We visit Sam Kennedy's treasure trove of historic Americana in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.
To walk into Cisco’s Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and feast your eyes on the many items adorning seemingly every inch of the approximately 14,000 square feet is to step back in time. “It’s like a museum — with price tags,” says owner Sam Kennedy, laughing. Every piece has a story to tell, and Kennedy is certainly the man who can help tell it.
Kennedy and his wife Denise didn’t have a lot of prior experience when they entered the antiques business in 1989, but they caught on quick. On their journey of modern-day treasure hunting, they learned from mentors across the country. The Kennedys eventually established the Cisco’s Gallery when they moved their young family to Coeur d’Alene in 1996. After more than two decades of discovering rarities of Americana — especially of the Old West — Kennedy can share their history as easily as if he’s ordering lunch.
In truth, he comes by that facility naturally. He’s always had the love of history in his blood.
Kennedy’s family has ties to North Dakota Territory. His great-grandmother was the first non-Native American woman born in the area prior to statehood. His grandfather led a colorful life: He held many sporting records, was a pioneer in aviation who knew the Wright brothers, was friends with Babe Ruth, and ate dinner with the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (Kennedy has the autographed images of the famed cowboys on their famous steeds to remember it). This is how the young Kennedy first learned to appreciate America’s greatest tales.
When he became a purveyor of some of the country’s most beloved heirlooms, it was almost a fulfilling of the destiny that had been laid out for him. But beyond Kennedy’s roots, the timing was just right to enter the antiques business, he says.
Between 1995 and 2015, a massive influx of antiques hit the market. The result of long-held goods being dispersed from the homes and ranches of the elderly by younger generations who had inherited family artifacts but had no interest in keeping them, a flood of items came up for sale. “We had this huge outpouring of some of the greatest things in the country,” Kennedy says, “so I decided as a business decision that it was a great time to invest money in some of the best art and artifacts that, in the future, you wouldn’t have a chance to buy, regardless of price, and it turned out to be true.”
Describing Cisco’s huge inventory, Kennedy highlights items like the store’s approximately 900 original Navajo rugs; horse-hair bridles and original Western tack; 55 tomahawks; almost 1,000 original pieces of fine art; weapons carrying the storied names of Winchester, Remington, Tiffany & Co., and Russell; and so much more. New items on the gallery’s website might include everything from a Yurok bottle basket to a Winchester 3rd Model 1866 rifle to a turquoise buffalo belt buckle.
Kennedy continually scours the internet and his numerous connections in the industry to find prized pieces, easily looking at 10,000 to 15,000 items a week, he says. Help comes from Cisco’s five full-time employees, including one of Kennedy’s sons and another son helping behind the scenes on the website each week. The team’s work ensures that when a customer comes into Cisco’s in person or shops the store’s expansive collection online, there will be plenty of choices and surprises.
“We pretty much want everything historic, visual, and functional, and that’s what most people want,” Kennedy says. “They want fewer pieces but more important pieces.”
Cisco’s may be bidding on 10 auctions at any given time, but Kennedy relies on luck and expertise to ensure success. “I have to know more than competitors do. I have to find the right piece at the wrong auction or on the wrong day. I need to buy a totem pole in Florida or a Western painting in North Carolina.”
His efforts have paid off. Cisco’s website, which has a very healthy number of daily visitors, has boomed even more during the COVID-19 pandemic. The gallery in Coeur d’Alene remains a destination spot, with people traveling from all over to come to outfit their primary residences and vacation homes with Cisco’s treasures. Kennedy says many people will have seen a Cisco’s ad in Cowboys & Indians magazine years before and never forgotten the ad and the store’s quality and quantity, putting a visit to the store on their bucket list.
When people finally make it to Idaho after long having had a trip on their bucket list, Cisco’s can help customers pick out one special item or outfit their entire homes, even aiding in the design of homes, sometimes for high-profile celebrities. Kennedy laughs recalling that he once unknowingly haggled over the phone with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to become a good customer. But no matter your celebrity status or lack of, Kennedy says Cisco’s is committed to making sure every customer is satisfied. Unlike at an auction, they allow items to be returned if they’re not a perfect fit for your home.
Cisco’s even has its own popular lines of antler lighting and Adirondack and “mountain-modern” leather furniture inspired by their historical inventory.
There’s a reason people are drawn to this style of furnishing, Kennedy says. “I think the period is just very comfortable. You take a house and you put Navajo rugs in it, and all of a sudden it becomes comfortable. It’s like a fire in the fireplace — it makes the ambience totally different. People just want to relax, versus an ultra-modern style where you’re kind of on edge or cold. That time period was about friends, fellowship, companionship, and warmth. I think that’s what draws people to it.”
If you can’t get to Cisco’s to purchase an item, you still might catch their work in a movie or at a museum. Off the top of his head, Kennedy reels off The Postman with Kevin Costner and projects with Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor in The Terminator) and Gary Burghoff (Radar on Mash) as just some of the screen elite he’s accessorized. If set designers love Cisco’s, plenty of museums and exhibits have relied on Kennedy’s expertise and the store’s incredible offerings to complete collections, too. One such exhibition was the Trevilian Collection, which traveled across the country to museums and historic sites for 16 years. The collection — currently for sale on Cisco’s website — includes Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s wedding uniform and sword made by Tiffany, among many other historical items that Kennedy tracked down with the right connections and months of work. “The collection is probably the most important and historic grouping of Civil War items to be discovered in this century,” he says.
For Kennedy, that’s right in line with Cisco’s business of finding the exceptional and offering the unexpected.
Visit Cisco’s Gallery online at ciscosgallery.com.