Thomas Donaldson was appointed Superintendent of Construction of the Territorial Penitentiary by the Secretary of the Interior on Aug. 12, 1869. He advertised in the Tri-weekly Statesman, the Idaho World and the Silver City Tidal Wave for bids on the job.
Charles May, with a bid of $34,745, was awarded the contract. In April 1870, when he began work on the single stone building that would constitute the entire penitentiary, May had a monopoly on the brick business in Boise. The Statesman commented on April 16, “The demand for good brick continues unabated,” and that May had fired two kilns of bricks at his Main Street yard.
Donaldson, in his memoir “Idaho of Yesterday,” recalled that “Poor Charley May found a white elephant upon his hands before he had been long at work; the contract practically ruined him. It called for stone laid in cement, and cement in Idaho was worth about twenty-six dollars a barrel. Many months of delay were occasioned in meeting all requirements in the contract. Labor was very high-priced, and the laborers — skilled mechanics — needed more watching than the men who were ultimately to occupy the penitentiary.” When Donaldson wasn’t around, work slowed to a snail’s pace.
On July 7, 1870, May advertised in the Statesman that he had just received 500 barrels of excellent lime and had some of it for sale at his yard. This was the expensive import that Donaldson thought had made the penitentiary job a losing proposition for May, but there is evidence that when May made his bid he thought he could quarry his own lime near Boise at a much lower cost. On Feb. 22, 1870, the Statesman published, “Eureka. This little ‘side-head local’ paragraph conveys to readers one of the most important items of information that ever happened in our columns. Don’t laugh then, when we announce that it is only the discovery of inexhaustible lime rock within twelve miles of Boise City. That is it, and all there is of it, but its importance is great. Mr. Chas. May has been for six years on the look out for traces of lime.”
The day May’s ad for lime appeared, the paper noted that he had just “turned out a kiln of about hundred and fifty thousand superior hard-burnt brick.”
In June 1871, “An election was held in the County Court House last Saturday to determine the question whether a tax should be levied to pay a balance claimed to be due to Mr. Chas. May on the building of the district schoolhouse. About 180 votes were cast, over two-thirds of which were in favor of the tax. Our people do not like anything that savors even of repudiation.”
In 1871 Charles May married Elizabeth Williams in Boise, and the newlyweds moved to Portland, where he worked on the courthouse, post office and custom house. The courthouse, still standing, is a national landmark building.
From Portland, May moved to Salem to work on the second Oregon capitol building before moving to San Francisco, where he helped build the famous Palace Hotel. In 1875 the Mays moved to Sydney, Australia, where he worked for 10 years as a contractor.
On Dec. 5, 1885, The Statesman wrote, “Charles May, who built several brick buildings in this city, has returned to town with his wife after an absence of fourteen years. He comes direct from Sydney, Australia.”
In 1887 May burned 300,000 bricks in Caldwell for new construction there, undoubtedly used in that young town’s first brick buildings. A year later he started making bricks again in Boise, in partnership with his father-in-law. He was the building contractor for the city’s 1889 Odd Fellows Hall, the 1892 Masonic Hall, and the 1894 McCarty Building.
His daughter, Edith May Bruce, recalled, “I have often heard my father say that he could stand on Main Street and count on one hand the buildings that he had not erected.”
At the time of his death in November 1906, he was city building inspector.
Buildings by Charles May still standing in Boise include Building Number One, the commanding officer’s house at the VA Hospital, the shell of the first building at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, gutted by fire during a riot by prisoners in 1973, and the 1892 Masonic Hall on Main Street between Sixth Street and Capitol Boulevard.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. E-mail email@example.com.