Idaho History

Boise’s first church bells inspired praise — but also gambling

Boise’s first church bell rang from St. Michael’s Episcopal church. It’s still there.
Boise’s first church bell rang from St. Michael’s Episcopal church. It’s still there. Provided by Arthur Hart

James S. Reynolds, founder and first editor of the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman, writing in April 1869, complained that “Boise City is sadly in need of a church bell of some kind. Why don’t we have one?” By February 1870, he was able to note, “The bell for the Episcopal Church has arrived. It weighs 400 pounds and will be put into position soon.”

A few days later, while carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the wooden bell tower, Reynolds waxed eloquent and a bit nostalgic as he anticipated what a bell would mean to Boise: “It will be swinging in a few more days, when its sweet tones may be heard awakening the echoes of the surrounding country. It will be sweet music to many of us who have not heard the sound of a church bell for years.”

This first church bell in Boise was referred to as “the Village bell” in an account of its first ringing on Saturday, Feb. 26, 1870. It would be some time before other churches in the capital city had bells, and there is a curious thread of concern about this running through the Statesman for years. No doubt those early Idahoans, all of whom had grown up elsewhere, considered bells in steeples a mark of civilization, and were eager to have this frontier community acquire such civilizing attributes.

Of churches and religious activities there was plenty, however, even without bells. The first Catholic church was reported to be half-built in January 1870, by soldier volunteers from Fort Boise. It was described as Gothic in style, 20 by 40 feet overall. On Jan. 11, 1871, less than a year after its completion, it was totally destroyed by fire. The loss was about $8,000 and the building was not yet paid for.

In May, Catholic services were being held in the house of John O’Farrell. Bishop Lootens and Father Mesplie officiated. By November 1871, the Catholics, although “somewhat discouraged,” were collecting pledges toward the building of a new church.

Father Mesplie had been in the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years in 1871 when he helped Boise Catholics get started on a new church. He had established the Catholic Church at Idaho City in 1863.

Other denominations were mentioned in the Statesman at an early date. In May 1871, three Methodist preachers from California set up a tent and held camp meetings in Boise that drew large crowds.

A social festival was given by the Baptists in 1871 to raise money for building a church, and later that year E.J. Curtis, secretary of Idaho Territory, brought an organ back from an Eastern trip for the Presbyterians, although they didn’t get around to organizing until 1878. The dedication of Boise’s first Presbyterian Church building took place in July 1881.

By 1891 there were still only three churches in Boise with bells, and the Statesman thought it a shame. The Methodists, Episcopalians and Catholics had bells, but the Baptists, Presbyterians and Seventh-day Adventists didn’t. These six denominations had the only church buildings in town that year, but the Christian Church was being built at Fourth and Jefferson streets.

Pipe organs brought a new dimension to the music in Boise churches after the turn of the century. The Episcopalians and the Methodists each received organs worth more than $2,000 in the first week of September 1904.

Thomas Donaldson, in his classic reminiscence of Boise in the late 1860s and ’70s, recalled that first bell at St. Michaels very well. He remembered that a code was used when it tolled the news of a death in the community. One stroke meant male, two strokes, female, and after a pause, the age of the deceased was tolled out. Donaldson remembered one particular morning in front of the Overland Hotel when some of the gamblers present began to bet on the age of the departed citizen. Some people would gamble on anything.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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