Laurie Crookston had a charmed childhood in a section of northeast Boise that few have called home. For a time, her family lived in what might be the city's oldest building - a sandstone dwelling built when Fort Boise was established in 1863.
Building No. 1, as it has been known for 150 years, housed the U.S. Army fort's top brass during the Civil War era, but a century later was home to Veterans Administration Medical Center physicians.
It's still in use today, as an office for the medical center director and other staff.
"I know it like the back of my hand," said Crookston, a 59-year-old artist and former massage therapist who surprises many with fond memories of growing up on the grounds of the fort. "The grounds themselves were so incredible and we had such free rein running around and playing wherever we wanted to."
She encourages those who haven't been to the Boise VA Medical Center campus to go for a walk or bike ride there. "I'm so proud of it, I tell everybody," she said.
The campus is the historic heart of old Fort Boise, more than 1,000 acres that encompass an area just west of the federal building to Reserve Street to the crest of the Foothills (though no structures were built in the hills).
Several buildings on the VA campus date to the late 1800s; the brick housing on the hill dates to around 1910, while most of the larger brick buildings were built in the 1930s.
It's a busy, yet serene place, with large grassy areas and hundreds of trees. Deer lounge in the shade as walkers, joggers and cyclists pass.
John Bertram, president of Preservation Idaho, says he enjoys eating lunch on benches at the site, one of the city's hidden gems. That's partly because some assume they're not welcome if they don't have official business at the VA.
"I think North-enders and East-enders know about it, but as a city, it has been overlooked," Bertram said. "There's not a sign up saying 'come in.' "
But the general public is welcome to tour the grounds, a medical center spokesman said.
"We want to make it available to the community," said Joshua Callihan, a native Idahoan and Marine Corps veteran who is a public affairs officer. "We've gone to a lot of work to make it pretty. Come and enjoy it."
It's been a couple of decades since medical center families lived on the campus; but kids who grew up there visit all the time, Callihan said.
For Crookston, growing up there was "magical." A friend from her youth, Jim Bungard, described it as paradise.
"It was like growing up in a park," he said.
Crookston and Bungard, both children of VA surgeons, remember one lazy summer day in the 1960s. Their group of friends was bored, so they decided to count all the trees on the campus.
"It took all afternoon," Crookston said, remembering the tally total as about 815.
"Close to 900," Bungard said.
His connection to Fort Boise is as strong as ever.
His father, Dr. Raymond Bungard now lives at the Idaho State Veterans Home, which is just east of the VA Medical Center campus. He visits his dad every day.
CITY GREW OUT OF FORT
When Army Maj. Pinkney Lugenbeel established Fort Boise in July 1863, the only trees in the area were the cottonwoods along the Boise River.
"Every tree you see here has been planted," said Ken Swanson, executive director of the Idaho Military History Museum.
There was no city, town or village to speak of - just four or five cabins scattered along the river, Swanson said.
Lugenbeel was charged with establishing a military fort in Idaho to protect traders, miners and other settlers from attacks by Indians. Many were passing through the Boise Basin on the Oregon Trail, but many of the miners in Idaho City were coming from California.
Most of the regular Army soldiers were off fighting in the Civil War. So those who built the fort were volunteer troops from Oregon and Washington, and civilians such as stonemason Charles May.
May, who was from England, came to the Boise Basin from Walla Walla, where he'd built the first two brick store buildings. He built and operated a brick plant on Grove Street in Boise.
Volunteer troops were paid $150 for a three-year enlistment, with payments given in three installments, according to a historical study of the site commissioned by the Veterans Administration in the 1980s. There were many deserters, due in part to the lure of striking it rich in the gold mines of Idaho City; one-fourth of Lugenbeel's garrison deserted within two months.
The site Lugenbeel chose for Fort Boise was strategic for several reasons, including its location on the main road to Idaho City and that town's gold mines, Swanson said.
The base of the Foothills offered a view of the valley. Two creeks - Cottonwood and Freestone - ran through it. The fort included land in the Foothills to prevent others from grazing cattle or building homes there, Swanson said.
It was close enough to the river to haul water, but out of the flood plain. Flooding had devastated a fur trading post - also called Fort Boise - on the Snake River west of modern-day Parma that was abandoned in 1855.
Lugenbeel waited until July 4, 1863, to establish the fort. "He wanted it to be a significant date," Swanson said.
The military post was built from sandstone quarried in the Foothills, and from pine and fir harvested from the mountains to the north. Within days after the fort was established, entrepreneurs began dividing up lots for the city of Boise. Merchants wasted no time in setting up shops.
"Nothing existed before. The fort created the city of Boise," Swanson said.
Within six months, Boise was designated the territorial capital. The city had about 1,600 people.
RECREATIONAL HOT SPOT
The fort became a social center for the Boise community, with parties, balls and talent shows. The old fort grounds today serve a multiplicity of purposes.
Where soldiers once played polo to improve their equestrian skills, there's a community theater - Boise Little Theater - and Fort Boise Park, which has baseball diamonds and grassy areas for soccer, Frisbee and other games.
Some Boiseans, including 77-year-old Don Mummert, remember the undeveloped fields on the east side of Fort Boise.
"My dad would take us down there and let us watch polo," said Mummert, whose family moved to Boise in 1945.
Mummert has been involved with Boise Little Theater since he was in high school in the 1950s. The theater building at Gowen Field burned down in 1957 and the city leased the site on Fort Street for the new theater.
"It still belongs to the Parks Department and they take care of the lawns," Mummert said. "If we ever let the building fall into disrepair, it will revert to them."
The nearby Fort Boise Community Center, in a former junior high school tucked behind the Elks Rehab Hospital, organizes activities for people of all ages in its gym, fitness center, dance studios and teen center.
The area's other recreational magnet is Military Reserve, roughly 480 acres of land in the Foothills. Over the years, the military used the area for many things, including grazing and watering horses, and artillery and small-arms training.
The city purchased the land in 1956. It has since become a popular place to hike and bike. Police officers and archers still do target practice at ranges on Mountain Cove Road.
Fort Boise Military Cemetery was originally at the base of the Foothills, but was moved to higher ground in the early 1900s after flooding of Cottonwood Creek lifted coffins out of graves.
Reminders of past uses sometimes appear unexpectedly.
A wildfire in the Foothills in 1996 exposed a large quantity of ordnance that had been covered by sagebrush. Swanson was on the advisory committee that oversaw removal - some of which was unexploded.
DIGGING INTO HISTORY
Swanson, a previous director of the state museum and Idaho Historical Society, began digging into Fort Boise history in 1979.
That year, a work crew installing a new irrigation system on the VA Medical Center grounds uncovered about two dozen Civil War-era rifles. Swanson, then a curator at the museum, led an archeological dig to recover other artifacts, including more firearms, belt buckles, cartridge box plates and ammunition.
Why would the military bury armaments?
"At that point in time, that stuff had no real value. You could buy those guns in a Sears & Roebuck catalogue for a $1," Swanson said. "They said it's all obsolete equipment, nobody wants it. We have a hole in the ground, let's fill it in."
Fascinated by the find, Swanson dove into historical maps, plans and other documents to learn as much as he could about the site.
STRONG TIES TO VETERANS
In 1913, the federal government decided it no longer had a need for a Boise fort - officially known as Boise Barracks after 1879 - and the troops were moved out. That was a financial blow because the fort had the biggest consistent payroll in the area compared with the booms and busts of the mines.
Though the barracks were empty, the National Guard trained on the grounds for years.
The barracks became a temporary home when veterans at the old Idaho Soldiers' Home were displaced by a fire in 1917.
Local Red Cross and women's clubs pushed to designate the site as a hospital/rehabilitation center for wounded veterans.
The effort paid off. The U.S. Public Health Service remodeled the barracks as a hospital in 1920, and the property was transferred to the VA in the 1930s.
A new state veterans home was built near the VA Hospital on the old fort grounds in the mid-1960s. The 166-bed Boise Veterans Home today houses 39 World War II era veterans, a spokesman said.
A PLACE FOR VETERANS
One of the current residents is Donald "Doc" Pape, a Korean War veteran.
Pape, born in Boise in 1929, graduated from St. Teresa's Academy, Boise's first high school. He recalls playing "cowboys and Indians" in the Foothills as a boy.
He flew 113 combat missions as an Air Force pilot. In his last mission, he was shot down and held in a Communist prison camp in North Korea.
"It was a helluva six months, I'll tell you," he said.
Pape wanted to fly commercially after he was released from captivity, but there was a glut of returning military pilots. He became a dentist and oral surgeon.
Pape's family visits him regularly at the veterans home. He'd like to be with them, but he's thankful for the care he gets.
"I get a bed to sleep in and I get my medical needs taken care of," Pape said. "It's really pretty nice - if it were just more home."
Inside the main entrance of the state veterans home is the Fort Boise Canteen. It's a place anyone can stop in for lunch and say hello to a veteran.
"We encourage everybody to come over," said veterans home volunteer coordinator Phil Hawkins, an Army veteran. "Come visit the veterans."
Katy Moeller: 377-6413