IDAHO HISTORY: Billiard saloons were popular with pioneer Idaho men

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANSeptember 8, 2013 

If you ever doubted that the Idaho frontier was largely a man’s world — men outnumbered women two to one — you need only look at the popularity of an institution known as the “billiard saloon.”

There were billiard tables in Idaho even before Idaho Territory was separated from Washington Territory on March 4, 1863. On February 5, 1862, an ad appeared in the Lewiston Golden Age, our earliest newspaper, extolling the pleasures to be found at the Florence Billiard Saloon:

“Having put up two fine MARBLE BED BILLIARD TABLES, the proprietor takes pleasure in announcing to the citizens that those wishing to play POOL or BILLIARDS will find the finest tables This Side of Portland. THE BEST OF LIQUORS ALWAYS ON HAND and the most recherché drinks concocted in an artistical manner by experienced Bar Tenders.” (The use of “recherché” and “artistical” must have impressed some readers with the fact that this was a really high-class joint!)

The owner of a rival billiard saloon advertised in the same issue of the paper: “I am receiving direct from San Francisco a choice stock of WINE, LIQUORS AND CIGARS. The proprietor fancies himself that nothing shall be lacking on his part to make this a pleasant place of resort for gentlemen who wish to indulge in the favorite game of BILLIARDS.”

In August 1864, an ad in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman announced that Chapman & Bowlin had opened a “Bar and Billiard Saloon” on Boise City’s Main Street. By 1866, the largest such establishment in town was operating in the Overland House at Eighth and Main. Its ad proclaimed that “Our Billiard tables are acknowledged to be the best in the country, and Our Bar shall be second to none.” Proprietors C.H. Stark and J.B. Oldham advertised in December 1867, “The best billiard tables in town. Fine wines, liquors and cigars always on hand. The proprietors will be pleased to give personal attention to all who call.”

When Harry Gimbal opened a new saloon in Boise in January 1871, the Statesman lavished praise on it, saying “a more cozy retreat cannot be found anywhere. There are three rooms in it: the first devoted to the samples of liquors and cigars, and the bar; the second to the tables for card parties; and the third is furnished with a billiard room on a raised platform. We cannot but admire the skill displayed in all the appointments, and predict that this will be the favorite place of resort to all who indulge in a social glass.”

In 1871, the amateur billiard players of the Territory organized a tournament and chose a committee on rules, regulations and arrangements. After five days of play, Clitus Barbour, whose remarkable career as a lawyer we have written about earlier, was named champion.

Pioneer brewer John Lemp, a former mayor who owned saloons as well as brewery, made the pages of the Statesman in August, 1881. “The most enterprising man in town is John Lemp, who has just received four ‘Monarch’ billiard tables, mounted on iron lions beautifully carved and gilded.” (They were not carved, but made of cast iron.) These ornate tables are collectors’ items today, worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The article continues, “He will have them in position before the opening of the races and we predict for them a success, as they are of the Brunswick make and very popular with all players. The billiard room is on the second floor and will be the largest north of Sacramento. Certainly there is nothing in Portland or Walla Walla to compare with it, and they are both larger towns than Boise.”

Local pride led the Statesman to praise to the skies any enterprise that could claim to be “bigger or better” than its counterparts in other cities.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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