In the unsettled and often chaotic politics of the 1860s, the secretary of Idaho Territory was often called upon to serve as acting governor. Nobody did this as often or as effectively as Edward J. “Ned” Curtis, who, though appointed by a Republican president, commanded the respect, if not the affection, of a Legislature dominated by Southern Democrats.
Like many notable pioneers, Curtis had settled in Idaho after first following the gold rush to California in 1849. He was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1827 and attended the public schools there before going to Princeton, where he graduated with honors. He had just begun to study law when called by the lure of gold to California, where he continued his law studies in San Jose and Sacramento before going to Yreka. There he edited a newspaper and was elected to two terms in the California Legislature, all before his admission to the bar in 1856. In 1864 he came to Idaho, where he practiced law in Silver City, and in 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him secretary of Idaho Territory.
In 1856 while living in Sacramento, Curtis met and married school teacher Susan Frost, a native of New Haven, Conn. The couple had five children, and the oldest, Edward L. Curtis, would, like his father, serve as territorial secretary and acting governor of Idaho Territory. At only 14, this bright young man served as secretary to Idaho Gov. Thomas Bennett and later was enrolling clerk of the Idaho Legislature. He was often afflicted with poor health and died in 1890 at age 31.
Another Curtis, no relation to the two mentioned above, also served as Idaho secretary of state. George H. Curtis was born in Ontario, Canada, to English immigrant parents who moved their family to Boise in 1887 when he was 2 years old. George attended Boise High School and the University of Idaho, where in 1908 he had the distinction of being chosen one of Idaho’s first Rhodes Scholars. After returning from Oxford he taught at Boise High School. In 1916 he was elected to the Republican-dominated Idaho Senate as a Democrat. In World War I he joined the Army and was in officer training when it ended. He taught at Albion State Normal College and in several other Idaho schools for the next 10 years.
In 1932, as a New Deal Democrat, George Curtis was elected to the first of three consecutive terms in the Idaho Legislature before being elected secretary of state in 1938. He was re-elected in 1940 and 1942 but was defeated in his run for governor in 1944.
Two other secretaries of state left us legacies worthy of mention. Fred E. Lukens, a Republican, was elected to the first of three consecutive terms in 1926. In 1928 he wrote and published a textbook on Idaho civics titled “The Idaho Citizen” and was national president of secretaries of state in 1929-30. Lukens, a graduate of the University of Idaho, had taught public school at Potlatch and been superintendent of schools at Grangeville for three years before going into politics. When all Republican officials were swept from office in the Democratic landslide of 1932, Lukens was appointed as an educational adviser to the Boise district of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
The legacy of Franklin Girard, a Democrat who served two terms as secretary of state from 1933 to 1937, and then became state forester, is a landmark Boise building listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The rustic log Idaho State Forester’s building, now the Log Cabin Literary Center, was completed in 1940. Architectural historian Tricia Canaday, who prepared the nomination to the National Register, credits Girard with cleverly procuring the land, the lumber and the labor for the building with a minimal cash outlay. Boise-Payette Lumber Co. donated the services of Hans Hulbe, its architect, six Idaho timber companies donated lumber, and the CCC supplied most of the labor.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.