Idaho History

He came for the gold. He stayed to make beer.

John Lemp
John Lemp

Few people in Idaho history did better in achieving the American dream than did John Lemp, born in Neiderweisel, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany, on April 21, 1838. He came to the United States in 1852 and clerked in a store in Louisville, Ky., before moving west to the Colorado gold mines. In 1863 he arrived in Boise Valley, soon after the U.S. Army established Fort Boise and the new town of Boise City was platted.

After trying his luck at mining in Boise Basin for a few weeks, Lemp returned to young Boise City, started a brewery and opened a saloon. His brewery was soon the largest producer of lager beer in Southern Idaho. In May 1869, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman noted an example of his acute business sense: “John Lemp took the precaution last winter to put up enough ice to supply this market during the warm weather.” Another example of this was the speed with which he set up a branch brewery at South Mountain in the Owyhee Mountains following a gold rush to that remote camp in June 1875.

Lemp began investing in Boise Main Street real estate and developed a large farm west of the city where he produced grain, fruit and livestock. He became a stockholder in the Boise Rapid Transit Company that ran the city’s first electric streetcars and was a major stockholder in the First National Bank of Idaho, of which he was president from 1882 until 1889.

Lemp had been elected mayor of Boise in 1876, a year in which the Idaho Statesman called him “one of our wealthiest citizens.” That year he bought the incredible sum of 40,000 pounds of barley for brewing his lager beer from Thomas E. Logan, a prominent businessman whom he had succeeded as mayor. Lemp served on the City Council for 20 years and had been a leader in establishing and supporting the city’s volunteer fire department.

On April 28, 1877, the Idaho Statesman shared this with its readers: “Yesterday, after a long walk over the Park grounds by members of the Association, it being quite warm, J.L., the beer king, was induced to take a drink of water. The look of disgust with which he said ‘Water will do very well for irrigating and mill purposes, but for a drink it is too thin,’ was quite comical.”

John Lemp would always have local competition in the brewery business, notably from fellow Germans Joseph Misseld and John Krall, and from John Brodbeck, who came from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. On June 18, 1887, the Statesman reported that Brodbeck had left for Switzerland, his old home, and would be gone for several months. “We wish John a pleasant journey and a safe return.”

The earliest view we have of a Boise brewery is in an 1864 oil painting by Arm Hincelin, who describes himself in a Statesman ad as a “House, Sign, and Ornamental Painter” and offers to do “carriage painting, gilding, graining, and paper hanging.” Prominently pictured in this view of Main Street is the City Brewery. Its proprietor was Misseld, a jolly German brewer who became one of the city’s most popular men, in part because he produced and served its most popular beverage.

Misseld spoke English with a strong German accent that amused and charmed his friends, and after the Idaho Statesman bought the adobe building at Sixth and Main next door to his City Brewery, he was often quoted in its pages. “The printers think it is a great blessing to have the printing office located in such close proximity to a brewery, especially when the brewer is such a generous soul as Joe Misseld.”

Frequent quips refer to Misseld’s hefty bulk as this: “The reason why Joe Misseld does not go in swimming is because all the water goes out of the pond when he goes in,” and, “Since Joe Misseld took that drink from Boise River, the water has been falling rapidly.”

Sadly, Misseld came home late one dark night and somehow fell head-first into his own brewery well. Because of his bulk, he became wedged and drowned. He was mourned by many.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email