When the first Idaho Intermountain Fair was held, way back in the fall of 1897, Boise was a surprisingly modern and progressive city. Although the nearest larger cities were more than 300 miles away (Salt Lake City, Portland and Spokane), the capital’s geographic isolation had not prevented it from securing the latest civic improvements. Boise got telephone service in 1879, electric lights and a railway line in 1887, electric streetcars in 1891 and a sewer system in 1892. The paving of Downtown streets was begun in June 1897, and the first paved city blocks were dedicated during fair week that October.
Clothing merchant Moses Alexander was mayor of Boise and Frank Steunenberg, of Caldwell, was Idaho’s governor. Each would have his date with destiny. Steunenberg was killed in 1905 by an assassin’s bomb, and in 1916, Alexander became the first elected Jewish governor in the United States. Former mayors Charles Himrod, James A. Pinney and Peter Sonna served on fair association committees, as did future governors John M. Haines and Frank R. Gooding.
In the election of 1896, Idaho women were granted the right to vote — only the fourth state in the union to do so, preceded by Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Not until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1920, did all American women have that right.
In his inaugural address in January 1897, Steunenberg said: “By a vote as flattering as it was just, the electors of the state conferred the privilege of the ballot upon women. I take this opportunity of welcoming them to the ranks of voters and feel sure that in their new capacity they will continue to exert the same influence for good that has characterized the sex since creation’s dawn.”
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Prominent male leaders who had aided the cause of women’s suffrage in Idaho included William E. Borah, James H. Hawley, Idaho Statesman publisher Calvin Cobb, and former Govs. William J. McConnell and George A. Shoup.
Boiseans had money to spend on entertainment in 1897 and a wide range of choices. Thomas A. Edison’s motion pictures were shown in the city, and traveling companies brought live theatrical performances to Peter Sonna’s Opera House and James Pinney’s Columbia Theatre on a regular basis. Some big names starred in these touring companies. The Natatorium, built east of the city on Warm Springs Road five years earlier by the developers of the city’s geothermal springs, featured a 125-foot swimming pool, Turkish baths, a tea room for ladies, a saloon for men, and a dance floor where traveling orchestras provided weekly entertainment. An amusement park featured balloon ascensions, parachute jumps from an elevated platform and high-wire performers. The new streetcar line got you there for a nickel.
The first of the Intermountain Fairs of the 1890s opened its gates on Oct. 12, 1897. This was the first effort to produce a state fair that would draw exhibitors from neighboring states as well, hence the choice of the name “Intermountain.”
A feature of earlier county fairs had been horse racing, which often got as much newspaper space as all the rest of the exhibits and events combined. In 1897 scores of racehorses arrived in Boise by railroad from all over the West — so many, in fact, that carpenters worked overtime to provide covered stalls. Some of these horses and their jockeys were famous throughout the West, having set records at tracks in Montana, Oregon, Utah and the East.
Among these was Tammany, a Montana horse who was the pride and joy of copper king Marcus Daly. His splendid brick stable near Hamilton, Mont., was known as “Tammany’s Castle.” Legend says that the great saffron-colored horse had a luxurious carpeted stall where fresh flowers were placed daily. Tammany raced twice in Boise in 1897. He won the first after a rerun, the judges having called a false start on the apparent winner, whose owner was furious.
Next week we’ll recall more about memorable Intermountain Fairs.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.