The little brick house at 607 Grove St. in Boise, now beautifully restored as part of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, is one of our historic treasures. It was built in 1864 by pioneer merchant Cyrus Jacobs, an imaginative and progressive businessman who was also a leader in community enterprises.
Jacobs was born in Lancaster, Pa., in 1831. His parents moved the family to Iowa in 1849, and in 1852 took the trail across the plains to Oregon. Like other Idaho pioneers, Jacobs passed through Boise Valley on the Oregon Trail before ever dreaming that he would one day settle there, help build a town and establish a business that would occupy him for the rest of his life.
When young Jacobs looked down from the bench in 1852 to the future site of Boise City, there was no sign of human habitation, although Native Americans had hunted, fished and camped there for centuries, and brigades of fur trappers had worked the area for a quarter-century. Aside from cottonwoods and willows along the Boise River, and a fringe of fir trees along the summit of Boise Front, he would have seen no other vegetation but sagebrush for miles in all directions.
After clerking in a Portland store for a time, young Jacobs moved to Walla Walla, Wash., in about 1860 and opened his own retail business. In 1863 he was on his way to Bannock City (soon renamed Idaho City) with a load of merchandise when he joined Maj. Pinkney Lugenbeel’s command on its way to found a military post, named Fort Boise after the nearby river. Jacobs opened a store in a tent to sell goods. He joined others to found and plat Boise City. In 1864, as noted earlier, he built the first brick house in town, and that July was able to bring his family from Oregon to join him. Mrs. Jacobs, born Mary Ellen Palmer, was the daughter of noted Oregon pioneer Joel Palmer. She had married Cyrus on March 16, 1858. Their children were Ralph, Edith, Fanny, Carrie, Mary and Alexander Palmer.
In addition to the general merchandise store he ran at the southwest corner of Seventh and Main streets, Jacobs owned a gristmill near 13th and Main where he used water diverted from the river to grind local farmers’ grain into flour. With some of the rye grain he distilled a rye whiskey that was famous in Idaho mining camps under the label “Jacobs’ Best.”
Other grain and the mash from the distillery were fed to Jacobs’ hogs, and in his packing plant, he cured hams and bacon for wholesale distribution to other Idaho towns. When he started this branch of his business in February 1868, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman credited him with making better bacon than any brought from Oregon — “nice, clean, fatted just enough and cured just right.” He was producing the remarkable sum of two tons of ham and bacon per week and was increasing that rate steadily. The paper thought this a great thing for Idaho, and estimated that Jacobs was saving consumers about $13,000 per week over what they had been paying for Walla Walla or Oregon bacon. Jacobs’ many enterprises included a brewery and a soap factory.
In August 1868, Cyrus Jacobs was elected Ada County treasurer and poured champagne for his friends at the Main Street store to celebrate. This was his first venture into local politics, but in 1879 he was elected mayor of Boise. In his early years in business his right-hand man was Charles Himrod, who also was elected mayor, first in 1870 and again in 1878.
The Jacobs’ circle of pioneer friends included William J. McConnell, elected governor of Idaho in 1892. McConnell’s daughter Mamie had helped in his election campaign and it was then that she met a young attorney named William E. Borah, newly arrived in town from the Midwest. In April 1895 they were married in the parlor of the Cyrus Jacobs house before a few close friends.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.