Native tribes camped and fished along the southern banks of the Boise River for centuries. As early as 1840, pioneers traveled across the land that became South Boise.
Today, small monuments mark the Oregon Trail along Boise Avenue, reminders that the area has always been historically significant.
To best understand the settlement south of the river, consider what Boise was like in 1890 when South Boise got its first subdivisions.
The city was booming. President Benjamin Harrison had just signed Idaho into statehood. Residents were starting to drill for geothermal water on Warm Springs. Imposing structures like the Boise City National Bank at 8th and Idaho were anchoring Downtown street corners. Ada County had its first courthouse on what's now the Capitol Mall. The territorial Capitol building stood nearby.
In this spirit of expansion, investors platted the first subdivisions in the area loosely bordered by what is now University Drive and Boise Avenue. A new bridge in 1892 connecting the city center to what would become Broadway Avenue spurred even more southside settlement.
Residents saw themselves as separate from Boise, establishing South Boise Village in 1902. Villagers intended to stay independent, but eventually realized they couldn't pay for the services like sewers, police and fire protection. South Boise leaders asked to be annexed to Boise. The city obliged in 1913.
South Boise got its first city fire station the next year - a brick building that still stands at Williams Street and Boise Avenue.
The small structure contained lodging for firefighters and horses, as well as a jail cell. The old firehouse is commercial space now, covered with modern signs, but it's possible to imagine what it must have been like when the station bells clanged and horses hauled the fire engine through the massive barn doors.
Because South Boise was outside the city's original core and its earliest character was agricultural, its history isn't as familiar as that of, say, Fort Boise, the Capitol Mall or Warm Springs Avenue.
"I talk about South Boise's as a hidden history," said historian Barbara Perry Bauer. She's working on a South Boise book with designer Fred Fritchman to dispel that.
"There's a lot more to South Boise than subdivisions built in the 1980s and 1990s," said Perry Bauer.
The "hidden history" of South Boise contains certain themes: farming, dairies, streetcars, and a free and idyllic life for the children lucky enough to grow up there.
AN EARLY FARMSTEAD EVOLVES
Pioneer Joseph Bown came to Idaho from Iowa in 1862. He was one of the first settlers to farm land near the Boise River and what's now ParkCenter Boulevard. In 1879, he and his wife, Temperance, built the family's sandstone house, originally called the "block house" because of its distinctive shape. At one time, the Bowns' farm stretched 240 acres.
They probably couldn't have imagined that more than 130 years later, legions of schoolchildren and adults would roam their house and grounds. The Bown House site, owned by Boise School District, sits on the campus of Riverside Elementary. It's the centerpiece of the Heritage Education Program. Rooms, restored to their 1880s state, enable students studying Idaho history to experience what life was like in Idaho's territorial days.
"There's not a day that I come to work that I don't learn something new about the house's history," said Juno Van Ocker, a retired teacher and volunteer docent.
After the Bowns, a succession of families occupied the house until the late 1980s. The attic stairwell is covered in messages left by past residents. One proclaims affection for "Oklahoman singing cowboy Gene Autry."
"Quite often we have people come on tours who remember writing their names on the wall. That has happened several times," said Van Ocker.
The Murphy family raised 14 children in the house in the 1930s and 1940s. Mrs. Murphy carefully recorded their names and ages on the stairwell wall. Youngest was Larry DeWayne, described as the "baby of the family." After Larry was Allen Lee, described as "next to the baby" at 5 years old.
Van Ocker met some of the Murphy siblings when they returned to tour the house many years later as senior citizens. She asked them if the house had electricity when they lived there.
"They said they thought that it did, but that they were so poor they wouldn't have been able to afford to use it anyway," recalled Van Ocker.
The most recent stairwell inscription is from 1988. It's a plea from Carol Kersting, the Bown House's last resident. She asks that someone care for the house after she's gone. Before she died, Kersting got to see the house restored.
"She left this world knowing it's in good hands," said Van Ocker.
DAIRIES, MILL PONDS AND VICTORY GARDENS
Pat Tate was born 86 years ago at St. Luke's Hospital.
"I was raised on my great-grandfather David Gekeler's farm," he said.
His family settled in South Boise in the 1880s. His great-grandparents had a farm near what became Gekeler Lane. The house and barn they built between 1880 and 1895 still stand, he said.
In the 1920s, their Tate descendents founded Triangle Dairy - named for the shape of the original lot. Pat Tate's family left the dairy business in 1986. The Lakewood subdivision grew up around the old dairy. But in a way, Tate still works on the farm. He is semi-retired from managing M&W markets, but still comes in most days. The market's offices are in what remains of the old dairy buildings on Gekeler. Black-and-white photos showing fleets of shiny white milk trucks, cows and open landscapes cover the office walls. Historians and students visit from time to time to pore through his family scrapbooks.
Pat Tate's uncle, Paul Tate, wrote a brief history of South Boise in the 1980s. His writings illustrate the free-ranging life enjoyed by young South Boiseans of his era (he died in 2001 at the age of 97).
He remembered the mill pond where the Eagle Pointe Apartments now stand at Boise Avenue and Protest. Neighbors harvested ice in the winter and stored it in sawdust in two wooden buildings nearby.
"The mill pond furnished wonderful skating, the ice being especially smooth after the harvest of ice," Paul Tate wrote. "It was the scene of a joyful crowd of people who, after skating, warmed themselves around huge bonfires."
During World War I, Paul Tate's scoutmaster encouraged his troop to grow a victory garden using water from a mill pond ditch. Their wartime garden grew near Hale and Howe streets.
'GHOST TROLLEY' RECALLS THE RAILS OF SOUTH BOISE
Today, it can be hard to understand how vital Boise's streetcar system was between 1905 and the late 1920s, when the growing popularity of the automobile meant the demise of the city's rails.
The interurban system laid tracks across the Broadway Bridge in 1905. The first line stopped at Garfield School. Before long, the line extended all the way to Richmond Street (near where Shopko is today). Conductors would reach the end of the line, flip the seats to face the other way and head back north to the city center, said historian Perry Bauer.
The rail system through South Boise expanded in 1913. The new Hillcrest Loop turned west from Broadway onto Chamberlin. The tracks continued through what's now Manitou Park, up a steep grade and onto the Bench. The loop continued into Downtown.
A streetcar barn stood on Rossi between Denver and Grant streets. Many South Boise men found work as streetcar motormen, mechanics and conductors.
A new sculpture in Ivywild Park tells the story of this era through history and art. Artist Byron Folwell has created a full-sized frame of a "ghost trolley." It sits beside the refurbished trolley shelter that sat on Richmond at the end of the Broadway line. More "ghost elements" - white metal milk cans, a briefcase and a picnic basket - sit inside the shelter. Each item relates to the history of South Boise.
Streetcars carried freight, including milk from South Boise dairies, to residents around the city, said Folwell. The metal briefcase signifies the business people who used the rail system to commute to work. The picnic basket is a nod to the South Boiseans who used to pack their lunches and ride the rails any number of places - to the geothermal Natatorium for a swim, to West Boise and Pierce Park for a paddle boat ride or even out to Lake Lowell.
Perry Bauer advised Folwell when he was doing his research for the sculpture.
"Barbara called the day trips 'looping the loop,'" said Folwell.
IDYLLIC LIFE FAR, BUT NOT TOO FAR, FROM THE CITY
Jeannene Cantrell Boyd lived in South Boise on her family acreage between 1950 and 1968, not far from the historic Bown House. Her dad wasn't a farmer. He worked for Idaho Power. But the family had close to 15 acres, which wasn't unusual at that time in South Boise.
"We had cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, horses, a hay barn, a chicken barn, a huge garden and an orchard," said Boyd.
Her grandparents lived in a house on the other side of the family orchard. When Boyd was a child, living in South Boise meant walking long distances.
"We had to walk a mile between houses to trick-or-treat," she said. "It was more walking than candy."
When she got a little older and started dating, boys drove to South Boise to pick her up.
"Wow, you live a long ways out here," they'd say.
It says something about the local landscape that when Boyd's mother got the chance to name the street they lived on, she chose "Stonetree Lane" because of the unpaved road and rural setting. The city later changed the Lane's name to Victory Road. Nearby Cantrell Road still bears her family's name. Her parents sold their land for development in the late 1970s.
Boyd's old house still stands at the corner of Victory and Law, surrounded now by houses, sidewalks and paved streets instead of orchards.
Anna Webb: 377-6431