Idaho History

From Bavaria to Boise: Long road to success for businessman, politician Moses Alexander

Moses Alexander was the mayor of Boise from 1901-03 and the governor of Idaho from 1915-19.
Moses Alexander was the mayor of Boise from 1901-03 and the governor of Idaho from 1915-19. Idaho State Historical Society

Moses Alexander, Idaho’s 11th governor, was born in Obrigheim, Kingdom of Bavaria, on Nov. 13, 1853. He came to America in 1867, and after a short stay in New York City, he accepted an offer from a cousin to work in his clothing store in Chillicothe, Missouri. The young man showed a talent for the business and in 1874 was made a partner. In November 1876, Alexander married Helena (nee Hedwig) Kaestner, a Christian immigrant from Germany who converted to Judaism. Alexander took an interest in Democratic politics and in 1886 was elected to the Chillicothe City Council; a year later, he was elected mayor of the town.

Alexander decided to move to Alaska in 1891 and on the way stopped in Boise to investigate investment opportunities. Idaho had just become the 43rd state in the union, and the mood of optimism he found in the little capital city persuaded him to open a clothing store in an old building at the northeast corner of Seventh and Main streets, the beginning of what would become a chain of stores in Caldwell, Nampa, Burley and Weiser, and Baker and Ontario in Oregon.

Alexander realized from the beginning the value of advertising with signs, and on Nov. 1, 1893, took a large ad in the Statesman: “To Whom It Concerns. Having been apprised of a threat to burn my sign opposite the depot (then on Front Street) I give public notice that I will pay a reward of $100 for the apprehension and detection of the party or parties guilty of it, and evidence sufficient to convict. This offer holds good for always, and is good for any sign with my advertisement upon it. ALEXANDER The One Price Clothier, Seventh and Main.”

In January 1894 the Statesman noted, “M. Alexander, the well-known merchant, has gone to New York to purchase goods.” In October that year Alexander had a new iron front put on his building, allowing for large plate-glass windows, and in March 1896, “Alexander the Clothier has had several voluminous signs hoisted over his place of business.”

On Feb. 28, 1895, “A Jewish organization known as the Beth Israel congregation yesterday filed articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State.” In August architects Chesney and Schroeder revealed preliminary plans for a synagogue, 30 feet by 60 feet. “The style of architecture of the structure is what the architects designate as modernized Moorish.” The cornerstone was laid on Oct. 4, 1895, “without formal ceremonies,” and “in the crypt was placed, among other things, various coins and copies of the city newspapers.”

Alexander had been active in the effort to organize the Beth Israel congregation and would serve as its president for many years. He also led the effort to build the first synagogue in Idaho, dedicated with formal ceremonies on Aug. 30, 1896, with Rabbi Isaac Kaiser of Salt Lake City officiating. A special choir sang “Guide Us Oh Thou Great Jehovah,” a hymn written for the occasion by Prof. E.J. Pasmore of Boise. The Idaho Statesman printed a full account of the service with Rabbi Kaiser’s sermon.

It was July 1897 when Democrat Moses Alexander was elected mayor of Boise, polling more votes than former mayors Peter Sonna and James A. Pinney combined. The Statesman hailed it as “a Great Improvement Victory.” The paper had supported Alexander’s candidacy with two long accounts of his political career in Chillicothe. That the new mayor could choose quality over party was shown in January 1898, when he appointed future mayor John M. Haines, a Republican, to fill a vacancy on the City Council. Alexander fired City Clerk W.V. Helfrich in 1902 for neglecting the duties of his office and for gambling.

Next week: Was Moses Alexander the first Jewish governor in the United States?

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