Esther Simplot reflects on the park that bears her name
Esther Simplot stands on the highest point in Boise’s new city park that bears her name, surveying the scene. A bright smile crosses her face as she watches a standup paddleboarder lazily drift along the curved canal below. People and dogs head down the winding paths and children play on the sandy beach across the pond.
“I still can’t believe it’s really finished, and that it turned out so beautifully, and that people just love it,” Simplot says. “That’s the most important thing to me.”
Esther Simplot Park in Boise’s West End is a 55-acre, $16-million beauty, a park adjacent to Quinn’s Pond and just around the bend from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation Boise Whitewater Park and its Wave Shaper, which draws kayakers, boogie boarders and surfers.
Esther Simplot Park’s design enhances the natural landscape of the nearby Boise River. A riverbank that was once a tangle of cottonwoods and brush has been transformed into a family-friendly sandy beachfront. The newly constructed waterways let standup paddleboarders, kayakers and others navigate easily between Quinn’s Pond and Esther Simplot ponds I and II. There are walking paths, wetland areas, a children’s play area, a pavilion and places to picnic, relax and meditate.
Since the park’s opening in November, it’s quickly become a community touchstone. On warm afternoons, families set up umbrellas and pack the beaches. Kids splash at the shore; many visitors fish, swim and float the ponds. Tennis balls hit the water to be retrieved by eager dogs and the paths flow with a steady stream of two-way traffic — walkers, joggers and cyclists.
“It’s awesome,” says Nate Hamlin, who sat next to Quinn’s Pond on a warm May afternoon with his wife, Amy, watching their kids play in the water. “It’s such a great gathering place, accessible. It just adds a lot to Boise. We’re super happy about it.”
So is Jo Cassin, co-owner of Idaho River Sports, a river gear rental and clothing store located on Whitewater Park Boulevard at the park’s entrance. She and her business endured nearly 20 months of park construction, many of those with limited access to Quinn’s Pond, where her business runs kayaking classes, SUP yoga classes and other events.
Now with the park open, “it’s magical,” she says. “People love it so much and we are so busy. It’s the beach that does it. We have the Wave Shaper, and that’s great, but the beach has made a huge difference. And the fact that it’s free is amazing. People are just blown away.”
This summer, the park will host its first big public events. With a variety of bands, Music on the Water is a free, three-concert series that features local bands such as Built to Spill and Kevin Kirk and Onomatopoeia, food and beverages, arts and crafts, kids events and more.
A Boise gem
Esther Simplot Park is a new pearl in Boise’s “Ribbon of Jewels,” a series of beautiful city parks that are named for the wives of some of Boise’s most successful businessmen and developers.
“They honor the women who made the men, and who helped make Boise what it is today,” says Boise Parks and Rec director Doug Holloway.
The principal parks are named for early pioneer Julia Davis, who worked side-by-side with her husband, Thomas, as they became one of the largest ranching and farming families in the region; and Ann Morrison, known as “The First Lady of Construction,” who worked beside her husband, engineering magnate Harry Morrison, as he traveled the world building large-scale projects such as Hoover Dam in Nevada and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Now Esther Simplot, the widow of agriculture titan J.R. Simplot and a beloved arts supporter, joins this elite sorority, even though she says it feels strange.
“My family decided they should name it after me, and it’s such a historical idea, that it’s OK,” Simplot says. “Sometimes I think I don’t deserve it, you know how that is, but in the future — years and years from now — it will be nice to be remembered in this way.”
Esther Simplot’s legacy already runs deep in the Treasure Valley, and the city would be a very different place if she had not chosen to move here.
Her influence and nurturing of the city’s arts community is everywhere, says Mark Hofflund, managing director for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and past chairman of the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
“It’s an immensely consequential thing, what she did,” Hofflund says. “She created a culture that she is singularly responsible for over her lifetime here, and we all benefit from it.”
“Here you may breathe the fragrance of friendship. Its essence is eternal.”
The sentiment, written by Esther Simplot, is etched into a slab of green Hells Canyon jade at the entrance to the park’s Friendship Island. It’s the park’s highest point on a man-made island hill between ponds I and II.
“My friends have been so important to me throughout my life,” Simplot says. “I hope people will stop and take a moment here and think about their friends.”
Plaques remember her sisters — Virginia, Lila, Ruby and Marion — her mother, Pauline Becker, and confidants Ruby Basabe and Linda Shockey.
Esther Becker grew up on a farm in Omro, Wis., not too far from Oshkosh, during the Great Depression. The sixth of seven children, she inherited musicality from her father, Edward, who played piano and accordion in a band at the weekly Grange Hall dance, and an inner strength from her mother, who “worked hard and never complained,” she says.
In high school, Simplot fell in love with music and singing, and studied voice and education in college. After she graduated, she taught school for a bit but then decided to take her chances and head to New York City to pursue a singing career.
She performed recitals, took lessons and worked part time as a receptionist for the Henry Phipps Estate. Phipps was an entrepreneur, investor and a one-time business partner of Andrew Carnegie’s. He divested himself of his holdings in Carnegie Steel Company and turned his fortune toward philanthropy.
One day in 1964, a larger-than-life character from Idaho walked into Esther’s life.
“He came off the elevator, and he had this big, booming voice,” Esther Simplot remembers. “It was a very quiet office, so he was an unusual person and that got my attention. We chatted a bit. Then later on he called and asked if I wanted to go to dinner and a show. I did. I gambled.”
John Richard Simplot was a real wheeler-dealer, one of the last of the old-school American entrepreneurs. A one-time farm boy who never went to high school, he built a personal fortune in agribusiness that Forbes Magazine estimated at $2.6 billion in 2006. (He died in 2008 at age 99.)
J.R. Simplot took Esther to see “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” on Broadway and then to a late supper at the Waldorf Astoria. That was the beginning of their transcontinental courtship that would eventually bring her west.
“He said, ‘You just had a sunny smile and were fun to converse with.’ I think there was a spark right from the beginning. He made me laugh, but he also made me very nervous,” she says.
She moved to Denver in 1968 and to Boise in ’71. The couple married in January the following year.
“Becoming Mrs. Simplot was challenging,” she says. “It didn’t frighten me, but let’s say I was overwhelmed at the beginning. There were so many people to get to know.”
At 82, Simplot has a sense of wonder about how her life evolved. She had no idea how much meeting J.R. would change her life, and how in turn she would change Boise.
Esther and J.R. traveled the world and moved in pretty fast circles at times. She learned to ski, golf, play bridge and ride horses English-style. And she got involved in the community, especially with the arts groups.
To this day she is resolute in her support of Boise’s arts community. Over the years, she helped keep Ballet Idaho, Opera Idaho and the Boise Philharmonic afloat during bad times. She even served as executive director in the early 1990s for the American Festival Ballet as it transitioned to today’s Ballet Idaho.
She, J.R. and the Simplot family renovated three buildings on Myrtle Street between 8th and 9th streets as the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, the other Boise landmark that bears her name. The first phase opened in 1992 as a home for Boise Philharmonic and Ballet Idaho. In 1996, the Academy Annex opened with a dance studio and office space for the ballet. Then in 2007, the final phase was completed with a smaller building that now holds Opera Idaho’s offices, as well as rehearsal and recital space.
How the park came to be
Esther Simplot Park was the result of a deal between the city of Boise and the Simplot family, says Holloway, the Boise Parks and Rec director.
S-16, a development company J.R. Simplot started for his grandchildren, built and owned Idaho IceWorld. The group also developed the Eighth Street Marketplace, CenturyLink Arena and other Boise buildings.
In 2003, the development company wanted to sell the community ice rink to the city for $1 million, significantly less than its estimated $12 million value.
“My predecessor Jim Hall said sure, but came back with, ‘Would you be interested in donating $1 million to purchase the final parcel for a riverside park?’ ” Holloway says. “Jim and the city leadership at the time thought that land by Quinn’s Pond would make a great riverside park.”
The city had already purchased 40 acres there. When the Simplots agreed, the city put that money toward purchasing the final 15 acres. It was decided the future park would be named after Esther Simplot.
“When were the Simplots going to be able to do something quite so important in one fell swoop?” says Scott Simplot, J.R.’s youngest son. “We thought that we — the greater we of Boise — needed to grab this golden opportunity.”
Scott Simplot, 71, feels a personal attachment to the area, so when the city asked a few years later whether Simplot would like to help the city develop the land for the park, he readily agreed. He worked with the city Parks and Recreation Department and Mayor Dave Bieter on a master plan, helping to come up with a game-changing design, Holloway says.
“There is just so much opportunity for engagement,” Holloway says about the park’s layout.
“It became a special place for me beginning in the 1970s,” Scott Simplot says. “A group of us would leave the YMCA, jog down and swim across Veterans Pond, and then jog over to Bob Rice (now Quinn’s Pond) and swim across that. And that was such a different experience. The water is about 5 degrees warmer.”
Part of the deal is that the city limits how much cold water is let in from the river, Simplot says.
“That’s why people like the beach there. People are not going to be enthusiastic about jumping into cold water,” Simplot says.
Water, water everywhere
The park is all about the water, Scott Simplot says. Indeed, 23 of its 55 acres are water.
“I don’t believe in the notion that all parks have to look the same, so let’s grab a theme. Like Kathryn Albertson Park is a walking nature park,” he says. “Our theme is a water sports park — fishing, boating, swimming.”
Scott Simplot hired Bill Wenk, a landscape architect out of Denver, to help create the design. Wenk got the project going and brought a lot of great ideas to the table but dropped out after the initial design phase, and Simplot stepped in personally and worked closely with project manager Lillian Bowen.
They broke ground on the park in February 2015. The Simplot Family Foundation’s construction project for Jack’s Urban Meeting Place (JUMP) — Scott’s wife Maggie’s project — was already under way, along with the Simplot Company’s world headquarters in Downtown Boise.
The park project ran into delays in May 2015 when excavation crews discovered a large amount of refuse and construction waste — including tires, asphalt, bricks, scrap metal and petroleum products — while they were digging out Esther Simplot Pond II.
The cleanup delayed the project several months.
“What a twist,” Simplot says. “But it’s a blessing in the long run. Other than the fact that it cost the city and us extra, we got a better, bigger, deeper pond because of it.”
Esther Simplot Park is just the beginning. The master plan’s Phase II will take the project downriver to encompass Veterans Memorial Park’s 21-acre pond, creating a seamless stretch of cultivated park that interfaces with the Boise River, Holloway says.
The city will begin riverbank restoration and enhancement to create access, outlooks and picnic areas starting this fall. In the fall of 2018, the river will be diverted into Farmer’s Union Canal, and work will begin north of the Garden City-to-Boise footbridge and the existing Wave Shaper to build another Wave Shaper and two more in-river water features. The end result will be something similar to Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade. Engineered boulders will be placed in the river to create waves. That project is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and Boise Parks and Recreation.
All the work should be completed by the summer of 2019.
This free aquatic center will be a park system like no other, Holloway says.
“This is a game changer that will have an impact on the whole area,” Holloway says. “I don’t think we’ve really tied it to saying it’s going to spur economic development, but developers know it will help them to drive growth.”
Other future plans include creating the Bernadine Quinn Riverside Park in 2018 between the south side of Quinn’s Pond and the College of Western Idaho campus proposed for the corner of Main Street and Whitewater Park Boulevard.
Back at Esther Simplot Park
For Esther Simplot, it’s been a life of amazing surprises. She never expected to end up in Boise, but she’s fully embraced her life here.
The park named for her is the cherry on top of her already storied legacy. It crowns a life of great deeds and great remembrances, she says.
“I find that’s what life is — a basket full of memories,” Simplot says. “My life with my husband, I know it all happened but it just seems like a dream. I’m sure more things will happen before I pass—there will be more good memories to come.”
The ‘Ribbon of Jewels’
Julia Davis Park, 700 S. Capitol Blvd.
Julia McCrumb came to the Idaho Territory from Ontario, Canada, in 1869 to visit friends, not intending to stay. Then she met Thomas Jefferson Davis, a young, dashing prospector who was there to seek his fortune.
They married in 1871, and she became one of Idaho’s early pioneer women. Thomas Davis didn’t discover gold, but with Julia’s help he became one of the most successful farmers and ranchers in the region.
Julia Davis worked side by side with her husband until her death in 1907 from typhoid. That year, Thomas Davis deeded 43 acres in her memory to create the city’s first park. Today it is an 89-acre cultural gateway to the heart of the city.
Within the park’s cool grassy boundaries you’ll find Zoo Boise, the Boise Art Museum, Memorial Rose Garden, the Idaho Historical Museum, the Idaho Black History Museum, a playground, tennis courts, the Gene Harris Bandshell and acres of shaded grass, picnic tables and walking paths.
It’s the site for some of the Treasure Valley’s most beloved events, including Art in the Park — a three-day art fair and sale that benefits the Boise Art Museum.
Kathryn Albertson Park, 1001 N. Americana Blvd.
Kathryn McCurry met Joe Albertson in chemistry class when they both were students at The College of Idaho in Caldwell in the mid-1920s. They married on New Year’s Day 1930. Albertson went to work for Safeway corporation and then opened his first Albertsons grocery store in 1939.
Education and supporting the next generation was important to the couple. In the 1960s, they began funneling their giving through “secret scholarships” and supporting their young employees. They formalized the effort in 1966 when they established the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on education. The couple also made generous donations to their alma mater and the city of Boise.
In 1989, Joe Albertson gave 41 acres along the Boise River in Kathryn’s name for a nature park. Kathryn Albertson Park flourishes with migratory wildlife and peaceful areas to reflect on the beauty of nature. Joe died in 1993. When she died in 2002, Kathryn Albertson was known as one of the nation’s top philanthropists.
Ann Morrison Park, 1000 S. Americana Blvd.
An Idaho native, Ann Daly married Harry Morrison in 1914, two years after Harry co-founded a construction firm with Morris Knudsen. From its humble beginnings, Morrison-Knudsen became one of the largest construction contractors in the world. Ann and Harry traveled for much of their 43-year marriage, visiting MK construction sites in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India and more. Nicknamed “the first lady of construction,” Ann chronicled their journeys in the Morrison-Knudsen newsletter. Her articles were later compiled and published as a book: “Those Were the Days: Diary of Ann Morrison.”
Ann was beloved by the Boise community for her civic interest and friendliness. She died in October 1957 of leukemia. Harry channeled his grief into a project to build a great city park in her honor. He developed the 153-acre park, and then deeded it to the city. Nearly a third of Boise’s population turned out for its opening in June 1959.
The park features a large fountain, a playground, lighted softball diamonds, soccer and lacrosse fields, a disc golf course and more. It’s the site for popular events such as Boise’s Fourth of July fireworks celebration and the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic in the fall.
Marianne Williams Park, 3451 E. Barber Valley Drive
Marianne Williams and her husband, Larry, grew up in Midvale and moved to Boise in 1966. Larry Williams is the founder and president of the Idaho Timber Company and Tree Top Ranches. He donated the land for the East Boise park in 2005 to honor his wife, an avid volunteer at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center who also worked to enrich the lives of senior citizens as the manager of a senior housing complex. Along with her husband, Marianne actively supports numerous civic organizations, often anonymously. They are both staunch supporters of Boise State athletics. Marianne Williams Park opened in 2012, with 70 acres of manicured green spaces, paved pathways, natural open areas and an extension of the Boise River Greenbelt in East Boise
Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park, 500 S. Walnut St.
This park is a departure from the Ribbon of Jewel’s tradition. In 2016, Mayor Dave Bieter renamed Boise Municipal Park for Boise’s three-time gold medal-winning Olympic cyclist Kristin Armstrong. She won all three in the time trial event, the last one at age 42 at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Municipal Park is a shady 28 acres along the banks of the Boise River. It’s a popular park for picnics and reunions. Originally established in 1918 as a family campground, it was taken over by the city in 1927. It was closed briefly in 1938 when it became a haunt for the city’s unsavory types, then reopened as a general day-use park.
More Jewels to come
Alta Harris Community Park, Eckert Road northeast of Barber Park
Alta and Dallas Harris moved to Idaho in 1939 from Oklahoma and opened a sawmill near Idaho City. They moved their operation to Boise in 1950, calling it Harris Brothers Lumber Company, eventually becoming Producers Lumber Company. They began acquiring land in East Boise along the river and established a ranch. The real estate development project, Harris Ranch, takes its name from this family enterprise. Dallas and Alta invested energy in civic and religious activities. The 20-acre park site was dedicated in 2008. The park will offer sports fields, a playground, restrooms, picnic shelters, walking paths and a connection to the Greenbelt. Plans for development are on track for 2019.
Bernadine Quinn Riverside Park, between Quinn’s Pond and Main Street
Bernadine Quinn was an active community volunteer through the Catholic Women’s League for organizations such as Silver Sage Council of the Girl Scouts and Saint Al’s. Her husband, Maurice, owned Quinn Robbins construction and donated the land for the park in 1997. The city plans to develop this park in 2018.
Music on the Water concert series
Free. Donation packages are $10 and $20 at EventBrite.com.