I first encountered Basque culture in August 1945 after enrolling at Biarritz American University in the southwest corner of France, one of millions of American soldiers in Europe waiting to go home after the surrender of Japan following the dropping of the first atomic bombs in World War II.
Like many thousands of others, my college education at the University of Washington had been interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. I was an art major at the time, so in 1945 I enrolled in classes in painting and sculpture at Biarritz, taught by American professors.
Before the war, Biarritz was described by one writer as “a place of escape for the rich and famous from the cold winters of northern Europe. The hotels were luxurious. There was a casino too, of course. This served well as a conference and lecture hall during the University’s time there. The beautiful villas were also rented to the Americans.” My art classes were taught in Villa Rochefoucauld, once occupied briefly by Queen Victoria of England.
Jai Alai was the first uniquely Basque game of which I became a fan, especially games between French and Spanish teams, played on an outdoor court more than 400 feet long.
When I arrived in Boise in 1969 as the new director of the Idaho State Museum, I found that there were two Basque pelota courts where one version of the game was played. I also learned that the Basque communities in Mountain Home and Shoshone, Idaho, had courts, as did Ontario, Jordan Valley, Arock, McDermitt and Rome in Oregon, and Yakima, Washington.
The State Museum had a women’s auxiliary then led by Adelia Garro Simplot, one of several women of Basque descent who worked to increase public awareness of Idaho’s fascinating history, and especially the part the Basques had played in it.
In 1985 we incorporated the Basque Museum and Cultural Center with the 1863 Cyrus Jacobs House on Grove Street as headquarters. We soon acquired the building at 611 Grove St. and began to create a museum. Among exhibits I designed were “Who Are the Basques?” with portraits of Adelia Garro Simplot, Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, Joe Eiguren, author of the first Basque-English dictionary, and other prominent Idaho Basques; and a map of the Basque country, illustrated with photos collected at Biarritz in 1945.
Another of those first exhibit panels was illustrated with pictures of famous Basques, ranging from the great artist Francisco de Goya to movie star/pianist Jose Iturbi. We could have included St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, musicians Maurice Ravel and Placido Domingo, and a pair of politicians, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
And would you ever have guessed that baseball star Ted Williams was of Basque descent? I wouldn’t.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.