Even the smallest frontier Idaho towns had a saloon, and often two or three. With a largely male population of miners, cowboys and gamblers, it was a social center where you could play cards, shoot pool or mellow out on cheap whiskey.
Newspaper accounts of violence in Idaho saloons of the 1860s and ’70s nearly always made a distinction between “good whiskey” and “bad whiskey,” suggesting that it was the rot-gut bad kind that caused all the trouble. The editor of the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman commented on July 21, 1871, “For the amount of saloons there are in this city it is singular that there is so little fighting going on. They must sell but little of the bust-head sort.” After a soldier from Fort Boise got drunk and started a fight in a Main Street saloon, the paper commented, “Cause, bad whiskey, of course.”
Part of the problem was that just about anybody with a few dollars and no other means of livelihood could buy a small stock of cheap whiskey and go into business for himself. Idaho City’s Idaho World said of saloons in July 1870, “There is only about a dozen or so more than there ought to be in Idaho City. Two or three houses might do a good business, but as long as a license to sell liquor costs as little as it does now we will have any number of saloons with none of them scarcely making a living.” Raising the cost of a license, the World thought, “would shut up and close out nearly all the little doggeries and ‘dead falls’ where villainous compounds are dealt out to everyone calling for it, drunk or sober, and where one-half or two-thirds of the crimes and violations of the law are hatched and concocted.”
Since a large part of the male population of Boise City was spending a lot of time in saloons, the proprietor of Johnny Crowe’s Sample Rooms sought to amuse the readers of his ads in the Statesman by listing popular euphemisms for inviting a friend to have a drink: “Let’s take a nip; irrigate; throw yourself around of suthin’; let’s smile; let’s wrestle with the common enemy; let’s drown the worm; let’s refrigerate; let’s stimulate; take a little pisen; hang your hat on a limb; open your mouth and prepare for a scorching of your innards.”
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The Statesman ran saloon ads regularly yet campaigned for a more peaceful Main Street: “Drawing pistols and knives, whenever a little misunderstanding occurs, is and has been too frequently indulged in in this city, and the law in relation thereto should be rigidly enforced.”
That drinking was all too prevalent in little old Boise was recognized by the paper with this quip printed in May 1872: “Early rising is usually considered an indication of thrift. In this city it indicates that a man is thirsty.”
Pay day, as it was typically celebrated by miners, was described in the Statesman on July 22, 1890: “They had no sooner received their pay than they proceeded to fill up on beer and other intoxicants, and soon became noisy and troublesome. They indulged in a number of fist fights on the corner of Ninth and Main.” Boise’s small police force had its hands full on evenings like this, and the small jail could not hold all of those who could have been arrested but weren’t.
Boise City, capital of the new state of Idaho, was a family town and a church-going town yet had 16 saloons, one for every 250 people. This reflects in part the large number of men from snow-bound mining camps who spent their winters in the milder climate of the capital city. Saloons and prostitution played a significant part in the city’s economy, although they occasionally fostered crimes of violence.
Polk’s 1880-1890 directory lists 234 active saloons in 61 Idaho towns; it was indeed, for all its faults, an institution with wide appeal to men, and even to some women.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.