150 Boise icons: Hannifin's Cigar Shop

June 16, 2013 

0616 local icon hannifin.JPG

Did you know? Hannifin’s took a hit in the 1960s when the Cuban revolution curtailed the supply of Cuban cigars. For a time, Jerry Hannifin, John’s son and Time magazine correspondent, could source the cigars under the radar through his Latin American contacts. Pictured here: John Hannifin behind the counter.

PROVIDED BY JONNI O’NEAL — Provided by Jonni O’Neal

A French pioneer named Edmund Salmon opened a tobacco business on 8th Street in the late 1800s. John B. Hannifin started working there in 1907 when he was just 11 years old. Salmon moved his store to its current location at Main and 11th in 1908. Hannifin bought the operation in 1919. He became what his granddaughter Jonni O'Neal called a "true tobacconist."

In its heyday, Hannifin's carried 125 brands of cigars.

John Hannifin later partnered with his brother Lawrence to run the shop. Lawrence Hannifin eventually became its sole owner.

Statesman columnist Tim Woodward interviewed a 96-year-old Boisean, George Emerson, in 1999. Emerson knew both Hannifin brothers. Lawrence sold newspapers at the Idanha when he was a boy. He was known as the "toughest kid in Boise," said Emerson.

No one from the Hannifin family has owned the store since the late 1960s, but it kept its name, its old posters and its wood floor worn as smooth as satin.

"Hannifin's has always been a direct line to the past," said historian Tully Gerlach. "How it was in the 1950s is the same as it was in the '90s - the 1890s and 1990s."

Even in the early days and despite the geographical isolation of the city, Boiseans kept up with national and international news. Places like Hannifin's that stocked periodicals from far-flung locales helped them do that, Gerlach said.

Through its many decades, the store attracted politicians, boxers, ditchdiggers, wrestlers and Sen. William Borah. The potbellied stove that warmed the place is an icon in its own right - a fixture through the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, the Summer of Love and ever since. John Hannifin salvaged it from the Ada County Courthouse that preceded what's now considered the "old" courthouse on the Capitol Mall.

One mark of a place's iconic status may be the amount of folklore it fosters. Some insist Hannifin's basement is a portal to Boise's Chinese tunnels. The fact that historians have disproven the tunnels' existence means nothing in the face of urban legend.

Hannifin's is haunted, according to some. The ghost? He's a high-profile spirit: Raymond Snowden, the last man hanged at the Old Pen, a.k.a. "Idaho's Jack the Ripper."

Snowden stopped in at Hannifin's the night he killed a woman in Garden City in 1956. Someone found the knife used in the crime near the store.

Jonni O'Neal remembers visiting Hannifin's in the 1950s when she was a girl.

"There was this incredible smell when you came through the doors," she said.

"And my grandfather had one of those old-fashioned Coke machines. You'd reach in, pull your bottle out and have the feeling the machine was going to capture your whole arm."

Hannifin kept his granddaughter stocked with a never-ending supply of comic books and empty cigar boxes from around the world.

For a little girl in the 1950s, Hannifin's was a thrilling and sometimes taboo place.

"I could only go past a certain point in the store," remembers O'Neal. The back of the store was for men only. Posters featuring Gibson girls and languid "cigar women" hung on the walls.

"Not what we would consider risque, but provocative for that era," said O'Neal.

Her grandfather habitually worked 12-hour days at his store. He walked home to his house in the North End for lunch then walked back again - except when it snowed.

"He loved his work. He was a man in-the-know," said O'Neal.

Even though the store isn't in the family anymore, O'Neal and her grandchildren still like to visit.

"I can close my eyes and see my grandfather there. It's just joyous to see his name on the side of the building," she said.

1024 W. Main St.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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