Idaho History

Idaho’s governors have been a colorful group

C. Ben Ross was the first governor born in Idaho.
C. Ben Ross was the first governor born in Idaho. Provided by the Idaho State Historical Society

Today I’d like to share some trivia about the careers of Idaho’s governors that I think you will find interesting.

Seven of our governors had been mayors of the towns where they lived before taking office as governor. Democrat Moses Alexander, clothing merchant, had been mayor of Chillicothe, Mo., from 1887 until 1890. He came to Boise that year and established a clothing store. He was elected to two terms as Boise mayor, 1897-1899 and 1901-1903, and was governor of Idaho 1915-1918.

Democrat James H. Hawley, lawyer, was mayor of Boise from 1903 to 1905 before his election as governor in 1911. Republican John M. Haines, a partner in the city’s largest real estate firm, was mayor of Boise 1907-1909 and governor 1913-1914. It would be 77 years before another Boise mayor was elected governor. Republican Dirk Kempthorne earned a degree in political science from the University of Idaho, where he was elected to a term as student body president. He was elected mayor of Boise in 1985 and served for seven years before his election as governor of Idaho in 1998. He, like Democrat Cecil Andrus before him, served as secretary of the interior, albeit with very different objectives.

Democrat Barzilla W. Clark, miner and rancher, was mayor of Idaho Falls 1913-1914 and 1927-1937, and governor 1937-1938. His younger brother, Democrat Chase A. Clark, lawyer, succeeded him as mayor of Idaho Falls and was governor 1941-1942. New Deal Democrat C. Ben Ross, born on a cattle ranch near Parma, was our first Idaho-born governor. He was also the first to win the office three times in a row, 1931-1937. He was mayor of Pocatello for eight years before his election as governor.

Our territorial governors, appointed by presidents of the United States, are equally interesting. Several of them saw action in the Union army during the Civil War, and Mason Brayman, Thomas Bennett and Thomas M. Bowen held the rank of brigadier general at war’s end. Bowen disliked everything he saw of Idaho and left for home after only a week.

Three men appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant didn’t ever come to Idaho at all. Gov. John Baldwin Neil was wounded in action and promoted for bravery. Despite his record as a war hero, when his political enemies wanted him removed from office, they circulated stories that he was a drunkard, lazy, incompetent, often absent from duty and very unpopular. He certainly was with his critics! Gov. John N. Irwin served as a sergeant in the 45th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Later, he was also governor of Arizona Territory in 1890-1892). William M. Bunn enlisted in the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry. He was wounded at the battle of Savage Station, captured by Confederate forces and was held at Richmond, Va., until his release in a prisoner exchange. The lingering effects of his wound eventually led to his medical discharge. Bunn later purchased a Philadelphia newspaper, went into politics and gained quite a reputation as a fastidious dude who was much in demand as an after-dinner speaker.

Edward A. Stevenson, governor of Idaho Territory 1885-1889, was appointed by President Grover Cleveland. He was the first resident of the territory to be appointed to the position and was the only Democrat ever appointed. At 18, Stevenson had joined the gold rush to California in 1849. He settled there, was elected to the California Legislature, married and raised a family. While away on official business as Indian agent, local Indians killed his wife and three children. Following this personal tragedy, he joined the gold rush to Idaho in 1863. When Stevenson’s brother Charles was elected governor of Nevada, the governor-brothers met in Boise.

Their nephew Adlai became vice president of the United States.

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

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