The Civil War was in its second year when General George Wright, commander of the Armys Pacific Coast District, wrote to the War Department pressing the need for a military post at or near Fort Boise on the Snake River.
The Fort Boise he referred to was the old Hudsons Bay fur trade post at the mouth of Boise River, established in 1834 and abandoned in 1855.
When authorization to locate and build the new military fort came on Jan. 14, 1863, Maj. Pinckney Lugenbeel of the 9th Infantry at Fort Vancouver, Wash., was chosen to lead the expedition, as he has had in the construction of Fort Colville and elsewhere much experience and is admirably qualified for the duty.
On July 3, 1863, Lugenbeel chose the site at the north edge of town where todays Veterans Administration hospital stands. Construction of its first buildings began under the direction of civilian contractor Charles May, a 30-year-old Englishman who was experienced in stone cutting and brick work. May came to America in 1856 and headed west on the Oregon Trail in May 1862. He stopped in Walla Walla and built the first brick structures in that town. When the Lugenbeel expedition arrived there in 1863, May was hired to join them to help build the new Fort Boise.
In Boise City, the little town that grew up next to the fort, May found a ready market for his building skills. In one of its first issues, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman printed an item noting that Messrs. May & Brown have a kiln of 150,000 brick just burned, and which are now ready for use. They are said, by good judges, to be of good quality. This kiln is nearly all contracted for and the owners of the yard are going to put up another immediately.
The 1865 Ada County Directory tells us that Charles May, brickmaker and builder and John Brown, brickmaker and builder, had a yard on Main Street between Third and Fourth.
In October 1868, when Charles May fired up a kiln of 200,000 bricks, the Statesman noted: He is the only brick-maker in this vicinity, and finds a market for all he can make.
This suggests that all of Boises brick buildings up to that time, including the 1864 Cyrus Jacobs house on Grove Street, now part of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, were built of bricks made by May & Brown, or by May alone after the partners parted. The 1870 Census lists May as a brick mason and Brown as a stone mason.
The year 1870 was a good one for Charles Mays expanding business. He bid for and got the contract to build the Territorial Penitentiary at the foot of Table Rock east of town. On Feb. 1 he advertised in the paper for men to quarry sandstone for the project.
That same day the Statesman reported that he had contracted with Peter Sonna to construct a store building at Ninth and Main. It was to be two stories high, and 27 by 50 feet in area. This was the forerunner of the much grander one Sonna erected on that corner in 1888. The later building would include an opera house on the second floor and Sonnas hardware store on the first.
On April 2, 1870, this story appeared in the Statesman: PENITENTIARY. Mr. May, contractor for building the Idaho Penitentiary, requests us to invite the citizens of Boise to be present today at 11 oclock a.m. to witness the ceremonies of breaking ground and beginning the foundation of the building. A general attendance of every age and sex is requested in order that all may view the commencement of an edifice that may some day be their home, and even the wisest knows not how soon.
Well share more of the career of Charles May next week. He was truly the builder of early Boises most important structures.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. E-mail email@example.com.