An interlude in the life of Edna Gillespie, Blackfoot’s first librarian (minor corrections 3/20/2019)
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
1897 was an eventful year: William McKinley was sworn in as the 25th President of the United States; the first Boston marathon was run; John Phillip Sousa wrote his famous march Stars and Stripes Forever; Bram Stoker published his iconic novel Dracula; and Edna Gillespie moved to Blackfoot.
Traveling across the country
It was a world that would be quite foreign to people today. The teen-aged Edna Gillespie left her childhood home of Hayesville in a horse-drawn wagon. On a cold Spring morning in the Appalachian Mountains, she left her life there and whatever childhood friends she had behind. The wagon rocked and bumped its way to the nearby town of Murphy, a trip that would take a whole day to go 15 miles over the muddy red-dirt roads of westernmost North Carolina.
From Murphy, Edna’s family of four either took a train to Asheville or continued over the Blue Ridge into Tennessee to catch the train into Chattanooga. Either way, they would take passenger rail with two or three connections heading north and west until they intersected with one of the four transcontinental rail routes.
They would have shipped their possessions and baggage as freight to the home of Edna’s Uncle George Bumgarner, which was somewhere north of Blackfoot proper. Anything they owned that was larger than a barrel was probably sold before moving since the standard container for small freight was the barrel.
By the 1890s, most shipping for dry goods used barrels made of hard-layered cardboard three-eighths of an inch thick. With the growth of the pulp-paper industry, cardboard barrels became a standard by the late nineteenth century, because they were lighter and cheaper to ship than wood crates or barrels. Long-distance shipping of personal goods by barrel was a practice that survived into the 1950s.
It is likely Edna’s family crossed Arkansas or Missouri to reach the transcontinental rail route through Kansas and Colorado on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. It’s possible that they might have taken the famous Overland Limited on the original Union Pacific Route through Omaha; but I think not since that would have taken them out of their way three hundred miles to the north. The more southerly route is the more likely.
What the 16-year old Edna thought on the week-long journey is unknowable; but we know what she saw. First would be the disappearance of the great eastern deciduous forest as it melted into farmland and prairie while crossing the Mississippi River Valley.
Then there would come a realization to Edna after crossing the Missouri, but sometime before Wichita, that the eastern side of the continent with its verdant green and abundant rainfall was now forever behind her. When traveling at the speed of a train, there’s an obvious change in the space of a few hours from eastern to western vegetation. Anyone who grows up surrounded by eastern green notices it.
It’s a stark and sudden line in the Dakotas right at the Missouri River. It’s more subtle in Kansas. You are still in the East going into the Flint Hills but you have passed into the West coming out of them. What would have greeted Edna’s eyes would have been the stark greys of Spring and the harsh browns of prolonged drought in the western Kansas of L. Frank Baum. The prairie of the high plains was in a decade-long drought – the same drought which formed the inspiration for the failing Kansas farm of Dorothy Gale’s uncle and aunt in Baum’s 1900 classic, The Wizard of Oz.
Edna Gillespie would have seen the bleakness of the devastated high plains from her seat on the train. Did she look onto those broken and failed farms and empty towns, and wonder if a similar fate awaited her family in Idaho?
The transcontinental route of the Denver and Rio Grand entered the Frontal Range south of Pike’s Peak and then breached the crest of the Central Rockies by climbing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, with its silver and gold mines perched precariously on the canyon walls above the rock-strewn river below. Such landscapes don’t exist in the Appalachian East. It would have been new and novel to Edna.
All the rail routes out of Colorado all passed through one town: Grand Junction. Then it was onto the rail towns of Green River, Price and Soldier Summit (now a ghost town) and then down the narrow canyon of the Spanish Fork a hundred miles south of Salt Lake City
The Twilight of the Wild West
Edna would see the Wild West in its twilight: the headworks of mines perched on mountain sides, and real saloons and brothels in dusty towns like Grand Junction. Big-name real-life outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch were still active in the area Edna was moving to. Just the year before, in 1896, Cassidy’s gang had robbed a bank in Montpelier, just a few hours away by train from Blackfoot.
In Edna’s Idaho, things were still tense between settlers and Native American tribes. Fear of the tribes on the war path was still a very real thing. The so-called Bannock War in 1895 was mostly the invention of a panicked local judge and a run-away press that blew things out of proportion, claiming the Bannock tribe off the Fort Hall Reservation were massacring hunters and settlers in the Jackson Hole area.
Newspapers on the East Coast claimed that the Bannocks had blocked the passes between Idaho and Wyoming, and were shooting anyone who tried to travel them. This prompted the mobilization of the U.S. Army, who arrived only to find the area entirely peaceful with a handful of Native American elk hunters in jail for breaking a recent discriminatory law designed to prevent the tribes from hunting.
Some of the fear of tribal violence was justified. The Battle of Sugar Point between the U.S. Army and a band of Chippewa occurred on October 5, 1898 in Minnesota, as settlers fled the Duluth region. The so-called 1911 Last Massacre and subsequent Battle of Kelley Creek outside of Winnemucca involved a small band of Shoshoni and Bannock from Fort Hall. This incident incited a panic in northeast Nevada among ranchers and many fled to neighboring California. And Paiutes and Utes in western Utah were engaged in ongoing raids and shoot-outs with ranchers on and off up to 1923.
The West the Edna Gillespie moved to was still rather wild in 1897.
Blackfoot at the turn of the 20th century
We don’t know how long Edna and her family stayed at her uncle George’s house. By 1900, they had their own house nearby. There is reason to believe from early-area histories that her Uncle George lived in Groveland.
Electricity and the telephone both came to Blackfoot in 1899 on lines that come up from Pocatello, but the outlying areas weren’t connected yet. The Blackfoot Asylum appears to be the first place electrified. Most of Blackfoot remained unelectrified however, until sometime between 1901 and 1905. Some places were not electrified until 1911. Until then, light after dark would have been by oil lamp or candle. Wax candles were a luxury; everyday candles for working people were made of tallow.
Because oil and candles were costly, staying up late was a luxury for most. People tended to go to bed soon after sundown and were up with sunrise. The world before electricity was a good one for morning people and hard on night owls.
Food would have been cooked in a cast-iron stove fired with wood, coal or kerosene. Cuts of meat and dairy products would have been preserved in an ice box, though in places close to the lava flows, some in the area were lucky enough to freeze their food in the year-round snow and ice in lava caves and fissures. There’s a lava tube south of Grace in Niter that’s famous for that. There are also lava tubes which were used for this on the edges of Aberdeen, Springfield and Taber with their own year-round snow.
For houses that didn’t have wells – and there were many at first – a man by the name of Sill hauled water by the barrel from the Snake River for 25¢. After a while, enough houses had dug wells that a lot of his water business collapsed, so he switched to hauling cedar and delivering mail to make a living.
Freight moved by wagon, stagecoach and train. Local travel was by wagon, horse or foot. Blackfoot was one mile from the toll bridge over the Snake River. Families that lived on the other side of the river would take their wagons and tie them up on the west side of the river, crossing the bridge on foot and walking into town to shop or go to church. That’s because wagons cost a dollar and a half to cross the bridge but pedestrians were free.
There was a stage coach route from Blackfoot to Arco and then onto Challis. It crossed the toll bridge over the Snake River and made stops in the small settlements on its way. Edna may have traveled on it to visit her other uncle, Charles Bumgarner, who had a farm in the Midway area, north of Moreland and Taber.
Back then, the dust and the silty grit blowing in the unceasing wind of the lava plains was even worse since there was much more wild range and less farmland than now. One traveler on the stage from Blackfoot to Challis described it thus:
“The first forty miles west was through a sage-brush desert with not a drop of water the entire distance except what was hauled by teams from Snake River. The dust was insufferable, enveloping the state in such clouds of ashy earth that we could not see the wheels of the coach and it spread over us like waves of the sea.”
The roads around Blackfoot and the rest of the county would remain a scourge of dust for another decade, when the county began the slow process of paving the main routes through the area with macadam.
The stage business died after the train route from Blackfoot to Mackay was built in 1901.
In 1897, Blackfoot was still a pioneer town, lit by candle and oil lamp, and heated by wood and coal. By 1911, the town was transformed to a place lit by electric lamp. Most affluent families in town had a telephone. The county had plans to pave four more main roads.
A man by the name of Dick Hillard bought Blackfoot’s first automobile. In a few years, the two Bills brothers would start up the first car dealership in the area and go on to sell more cars than anyone else in Idaho by 1920.
Recommended further reading
Miracle of the Desert by Thomas H. Williams – there’s a copy in the Blackfoot Library
Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage by Carrie Adell Strahorn – on Google Books at https://books.google.com/books/about/Fifteen_Thousand_Miles_by_Stage.html
Groveland Grew from the Desert Plain by Bertha Yancy Jensen, at http://yanceyfamilygenealogy.org/groveland_history.htm
Rocks, Rails and Trails, by Paul Link and Chilton Phoenix, online at the Digital Atlas of Idaho
Back issues of the early area newspapers, The Blackfoot News, The Blackfoot Optimist and The Idaho Republican, online at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov