Book explores Central Bench, a scrappy Boise neighborhood filled with character

Franklin School, shown here in 1947 in a yearbook photo, served all 12 grades until 1948.
Franklin School, shown here in 1947 in a yearbook photo, served all 12 grades until 1948. Boise State University Library Special Collections and Archives

Boise State University archivist Jim Duran is celebrating the recent publication of his first book, “Central Bench History.” The book, filled with historic photos, explores a classic, established, largely working-class — and sometimes overlooked — Boise neighborhood.

Boise’s Central Bench is bordered by Overland Road, Curtis Road and Alpine Street along the railroad tracks, and Roosevelt Street.

For Duran, who lives just outside the neighborhood boundaries, telling the stories of the Central Bench became a passion project.

“At first it was just a history project, but it’s now grown into helping this neighborhood grow and find an identity for itself, and preserve its history,” Duran said.

The book — written with and for the Central Bench Neighborhood Association and supported by city neighborhood reinvestment grants beginning in Boise’s 2013 sesquicentennial — was a collaborative effort, Duran said.

“My name is on the cover, but the project was only possible through the neighborhood association and all the people listed in the acknowledgments,” he said.

Duran recently fielded some questions from the Idaho Statesman about his project and the neighborhood.

Q: How did this book come about?

It got its start with the closing and demolition of Franklin School (in 2009, at the corner of Franklin and Orchard). When that happened, Shari Hennefer and her brother Randy Harkelroade, members of the Central Bench Neighborhood Association, wanted to do an oral history with their mother, who was a Franklin School graduate, and others who had grown up in the neighborhood.

They received a neighborhood reinvestment grant for the project. Sadly, their mother died, but they still wanted to do the project. I was just wrapping up my master’s degree in history at Boise State at the time and had some experience with oral histories. My name got added to the grant. I ended up recording 13 oral histories from neighborhood residents.

Shari, Randy and I received a second grant to pay for the writing, layout, editing and publishing of a book.

Q: Why were you drawn to the project?

We wanted to promote the Central Bench and bring some pride to the area. I’m an archivist by trade, but public history is my passion. Public history is history for a general audience on topics with public appeal. It’s very localized and community-driven with the goal of preserving community history and memory. Collective memory comes into play — especially for this book about a part of town where there aren’t a lot of historic resources. There was a newspaper, The Bench Mirror, for a time in the 1950s, but it didn’t last long.

When you record oral histories, you record the collective memory of how people viewed this area, its landmarks, what they were and what they signified. What was fascinating about the Central Bench is that you have people who were born and raised there. They lived there, sometimes on the same lot where their parents lived. It was great for a project like mine.

Q: What is the overall character of the neighborhood?

There were a couple of themes that emerged from my interviews. The first was a “do-it-yourself,” entrepreneurial, enterprising spirit, especially in the mid-20th century. Some people moved to the Central Bench because even if they had clerical or professional jobs in Downtown Boise, they did something else, too.

Maybe they wanted to grow their own food or raise chickens. It was a common thing for people to run small businesses out of their basements or from the backs of their homes. One example is Idaho Leather on Orchard. It was a family’s side business started in the 1940s, and it’s still in operation today. WinCo got its start as Waremart in the Central Bench.

That spirit carries on today in the immigrant population (and in the diverse groceries and eateries along Orchard). The Central Bench is still a neighborhood where people feel comfortable taking on something like that, starting a business.

It’s relatively inexpensive to live there, and you can afford a little bit of land where you can do projects or split your house and have a duplex. I found that a lot of people have subdivided their own acreage. The Tillotsons (the family of late jazz musician Paul Tillotson) built three family homes in sequential order on Albion Street. They’re in the book.

Then there’s Central Bench resident “Big Mike” Simunich. He worked for Boise Payette, which became Boise Cascade. When the nearby town of Barber failed, Simunich moved houses from there to the Bench and sold them. (Note: Duran doesn’t know whether any of those Barber houses still stand, but he would like to. If you can help, email him at jimduran@boisestate.edu.)

The Central Bench was close enough to Downtown Boise that you could have some independence but still be close to jobs, to the movies. You could ride the trolleys until the late 1920s (when cars became the preferred mode of transportation, and the rail era ended). It was really fascinating to have all of these things.

Q: We hear much about Downtown Boise in a historic context, but not so much the outlying areas. Why did the Central Bench matter in Boise’s development?

There’s been a community on the Central Bench for 150 years. In the 19th century, Franklin was its own community (like Ustick and others in the area). Franklin and Orchard was the hub of that community. The long-term significance of the Central Bench is that working-class people lived there for a long time and still do. Residents were maybe not the well-to-do investors who helped form the city but were the people who worked the necessary jobs.

Q: Do you have favorite places in the neighborhood?

More like a favorite story. People shared their memories of playing in the local canals when they were children. That was standard practice in the neighborhood, before there was an awareness of the danger, of course. The Ridenbaugh Canal and its laterals run right through the neighborhood. People would tie rafts to bridges and surf the canals. Kids had to cross them to get to school, too. They’d make makeshift bridges.

The Plaza Twin movie theater in the Hillcrest Shopping Center was another favorite place where lots of people saw “Star Wars” for the first time in the late 1970s. It’s closed now, but the owner let me see inside a couple years ago. It’s all dirty and abandoned, but the theater seats are still there.

Q: Did you meet notable residents?

Everyone told me I had to talk to Carlyle and Maxine Briggs. They did have an amazing story. Carlyle’s engineering company owned the pelota court on the Basque Block. You can still see the Briggs Engineering sign on the back of the building.

Carlyle and Maxine moved to the Bench and lived on land that Carlyle’s dad gave them in a house made from converted barracks from Gowen Field. Carlyle’s dad owned the Cole Ranch near the former Cole School site, and Carlyle remembered riding the trolley around town when he was a child. He still has a coin, a memento from when Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in Boise in 1927.

Carlyle drew the plans to build a new high school for the Bench. The district built Borah High instead (in 1958), but Carlyle’s original design became West Junior High (now razed, but it stood near Curtis and Emerald).

Q: What did you learn that surprised you?

One of the great stories was about the Bench Sewer District. The neighborhood decided it was time to go modern so they formed a Bench Booster Club and created the sewer district (1957).

The district installed 135 miles of sewer lines in less than two years. The district managed the utility for around 50 years and only recently (in 2015) turned it over to the city of Boise.

Get the book

The city printed 1,000 copies of “Central Bench History.” Because they were funded through a city grant, they are free. Copies are available at Boise City Hall in the Department of Arts & History, at the BSU Albertsons Library (Special Collections and Archives) and at Central Bench Neighborhood Association events. Fifty copies are also available at the Hillcrest Library off Overland Road.

Copies are available to borrow from other library branches and Albertsons Library, and are also available for reading at the Idaho State Archives and Research Center.

Learn more about history research

“Beyond Borders: Boise Bench History Projects”: Join local historians Jim Duran, Barbara Perry Bauer and Angie Davis for a panel presentation about their research on the Boise Bench. The presentation will cover the challenges of conducting neighborhood research and the various sources available for researchers. The historians will discuss how neighborhood history connects present cultural identity with a collective past. 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Idaho State Archives and Research Center, 2205 Old Penitentiary Road. Free.