Chair of the Board Donna Woolston, “Mr. Hiler has a thousand and counting. He embodies the irreplaceable importance of oral history to our understanding of the past.” A man of great charm, wit, compassion, Mr. Hiler has been a truly exemplary ambassador for historic and heritage preservation in Idaho. He is a veritable font of local, regional, and national knowledge, who freely shares what he knows with anyone he meets. We cannot thank Mr. Hiler enough for the leadership and passion he brings to IHT, and we are overjoyed at the recognition for his exemplary stewardship of Idaho’s history and culture.
Learn more about the Esto Perpetua Awards, how to purchase tickets for the ceremony, and further information about the Idaho State Historical Society here, and we hope to see you there!