150 Boise icons: Pioneer Tent & Awning building

awebb@idahostatesman.comMay 9, 2013 

0509 local icon pioneer

Pioneer Tent & Awning also employed traveling salesmen who crossed the state to sell canvas wares, saddles, tents and more. The store’s white horse sign, an icon in its own right that dates to at least 1918, is one of the most recognizable parts of the Boise skyline.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

The Pioneer Tent & Awning Company operated for 70 years in Downtown Boise. Its sign, a white horse, still prances over 6th and Main.

Fourth-generation Boisean John Davidson nominated the building as a Boise icon. The company was still in business when he was growing up here.

"It was a magical place for a teenage boy. I'd go there simply to smell the smells. The aroma of leather and canvas greeted me at the door. They stocked tents and saddles, awnings, all kinds of camp gear. Tack for spirited steeds and trail-toughened mules were staples carried in bulk," wrote Davidson.

Just walking into the store, he said, would sweep him "up to a high mountain rendezvous, some grand jamboree out of A.B. Guthrie's 'The Big Sky.' "

The company was one of the first in the state to produce goods locally, rather than import them from the East, according to the Idaho StateHistorical Society. One of the company's founders, Ira Rohrer, helped start the business with a mere $11 in capital at the turn of the century.

In 1903, the company's ad in the city directory noted that Pioneer was a manufacturer and dealer in: "Tents, Awnings, Wagon covers, Machine, Hay and Grain Pauling, Miners' and Herders' Supplies, and Cotton Duck goods of every description."

Pioneer Tent operated out of a couple of different addresses on Main Street. The Pioneer building was built in 1910. By 1912, with a staff of 20, it was the largest establishment of its kind in the state. The company added a saddlery and harness-manufacturing operation. Success brought another expansion into a new brick building at 6th and Main.

The company evolved with the times. By the 1920s and the advent of the automobile, the company was making more custom canvas tops for cars than wagon covers. Display and sales rooms filled the first floor. All the manufacturing happened upstairs.

Pioneer stayed in business until 1971, still selling many of the same kinds of items it did at the turn of the century. It outlasted more than 7,000 competitors across the state, according to the historical society.

In 1974, Joan Davidson Carley, a descendent of Boise pioneer C.W. Moore, bought the Pioneer Tent & Awning building. Her renovations spurred new energy in the neighborhood. The corner of 6th and Main is now one of the city's liveliest. The Pioneer building sits at the heart of the Old Boise Historic District, designated by the city in 1980.

• Plaque dedication: As part of the city's 150th anniversary celebrations, Boiseans will dedicate a plaque on the Pioneer building to Joan Carley at 10 a.m. Saturday, 580 Main St.

Carley died in 2011. Historian John Bertram from Preservation Idaho and Joan Carley's son, Clay, will speak Saturday. Bertram will lead a walking tour of the district for interested attendees.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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