From the day of their founding, small towns in Idaho and elsewhere in America have equated success with growth and with what visitors thought of them, and they have always sought to attract new settlers and new business.
The term “boosterism” for this characteristic of small-town America came into common usage as the major theme of two best-selling novels by Sinclair Lewis: “Main Street” (1920) and “Babbitt” (1922). Modern chambers of commerce became the outward manifestation of the desire to boost the local quality of life, business and growth, and, incidentally, the value of real estate.
The Idaho Statesman frequently reprinted descriptions of Boise City that appeared in other papers across the country. Almost always these articles were chosen because their tone was complimentary, adding to the pride citizens felt in their young community.
Twenty years before Boise City was founded, Washington Irving wrote, in his “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville” this complimentary description: “The country about the Boisee (or Woody) River is extolled by Captain Bonneville as the most enchanting he had seen in the Far West, presenting the mingled grandeur and beauty of mountain and plain, of bright running streams and vast grassy meadows waving to the breeze.”
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Bonneville remembered best a lushness that was limited to a narrow strip along the river. Most of the valley was sagebrush, even though there is evidence to indicate that the climate was in a wetter, cooler cycle then than now.
Stagecoach pioneer John Hailey, later one of the founding fathers of the Idaho Historical Society, passed the site of Boise City on June 27, 1863, a few days before an Army detachment commanded by Pinckney Lugenbeel established Fort Boise. Hailey says there were a few log cabins in the valley, but he saw no people.
“They may have been on a visit, at work, or possibly preparing for a jack rabbit drive, as the rabbits seemed to be about as numerous as the sagebrush. The only growth at that time on the site of Boise was sagebrush and bunch grass, both of which grew luxuriantly.”
A Statesman correspondent who signed himself “Julius Jinks” described Boise in 1875 as “built on a plain, gradually sloping to the south, just at the foot of the hills forming the base of the Boise Mountains. Those mountains form a semi-circle, surrounding the city on north and east. The streets are wide, and there are nice irrigating ditches running through the streets, watering beautiful forest trees which are set out with great taste. The business houses of the city are rather too low to look well.”
Other visitors who published descriptions of Boise City included Abigail Scott Duniway, editor of “The New Northwest” of Portland. Mrs. Duniway, a pioneer advocate of women’s suffrage, visited the city several times in the 19th century, speaking eloquently for her cause. The Idaho Statesman called her 1876 description of Boise “splendid” and praised her as “certainly the ablest lady speaker we ever heard, and we doubt if there are many men in the United States her equal.”
T.F. Miner, of the LaGrande Gazette, wrote in 1879 that Boise was “well called ‘Queen City of the Mountains.’ It is making rapid strides in improvements, and its streets give one an idea of its importance among the Idahoans. In its stores, at its hotels, among the corrals, and yes, among the distributors of wet goods, all seem busy, and the appearance of the military among the citizens gives a jaunty effect that can only be indulged in by citizens favored with a military garrison.
“The private residences have a clean, inviting, home-like appearance — most of them embowered in groves of shade and fruit trees, while small fruits and shrubbery seem to grow spontaneously, undoubtedly, however, materially aided by the irrigating ditches which are met in all directions.”
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.