THE MAGIC CITY
It began to snow just before dawn, chalky flakes tumbling through the hush of the sleeping town, quilting the pastures, tracing fence rails and porch posts along the dusky lanes. In the livery stables that lined Indian Creek, dray horses and fancy pacers, shifting in their stalls, nickered into the pale light. A chill north wind muttered down Kimball Avenue, rattling the windows of feed stores and dry goods emporia, still festooned for the holidays with boughs of holly, chains of popcorn and cranberries. Off to the east, behind the whitening knob of Squaw Butte, rose the wail of the Union Pacific's morning train from Boise, due into the Caldwell depot at 6:35 with its load of drowsy ranch hands and bowler-hatted drummers.
Sounding up the slope of Dearborn Street into Caldwell's jaunty new subdivision of Washington Heights, the whistle brought an unwelcome summons to the former governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg, as he lay abed that final Saturday of 1905. The governor -- as he was still known, five years out of office -- had spent a bad night, thrashing for hours in sleepless foreboding. Now while the snow piled up beneath his cottonwoods, he burrowed deeper under the bedclothes.
One of his favorite boyhood songs had evoked just such a moment: "Oh, it's nice to get up in the morning, when the sun begins to shine / At four, or five, or six o'clock in the good old summertime / But when the snow is a-snowing and it's murky overhead / Oh, it's nice to get up in the morning, but it's nicer to lie in bed!" The Steunenbergs, though, were sturdy Hollanders imbued with a Protestant work ethic, and it offended the governor's temperament to idle away even a weekend morning. So he hauled himself out of bed and put on his favorite six-dollar shirt with its flowered design. When it had shrunk so much he couldn't fasten the collar, his sister Jo, in her motherly fashion, had cut a chunk out of the tail to expand the chest. She was still looking for matching material to repair the back, but the governor liked the cheerful old shirt so well he donned it that morning anyway, short tail and all. Then he went down to the kitchen and built a coal fire in the great iron stove.
When his wife, Belle, joined him, she remarked that he seemed ill at ease.
"The good and evil spirits were calling me all night long," said the governor, who sat for a time with his face buried in his hands.
"Please do not resist the good spirits, Papa," his wife admonished. A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, Belle persuaded her husband, who generally eschewed such rituals, to kneel on the kitchen floor and join her in reading several passages from Scripture. Then they sang Annie Hawks's fervent hymn:
I need thee, O, I need thee!
Every hour I need Thee;
O, bless me now, My Saviour!
I come to Thee.
When their devotionals were done, Frank set out across the barnyard -- joined by his white English bulldog, Jumbo -- to milk his cows and feed his chickens, goats, and hogs.
The family's eccentric gray-and-white edifice, a hybrid of Queen Anne and American Colonial styles, bristled with gables, porches, columns, and chimneys. It was barely seven-eighths of a mile from Caldwell's center, but the governor, with one young hand to help him, maintained a working farm on the two and a half acres, replete with barn, windmill, well, pasture, livestock pens, and apple and pear trees mixed among the sheltering cottonwoods.
After feeding his stock, he turned toward the house for breakfast with Belle and the children -- Julian, nineteen, on Christmas vacation from the Adventists' Walla Walla College in Washington State; Frances, thirteen; Frank Junior, five; and eight-month-old Edna, an orphan the Steunenbergs had adopted that year -- as well as Will Keppel, Belle's brother, who was staying with them for a time while working at the family bank. Their hired girl, Rose Flora, served up the austere breakfast prescribed by Adventists: wheat cereal, stewed fruit, perhaps an unbuttered slice of oatmeal bread (the sect believed that butter -- like eggs, bacon, other meats, coffee, and tea -- stimulated the "animal passions").
Had the governor allowed his melancholy to infect the breakfast table that morning, it would have been out of character. With his children -- on whom he doted -- he generally affected a puckish humor, spiced with sly doggerel, such as the verse he'd composed a year earlier for his daughter: "Frances had a little watch / She swallowed it one day / Her mother gave her castor oil / To help her pass the time away."
After breakfast came a phone call from his younger brother Albert -- universally known as A.K. -- the most entrepreneurial of the six Steunenberg brothers and cashier of the Caldwell Banking and Trust Company, of which Frank was president. An important matter awaited the governor's attention, A.K. said: Edward J. Dockery, a Boise lawyer, a former Democratic state chairman, and now a business associate of the Steunenbergs, would be arriving in Caldwell later that day and expected to meet them at the bank. No, Frank said, he wasn't in the right frame of mind for such a meeting. He asked A.K. to tell Dockery he'd see him in Boise next week.
In days to come, the governor's disinclination to do business that day was much remarked. Some said it was the weather, which by late morning had turned nasty, four inches of snow driven by blustery winds drifting along the roadways, temperatures plummeting toward zero. But Frank Steunenberg was still young (forty-four years old), husky (six foot two, 235 pounds), and healthy (an avid hiker and camper who scorned the big eastern cities, with their creature comforts, their smoke, noise, and dirt) -- in short, not a man likely to be intimidated by a little Idaho snowstorm.
Others said his reclusiveness that day was merely a bow toward Belle's Sabbath, which lasted from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Although Frank was by no means an Adventist, some believed that he was gradually accommodating himself to his wife's recent conversion. Others who knew him well insisted he was profoundly skeptical of Belle's piety and would never have canceled a meeting on religious grounds. He might well have been weary. For only the day before he'd returned from a strenuous trip -- by train, buggy, and horseback -- to his sheep ranch near Bliss, a hundred miles to the southeast. With his business associate, James H. "Harry" Lowell, he'd also inspected an irrigation project along the Wood River. A. K. Steunenberg -- his brother's confidant -- believed there was a quite different explanation for Frank's behavior that day. Later he told reporters the governor must have received a warning late in the week, which would account for his "unusual" manner. On Friday afternoon at the bank, he'd walked the floor with a "meditative and troubled expression" on his face.
Whatever the reason, Frank clearly didn't wish to engage with the world that snowy Saturday. Toward noon, a young man called at the house, introducing himself as Theodore Bird of Boise, representing the New York Life Insurance Company. He'd come down from the state capital, he said, to renew the governor's $4,500 life insurance policy, which expired at year's end, barely thirty-six hours away. With some reluctance -- and only because the deadline was so close -- Frank agreed to meet Bird at the bank in late afternoon.
Most of the day, as wind-driven snow hissed at the windowpanes, the governor read and wrote in his study. At four o'clock he put on his overcoat, a slouch hat and galoshes, but no necktie: he was known throughout the state for his stubborn refusal to throttle himself with those slippery eastern doohickeys. Some said the habit began in the governor's youth when he was too indigent to afford a tie. In any case, for the rest of his life he'd button the shirt around his neck, leaving the uncovered brass collar button to glint like a gold coin at his throat.
People loved to speculate on this eccentricity. "His friends have exhausted all their persuasive powers on him," said the Populist James Sovereign. "Newspapers have raked him fore and aft with editorial batteries, theatrical companies have held him up to laughter and ridicule, he has become the basis of standing jokes in bar-room gossip and sewing circles, orators have plead [sic] with him, doctors have prescribed for him and politicians have lied for him, but all of no avail." Indeed, a fashionable Washington, D.C., hotel had once refused to serve him because he wore no tie, an exclusion that he bore with "magnanimous mien." A bemused Wall Streeter remembered him, on one of his excursions East, as "a rugged giant who wore a bearskin coat flapping over a collarless shirt."
Some Idahoans thought he carried sartorial informality a bit too far. On the day he was nominated for governor, he was said to have appeared at the Democratic convention lacking not only a necktie but a collar, with trousers so short they showed off his "cheap socks" and a sack coat so skimpy "as not to exclude from view the seat of his pants."
As usual, the governor didn't spend much time that morning stewing about his appearance. Bundled a bit awkwardly against the storm, he set off down Cleveland Boulevard toward the business district of his thriving little country town. Each time he strode that spacious avenue, he wondered at the transformation wrought on this wasteland in scarcely two decades. When first he'd set foot there in 1887, fresh from the black loam of his native Iowa, he'd been dismayed by the barren reach of alkali desert. Writing to his father, he called it "the worst land that can be found....It is full of potash and the sun draws it out in a white crust on top. It is 'death' on shoe leather and where it drys and mixes with the dust and a 'dust wind' starts up, the best thing you can do is to close your eyes, stand still and take it."
It was that choking, biting dust, the "white desolate glare" broken only by sagebrush and greasewood, that had dismayed Caldwell's founders, Bob and Adell Strahorn, making them feel at times as if it were "a place deserted by God himself, and not intended for man to meddle with." When Bob Strahorn was a newspaper correspondent covering Indian wars along the Powder River, he'd joined so lustily in the cavalry's battle cries that he permanently damaged his vocal cords. Bringing that same zeal to his new job as publicist for the Union Pacific Railroad, he clothed raw data -- as his wife put it -- "in an attractive garb that it might coquette with restless spirits in the East who were waiting for an enchantress to lure them to the great mysterious West." Over the next few years, Strahorn produced a gaggle of guidebooks championing Western settlement -- and generating passenger revenue and freight tonnage -- without disclosing that they emanated from the railroad. His Resources and Attractions of Idaho Territory -- published in 1881 by Idaho's legislature but secretly underwritten by the railroad -- bubbled with braggadocio: "the healthiest climate in America, if not in the world...the richest ores known in the history of mining...the peer of any mining region in the universe...luxuriant crops, emerald or golden, trees blossom- and perfume-laden, or bending to earth with their lavish fruitage."
He didn't hesitate to promise glittering rewards, as in his flat assertion that cattle raising in Idaho was "a sure and short road to fortune." Only rarely did he suffer twinges of conscience for misleading wide-eyed eastern settlers: "I could not but feel that, for a time at least, many of them would be grievously disappointed in what we could already visualize and enthusiastically paint as a potential land of plenty."
In 1883, the lanky Strahorn, with his aquiline nose and lofty airs, graduated from publicity to the lucrative role of town building along the railroad's sprawling rights-of-way. As general manager of the Idaho and Oregon Land Improvement Company -- an independent enterprise in which both railroad officials and local nabobs enjoyed juicy financial interests -- he colonized land along the Oregon Short Line, a Union Pacific subsidiary, so named because, by skirting San Francisco, it provided a shortcut from Omaha to Portland, linking the parent road directly to the rich resources of the burgeoning Northwest. In this capacity, Strahorn had a major voice in determining where the tracks would go. Infant communities throughout the West desperately sought access to the railroad, for it often spelled the difference between bleak isolation and bustling prosperity.
In 1883, Boise was waging a fierce campaign for a rail connection. All that spring, the territorial capital seethed with rumors about where the Short Line would ford the Boise River on its way west, a crossing that speculators were sure would mark the site of Idaho's future metropolis. One June morning, the Strahorns set forth by buckboard from Boise, ostensibly to visit a northern mining camp. But once out of sight, they abruptly swung west, and after some thirty miles Bob drove the first stake, intoning in mock frontier lingo, "Dar whar we stake de horse, dar whar we find de home."
When Boiseans discovered what had happened, they railed at Strahorn's betrayal. A mob hung him in effigy and vowed that, if ever they laid hands on him, they'd hang him in earnest. Strahorn had sufficient grounds for his decision: the stubborn conviction of the Union Pacific's chief locating engineer, a stolid Dutchman named Jacob Blickensderfer, who stoutly opposed the notion of dropping six hundred feet from grade just to embrace Boise in an awkward "ox-bow" bend. The Idaho Daily Statesman, voice of the capital city, attributed Strahorn's actions to sheer greed: "an ambitious young man [whose] syndicate is investing in desert lands for a town-site," it called him. The officers of Strahorn's company did stand to realize handsome -- and legitimate -- profits from the sale of town sites in Caldwell, Hailey, Mountain Home, and Payette, not to mention from the building of highways, bridges, telegraph lines, hotels, and irrigation works up and down the Short Line.
But since the officers were notified in advance of others about the exact route the road would take, they had ample opportunity to make illegitimate profits as well. One reason Boiseans so bitterly resented Strahorn was that he'd bilked them out of a bunch of money. While the new town site was still a closely held secret, he'd quietly bought the Haskell ranch north of the Boise River, then made sure that news of his purchase leaked out. Convinced they'd now smoked out the town site, Boiseans snapped up thousands of acres around the ranch, inhabited only by jackrabbits and golden-mantled ground squirrels. Some speculators were permitted to buy up much of the ranch itself -- at a nifty profit for Strahorn. Only then did he reveal that he'd acquired the town's real location -- miles away on the river's south bank.
In its dyspeptic campaign, the Statesman called Strahorn's new town Sagebrush City. Others derisively dubbed it Alkali Flats. But Adell Strahorn had already named it Caldwell after Alexander Caldwell, the former U.S. senator from Kansas. With Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh banker and industrialist, Caldwell had put up most of the capital for Strahorn's improvement company and, in return, the patriarchal figure with his flowing white beard had been named its president.
If "the senator" provided substantial resources, he did not lend the enterprise much luster. While others had fought at Manassas and Antietam, Caldwell had made a fortune during the Civil War transporting military supplies by ox-drawn wagons -- not unlike J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, who'd procured substitutes to serve in the army for them, or Andrew Carnegie, Philip D. Armour, and Jay Gould, who "preferred the emoluments of the market place to the miseries (or glories) of the battlefield." After the war, Caldwell was elected to the Senate. Rivals argued that he'd secured the post through bribery -- by no means unusual in an era when senators were elected by state legislatures, not renowned for their immunity to commercial influence. Another candidate in the same race kept a suite of rooms, known variously as the Soup House and the Bread Riot, where legislators were plied with "eatables," "refreshments," and other, more lubricious, inducements. Alexander Caldwell, backed by the Kansas Pacific Railway and other formidable interests in his hometown of Leavenworth, countered with thick bundles of cash: up to $15,000 per legislator's vote, a substantial sum in those days. When a senatorial committee found against him in 1872, Caldwell attributed his discomfiture to "a mean spirit of revenge" but promptly resigned.
Boise's partisans held that the disgraced senator was precisely the man to lend his name to the odious little tank town that had filched its railroad. When a construction crew finally brought the tracks through Caldwell in September 1883, the Statesman noted, a bit hyperbolically, that the place had "eleven saloons and one pump." And it was pleased to report that two guests at the reception offered there for railroad officials had their horses stolen outside the hall. "The entire population of the city started in pursuit of the thieves," the paper chortled, "but at last accounts had not caught up with them."
If Caldwell had been born a colonial dependency -- founded by an eastern con man, named for a Leavenworth grafter, bankrolled with Kansas and Pennsylvania money to serve the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad -- it gradually achieved a resonant sense of its own identity: bold to the point of pushy, fiercely competitive, out for the main chance. Settlers who found their way to Caldwell in the 1880s and 1890s, drawn by the grandiose promises of promoters like Strahorn, were animated by a faith that the West would somehow liberate them from the economic servitude that prevailed by then in much of industrial America.
Some explorers had warned against false expectations. Captain James L. Fisk, who led a government expedition to the Idaho Territory in 1863, admonished prospective emigrants: "Have a good reason for loosing from the old anchorage before going in search of a better. Do not start on such a journey with the idea that it is going to be simply a fine play-spell, and that when you get through you will tumble into some gulch and come forthwith laden with your fortune in gold. Success in any new field of civilization and labor can only be reached through hardship, privation, endurance, and great industry."
But later propagandists -- often, like Strahorn, in the pay of railroads and land companies -- managed to persuade ambitious young Easterners that places like the Idaho Territory were free of the old class divisions, the encrusted privileges long associated with Europe and now with much of the New World. In boomtowns like Caldwell -- so the message went -- everybody started on the same footing, and because the agricultural, timber, and mining resources were prodigious, the prospects for enriching oneself were limitless. The bold of heart would leave the past behind; the future opened wide before them.
From the start, Caldwell shot for the stars. On December 9, 1883 -- when the town was just a clump of canvas tents and frame shacks along a dusty track, the only boardinghouse a converted railway car -- the first issue of the Caldwell Tribune boasted of "the great city that she will become, a fact that even the Boise City Board of Trade map cannot hide -- the center of commerce, the center of education, the pivot about which the great social fabric of Western Idaho will revolve." Such conviction was no more unshakable than many other booster prophecies across the land, represented by the 1890s promoter who wrote of Chicago, "the place was pregnant with certainty." But though such transformation struck some as an unlikely feat of prestidigitation, the newspaper began calling its tiny village the Magic City.
When a rival journal in Hailey, 120 miles to the east, pointed out derisively that the word Caldwell had appeared 187 times in one Tribune issue, the paper's editor, W.J. "Uncle Bill" Cuddy, shot back: "It will be found 187,000 times before we get through. That is what we are for and that is what we are doing." When the Boise Republican questioned the "Caldwell boom," the Tribune offered "to cut off a chunk and send it up to show you what metropolitan life and vigor is." Like other booster papers across the West, the weekly Tribune was a major instrument for town building, even if -- or precisely because -- it "sometimes represented things that had not yet gone through the formality of taking place." Western newspapers, like western railroads, often ran well ahead of settlement -- a process that, in many bleak locales, was still waiting to happen.
Boiseans worried that Caldwell might snatch the state capital away, as it had the railroad. Don't worry, the Tribune reassured them, "we prefer business to corruption." Business was surely Caldwell's métier. Its merchants called themselves "rustlers," proud of their "vim, vigor and vitriol" and of the "close and sharp" competition that had made Caldwell "synonimous [sic] with the word enterprise."
The town would thrive on the sheer exuberance of late-nineteenth-century American capitalism. In their rampant boosterism, its promoters appealed to the naked self-interest of potential settlers. In that respect, it was no different from thousands of other towns across the West. "The spirit of the times, which we called the spirit of progress," wrote the Kansas editor William Allen White, "was a greedy endeavor to coax more people into the West, to bring more money into the West. It was shot through with an unrighteous design for spoils, a great, ugly riproaring civilization spun out of the glittering fabric of credit. Everyone who owned a white shirt was getting his share of some new, shiny, tainted money in those days."
But somehow Caldwell seemed a bit more brazen, more unashamedly greedy than many western communities. "Caldwell is a straight business proposition," the Tribune calculated in 1893. "It is a cold-blooded, moneymaking consideration. You don't want to come here solely for your health and religion....Your health will improve in Caldwell with the swelling of your assets, and salvation comes easier with prosperity."
Indeed Frank Steunenberg and his five brothers, all of whom migrated there shortly after the town's founding, had prospered mightily in Caldwell these past years -- in sheep ranching, banking, retailing, newspapers, and real estate. Now, as the governor slogged through ankle-deep snow in the gathering dusk, he could pick out palpable symbols of that prosperity along this grand new thoroughfare, named Cleveland Boulevard after the nation's twenty-second -- and twenty-fourth -- president.
On the first corner was the turreted home of the governor's old friend John C. Rice. A big lantern-jawed man just turned forty, Rice was Caldwell's most successful lawyer, practicing in an office over Steunenberg's bank. But increasingly he was off in Boise arguing before the state courts, as he was that very day, representing that city's Evening Capital News in a bitter lawsuit against James H. Brady, chairman of the Republican state committee, over control of the feisty newspaper.
A former mayor of Caldwell, and now -- with his law partner, J. M. Thompson -- its city attorney, Rice had long been one of the governor's closest business associates: an organizer of the Steunenberg bank and still a board member, he served as an adviser on the governor's multifarious commercial enterprises.
People said Rice had built his elegant Queen Anne mansion -- so similiar to those rising in comfortable neighborhoods of San Francisco and Chicago -- to satisfy the luxurious tastes of his wife, Maude. If so, it had filled the bill, providing no fewer than four porches and an airy sewing room in a turret. The Rices could use the space. With four children already, Maude was pregnant again. In anticipation, she was expanding her household staff, advertising for a "competent girl to do general housework."
The Rice and Steunenberg mansions, looming in the southeast corner of town, were outposts of gentility in what was still a parvenu neighborhood. When the governor moved there in 1893, so rural were its surroundings that he was said to be occupying his "country seat." But Steunenberg had built there precisely to promote that relatively undeveloped quadrant of the community, for the Steunenberg brothers were trying to market lots in their own adjacent Steunenberg-Hand addition. They stood to benefit as well from new construction in the addition, and elsewhere in town, as they were officers of Caldwell's Independent Lumber and Manufacturing Company, headed by their colleague Harry Lowell, who also served as manager of the newly formed real estate department at the Steunenberg bank. Lowell and the Steunenbergs reaped thousands of dollars from exclusive sales rights on the remaining lots of the Caldwell Land Company, once run by Bob Strahorn.
There were those in town -- "mossbacks," they defiantly called themselves -- who thought that "airy, lightweight newcomers" like Lowell were too big for their bumptious britches. Newcomers, in turn, pictured the mossbacks as "rubbing their eyes which had become bleared by their long Van Winkle repose." Caldwell's relentless booming invoked a civic unity that never quite existed. For years, the mossback faction -- men like tavern keeper Chris Fahy; the town's first butcher, Mike Roberts; and hardware dealer W. H. Redway, who hauled the first wag of nails into Caldwell -- chafed at the brass of "johnny-come-latelies" like Lowell, haberdasher J. F. Herr, and lumber, sash, and door man and all-round "go-getter" Harry Crookham.
For the most part, Caldwell's first families -- among them the Reverend William Judson Boone, a Presbyterian minister now heading Caldwell's fledgling College of Idaho; John T. Morrison, the former governor; William Isaacs, a sheep rancher; the druggist Henry Blatchley and his wife, Carrie, the town's social arbiter, widely known as Queen Carrie -- all lived north of Indian Creek and the railroad, in the town's best residential neighborhood.
But as Caldwell boomed in the new century -- more than doubling its population, from 997 to 2,200, in the first five years -- it expanded south and east. The scale of Cleveland Boulevard -- some eighty feet in breadth -- suggested that it would soon be one of the town's most prestigious addresses. It was already lined for two miles with Western Colonial or bungalow-style houses -- rustic, rangy dwellings with graceful porch posts, bits of colored glass in their door panels, dormer windows (when a man made some money in Caldwell, he got himself a dormer), and spacious verandas, perfect for whiling away long summer evenings amid the thrum of cicadas.
Scarcely a neighbor was in sight that afternoon of the governor's walk, save for packs of neighborhood boys pelting one another with snowballs, a practice the town fathers were trying to discourage. A few days earlier, little Ella Lowe had been smacked in the face with a hard-packed ball that had smashed her glasses and driven shards into one eye, which doctors said she would surely lose.
Plunging on through the storm, the governor tried to keep his footing on the icy boardwalks that lined the city's major thoroughfares. Cement sidewalks were still rare in Caldwell; ten feet of the new underfooting, among the first in town, had just been laid along Main Street in front of Hartkopf's Tin Shop, paid for by surly Sam Hartkopf himself. Few merchants could yet afford that extravagance, so they relied on the icy boardwalks, which popped and crackled under a man's weight.
But no walkway could protect the townspeople from Caldwell's immutable realities: dust and mud. In summer, the powdery dust rose in choking billows under iron-rimmed wagon wheels and the hooves of sheep on their way from feeding lot to range. The municipal sprinkler wagon, pulled by a plodding team, with its driver dozing under his yellow umbrella, dutifully made its rounds, laying down a fine spray of water on each baking street twice a day; but the caked soil seemed to suck up the moisture as soon as the cart rounded the next corner. A growing faction in town pressed for macadam surfacing of all principal thoroughfares, but the city fathers shied from the expense, preferring to experiment with sand from Indian Creek.
The first few automobiles -- "buzz carts" or "devil wagons," as they were known -- had made their appearance in Caldwell, among them the big black beauty of Ralph Cowden, cashier of the First National Bank, and the sporty roadster belonging to Walter Sebree of the power company. But both the town and the county roads were so bad it took a prominent judge rushing to his courtroom almost three hours to drive the twenty-nine miles from Boise to Caldwell. In winter and spring, the gumbo engulfed wheels and hooves and boots alike, spattering skirts and waistcoats along even the finest boulevards.
If the town still had to reckon with dust and mud, at least it had beaten back the damned desert. Nothing had contributed more to Caldwell's startling prosperity than reclamation of the parched wasteland through a host of irrigation projects. As early as 1864, individual settlers had channeled Indian Creek's waters onto their land. The town's network of roadside "ditches" got under way in earnest in the 1880s. Later, water was drawn from the Boise River into larger systems of reservoirs and canals, dug the hard way with hand plows, scrapers, and shovels. Frank and A. K. Steunenberg, often led by Harry Lowell, invested in many of these projects; recently they'd participated in a more massive scheme to reclaim 250,000 acres in the Twin Falls area, 130 miles to the southeast.
The week before, under the heading "Musings on Our Material Progress," a Tribune correspondent had extolled the lush cultivation along Caldwell's own Sebree Canal. "One is favorably impressed," he wrote, "with the belief that this country is fast improving in all lines of farming industry when he rides along this canal, as compared with what it was a few years ago. In the haying season, it is no uncommon thing to see from three to eight hay derricks going at once....All we desire is for the Government canals to start, and we will truly be living in 'God's own country.'"
The earth was volcanic ash, dry as sawdust but immensely rich. As water seeped into the parched cinders, it turned the landscape from ghostly white to vivid green. Alfalfa, timothy, clover, sugar beets, apples, peaches, and pears all flourished in the fertile new soil. In 1890 alone, Caldwell had planted more than four thousand trees. Seemingly overnight, sagebrush and greasewood gave way to cottonwoods and box elders, Lombardy poplars and catalpas, black willows and elms. Nobody was more thrilled by this transformation than Frank Steunenberg, who had ached for the luxuriant foliage of his Iowa youth.
On a train trip East in 1904, gazing through the windows at the dense woodlands of southern Indiana, Steunenberg wrote home, "The great forests are a never ending joy and comfort and I never tire of looking at the graceful trees, now right at the car window, now covering an adjacent hillside and again gracing a distant ridge with glory and grandeur....Oh, the happy days of my boyhood amid the trees. There was not a tree within a mile of our home I had not climbed....The first time I saw the grand old trees of my native Iowa, after some years' stay in Idaho, I was seized with a strange feeling, and a big lump arose in my throat. And today as I look at the trees from the car windows, solemn and somber in their winter stillness, I hear happy voices from out of their solitude and feel them beckoning, 'Come, come and be at peace.'" Indeed, in conversation with Charles E. Arney, another Idaho politician who'd emigrated from Iowa, he spoke of "returning to Iowa sometime, and buying a great old country home, where quiet and comfort and peace would prevail." When Cleveland Boulevard was laid out, Frank and others had made sure it was lined with a double column of American elms. In summer it was a swaying bower of green, but even bare of leaves and crusted in snow, the pendulous elms made him feel at home.
Most of those who'd taken a chance on this burgeoning neighborhood cut lesser figures in town than Rice and Steunenberg, but they were eager young strivers with boots firmly planted on the ladders of mobility. In brash new towns like Caldwell, saloonkeepers were men to reckon with, and Cleveland Boulevard could boast the homes of three: Dan Brown, a husky man with a bushy black beard, who ran the Caldwell Club, a murky cavern redolent of stables, tobacco juice, and stale beer; Perry Groves, co-owner of the Palace saloon, a slightly more upscale establishment, which advertised itself as "headquarters for stockmen and farmers" and touted its "fine line of wines, liquors and cigars...[and a] first class lunch counter" (serving fresh oysters, hot tamales, and fish and game in season); and Rasmus Christenson, who ran the Board of Trade saloon, offering "clubrooms and pool tables," and doubled as agent for Kellogg's Old Bourbon, which, with Squirrel and McBryan, was one of the West's most popular brands.
Among other prominent merchants who'd built handsome residences on the boulevard were Jack Harrington, the real estate and insurance man; J. G. Gartin, proprietor of Fashion Livery; and Harry Jones, who ran a furniture store-cum-undertaking establishment. "All those things which go to the furnishing and beautifying of a home," Jones advertised, "[with] a room especially fitted up for the reception and care of bodies."
At Kimball Avenue -- the town's major north-south thoroughfare -- the governor turned right to cross the deep channel of Indian Creek on a narrow footbridge. Frozen now in sheets of black ice, in spring it would run with angry brown swells, aswarm with ice cakes and driftwood; then, in summer, it would turn semiclear over a white, sandy bottom. The far bank was dominated by the paddocks and barns of Pete Engel's Corral Feed and Livery Stable ("First Class Rigs for Commercial Men"), one of seven livery operations that clustered along the creek.
Livery was the town's principal industry. In those stables the itinerant drummer rented a horse and rig to make his forays into the farm country; there the farmer left his team and wagon when he came to town to stock up on provisions. Fancy buggies, ladies' landaus, and arabesque sleighs were available for more frivolous occasions. The stables harbored every sort of horse-drawn vehicle, from the hotel's hacks and the funeral hearse to the lawyer's carriage and the town water cart.
But livery also formed the muscle and sinew of the town's economy. By century's turn, Caldwell was one of Idaho's major market towns and transshipment depots, two million pounds of wool alone passing through the community each year. "All roads lead to Caldwell" was one slogan of its incessant boosterism. Bob Strahorn's critics had been right: the iron horse had made Caldwell. Henceforth, when people for miles around said, "I'm going to the railroad," they meant they were going to Caldwell. Even when a spur reached Boise in 1887, Caldwell and neighboring Nampa remained the region's quintessential railroad towns, where rolling stock thumped and shuddered on the sidings and a thick coating of coal dust settled on the wash fluttering like sooty banners along the rights-of-way.
Yet those gleaming rails penetrated only so far into the hinterland. To carry wool from the ranches of Owyhee County and ore from the Jordan Valley mining camps to the railhead -- or candles, gunpowder, bacon, flour, or salt in the other direction -- meant turning to the flesh-and-blood horse. Raw materials and finished goods alike were hauled in enormous wagons, pulled by teams of ten, twelve, even sixteen horses, driven by a "freighter" who, astride the wheel horse, controlled the team through a jerk line to the lead horse's bridle. Caldwell's freighters were boisterous, hard-drinking men who doubled as horse breakers, taming the Owyhee mustangs popular as cavalry mounts. Legends like Jack Mumford, Clyde Davis, and Hank Ballard could turn one of their twelve-horse rigs around at a downtown intersection, churning up clouds of dust and drawing raucous approbation from the men who drifted out of the saloons, whiskey glasses in hand, to assess the performance.
The freighters were figures of adulation to Caldwell youths of all classes. Herbert van Wyngarden, Frank Steunenberg's nephew, lived by their principal route through town. One day when he was twelve, he set his family's cane-backed dining room chairs outside in five pairs, as if they were a ten-horse team, then harangued them in the freighters' rough-hewn cadences. Herbert got paddled twice: once for subjecting good furniture to the elements, again for using that kind of language.
The boys of the town were fascinated, too, by the livery stables, strenuously male environments where stable hands, hostlers, hired men, hack drivers, grizzled pensioners, and the town's earthier politicians sprawled in the shade, smoking clay pipes, playing checkers or cards, and trading tall tales. It was in these dim grottoes that Caldwell's lads learned how to "spit, swear, and swagger" and picked up what passed for the facts of life.
Servicing Caldwell's massive freighting industry required not only livery stables and corrals but blacksmith shops -- the town had five -- harness, saddlery, and feed stores, warehouses, rooming houses, Chinese laundries, restaurants, saloons, dance halls, and bawdy houses. The largest horse market in those parts was Charles H. Turner's Horse and Mule Company on Tenth Street. And for years Caldwell's most tangible symbol was the weather vane in the shape of a great Percheron horse installed high atop Dan Campbell's livery stable, visible for miles in all directions.
It often seemed as though the needs of horse and horsemen came before those of the town. The municipal landscaper, a Mr. Schuman, had done his best to sow bluegrass and plant rose bushes along the city's roadways -- local expressions of a national drive for roadside beautification -- but of late he'd warned that "thoughtless draymen," who permitted their horses to trample the greensward, were complicating his task. The bouquet of fresh manure hovered over Caldwell like the morning fogs that clung to the mud-slick roadways. Crossing the footbridge, the governor noted once again how Engel had built out over Indian Creek, so the stable boys could simply kick the piles of dung into the water -- a common habit up and down the stream.
It had occurred to some Cassandras that such practices might have something to do with the typhoid epidemic raging through Caldwell. Among those taken to their beds were John Rice's six-year-old daughter, Martha; Ralph Scatterday, a young attorney; Frank Smith, the osteopath; M. I. Church, the probate judge; and the governor's own niece, Grace van Wyngarden, a student at the University of Idaho. Three days before Christmas, W. H. Howard's two-year-old son had died after his temperature soared to 104. Despite relays of ice packs the child had seemed "literally to burn up from fever." Doctors weren't sure whether this was some virulent new form of typhoid or a more dread malady.
In a recent letter to the Caldwell News, a correspondent calling himself "I. M. Sane" had inveighed against the unsanitary conditions What had contributed to "the awful scourge" of typhoid and to the diphtheria epidemics that periodically beset the town. The "filthy streets and alleys," as well as "many unsightly and decaying weeds," he wrote, continued to "spread their sad havoc, carrying disease and death" and demanding speedy action -- here perhaps a note of sarcasm crept in -- by the city's "zealous and progressive town council." Later the News warned: "The practice of throwing the carcasses of dogs, chickens etc. into Indian Creek should be stopped at once."
There was a wild side to Caldwell all right, reminding folks that the genteel manners of the emerging bourgeoisie were still a fragile veneer imposed on the natural order of things. Clouds of giant mosquitoes, armies of ferocious red ants, and periodic plagues of grasshoppers (folks still talked of the "great grasshopper scourge" of 1868) could make summer hell, as they had when Caldwell was called Bug Town. Horned toads, kangaroo rats, and diamondback rattlers prowled the prairie. On winter mornings, you could still find a five-foot bull snake coiled and hissing by the kitchen stove. Bull snakes weren't poisonous, but unless you'd grown up with them around the house, they could unnerve you a bit. After Frank Steunenberg had killed four of the reptiles, his wife "bundled up" and left for a time. "'The independent life of a farmer' that we hear mentioned frequently still has a few drawbacks," Frank wrote the family in Iowa.
Coyotes bayed all night on Canyon Hill and scavenged for garbage in people's backyards. The state recruited men to hunt coyotes and wolves, supplying each of them with two boxes of ammunition and two bottles of strychnine. As recently as February 1904, Billy Snodgrass, proprietor of the City Barbershop, had shot a coyote on Main Street.
To a young lawyer recently arrived from the East, Caldwell in those years seemed "the most primitive sort of cow town." But it was no Wild West show. The wildest animals in town were two pet bear cubs that the saloonkeeper Dan Brown kept chained to a telephone pole behind his Caldwell Club. As Adell Strahorn noted, "an agricultural town has not the vim, rush and whoop of a mining town." Nor did it have the gratuitous gunplay of the classic cow town: few men got killed on Main Street anymore. The last was a Missourian named Charlie Bays, who'd spent a day in 1901 drinking nonstop in several saloons. His binge ended when he pushed the Kincaid brothers in the mud, then pulled a pigsticker on them. W. J. B. Kirkpatrick, the town marshal, hit Bays on the arm with a cane made from the heavy end of a billiard cue, and when that didn't stop him, the marshal hit him again, this time over the head. Bays fell dead. Opinion in town was sharply divided as to who was at fault. Nobody wasted time mourning for a scoundrel like Bays, but merchants feared that violent death in the heart of town could only discourage further settlement. Ultimately, the marshal was tried for manslaughter -- and acquitted.
If you looked for trouble you could still find some at the west end of Main Street -- a neighborhood people called Tough Town -- where bordellos like Fanny Boyd's "boarding house for young women" stood scrawny cheek by scraggly jowl with the most notorious saloons. For fear of these "gilded hells" and "scarlet resorts," the "better class of people" prohibited their young folk from straying into Tough Town.
Picking his way through the manure that pocked the new-fallen snow, the governor moved on down Kimball Avenue into the town's compact but thriving business district, still aglow with Christmas baubles. "Caldwell is the place to go," went one promotional ditty, "For bargains great and small, / In clothing, groceries and such / In implements and all." The frosty air filling his lungs, the governor hurried past John A. Baker's feed store, C. C. Smith's harness shop, L. W. Botkin's Caldwell Pharmacy, and C. E. Barnes's grocery, which that holiday season was offering fresh oysters, candied orange peel and raisins, and "everything for that Christmas pudding."
Reaching Main Street, the governor could spy on the opposite corner the familiar brick print shop of the Tribune, his first undertaking in Caldwell, indeed his first love. At age sixteen in 1877, he'd left school in Knoxville, Iowa, to serve his printing apprenticeship at the Knoxville Journal, where he remained four years. Later, he became a compositor on the Des Moines Register, where he'd gained a certain panache as the most prolific typesetter in the frantic weeks following President Garfield's assassination. After two years out for study at the Iowa Agricultural College at Ames -- "I cannot say that I love it," he wrote home, pleading "send me a [news]paper once in a while" -- he returned to his chosen craft, serving as publisher of the Knoxville Express until late 1886.
It was then that Frank Steunenberg, still only twenty-five, received an urgent summons from A.K., who'd wandered west as a tramp printer, working for a time in South Dakota and Wyoming, then settling earlier that year in the infant Caldwell. A.K. had spent his first night in town wrapped in a blanket under the Main Street bandstand, but before long he was one of Caldwell's young men on the go. In December, he bought the moribund Caldwell Tribune from its second editor, George P. Wheeler, moving it into new quarters above the Odd Fellows Lodge, of which A.K. was a charter member. But to get the paper back on a sound footing A.K. needed his older brother's help, so Frank resigned his post at the Express and sat up three days and two nights on the hard wooden seats of a clangorous Union Pacific "emigrant car."
By the time Frank arrived on January 9, A.K. had already published his first issue with a bold salutatory. Customarily, he'd written, an editor launched his newspaper by proclaiming that he was "there for the sole purpose of scattering literary light o'er the benighted multitudes, and that he will be...a fountain of truth and wisdom for those seeking light and knowledge." Not for A.K. such hollow pieties. "We are here for the money," he wrote, "...because this country is going to go boom and we want to boom with it. We shall endeavor to make the Tribune a live local paper, and solicit your patronage."
Live it was: four pages of waggish gossip and sly wit rolling off the old flatbed press every Saturday afternoon. At first, A.K. and Frank focused their irreverence on an acute municipal concern: the dire shortage of women. In those early years, a scant half-dozen unmarried girls cast sidelong glances at forty-five randy bachelors (among them A.K. -- though not Frank, who in 1885 had married his first cousin, Eveline Belle Keppel of Keokuk, Iowa). It was a grave disparity, producing some famous brawls and grudges. For a time, a Caldwell Social Club held periodic dances in town to bring lonely men and eligible women together, but soon they petered out for lack of "respectable ladies." Only recently, the Tribune had warned "men of Caldwell who are in the habit of visiting back doors of married ladies' houses as late as 11 o'clock at night...that they had better stay away as it might cause some one to get hurt."
So the Steunenbergs -- Frank and A.K. had now been joined at the paper by their younger brother Charles (better known as Pete) -- launched a column called "The Marriage Bureau." Listing the town's bachelors, they invited young ladies to write "any name which may tickle their fancy." Soon love-starved females -- more likely, news-starved Steunenbergs -- filled the weekly column.
One addressed Mike Devers: "Mr. M. DeVers -- Noble Sir. I am an aesthetic widow, good looking, wealthy, affable, loving and of sweet, retiring disposition. All I want is one to love, and must be a Frenchman, as your name clearly shows you to be....My former husband was a German; he died drinking beer. May you never meet a like fate is the wish of, Your Friend, Mrs. A.C. Gilloohey." Another wrote Orville Baker: "What's in a name? It's a man I want, and am perfectly willing to look over any minor issues. Do you mean biz? If so, say so and we'll hitch. I'm a gushing girl of 35 very short summers; your age is immaterial....Yours for Business. Gushing Ann."
Soon the column reported meetings of the Bachelors' Club, replete with a president who wielded a yard of stale bologna in lieu of a gavel, a Committee on Suspicious Characters (which recommended against admission of grocer Barnes on evidence that he was married), and matrimonial threats from a terrorist band called the Female Night Caps. The Tribune awarded prizes for the handsomest woman in town, which for several years running went to a dazzling hairdresser named Delia Gilgan. Dr. Bill Maxey was the town's fashion plate, frequently decked out in white spats and a soft felt hat, but the "most dashing gentleman" award went to Colonel J. O. O'Connell, whom A.K. puckishly termed "an Irishman of uncertain habits."
Animating the column was the conceit that Caldwell's bachelors were in flight from packs of rapacious women bent on matrimony. In fact, most men in town were downright desperate for female companionship. Sure enough, the roster of bachelors dwindled relentlessly and when A.K. himself took a wife in 1891, the club was disbanded amid "wails of anguish." It was promptly replaced by the Happy Fathers' Association.
Single or married, the men who ran Caldwell then were remarkably young, most in their twenties and early thirties. By 1891, Caldwell boasted the only athletic club in the state, with its own handsome building, where forty members, "young and full of blood," disported themselves with robust vigor. "They leaped into life like the boys they still were," A.K.'s daughter, Bess, recalled. "They were exuberant, ambitious, intoxicated by the heady experience of a chance to build from scratch. They worked and struggled, sang and laughed, politicked and clowned, and played outrageous practical jokes upon one another." It was a young man's town, a town rich with possibility, lush with expectation, where the future beckoned as it does to youth.
Increasingly, the raunchy proclivities of footloose blades collided with the more conventional aspirations of Caldwell's young burghers -- a tension often found within the same man's breast. Ultimately, marriage, children, and financial exigencies inspired creeping respectability. When a renowned saloon known as "the dive" threatened to become too "unruly and boisterous," the Tribune warned that unless the proprietor "quickly shows a disposition to be more civil, another committee will wait on him." A few days before the governor had set out on his walk, 267 residents prayed the city council to pass an ordinance closing the saloons on Sunday, and the council promptly instructed the city attorney, John Rice, to draft such legislation.
The Sunday-closing campaign was part of a wider reform movement, aimed at shucking Caldwell's air of boyish rascality and assuming a high-minded mien more appropriate to its growing stature in the state. The impetus came, in part, from the town's active temperance societies. Of late, Canyon County had been a hotbed of prohibitionist sentiment. The president of the Idaho State Women's Christian Temperance Union was Caldwell's own Ellen D. Crawford. The governor's wife and his sister Lizzie were charter members of Caldwell's chapter, which held receptions at the Steunenberg residence. All this left the governor little choice but to embrace the teetotaler's standard. The Presbyterian Church -- now pastored by the Reverend David A. Clemens but still influenced by the stern, authoritarian William Judson Boone -- waged a zealous crusade for "moral reform." Boone himself, concluding that admonition alone wouldn't beat back the forces of evil, poured his formidable energies into politics. In 1900, he ran for governor as a Prohibitionist -- more to give his cause statewide credibility than anything else. In 1905, he'd joined Caldwell's Citizens Ticket and won a seat on the seven-man city council, where -- with Mayor Roscoe Madden, a realtor -- he was pledged to close saloons on Sunday, abolish gambling, and suppress the town's gaggle of prostitutes, whom the Tribune called "wayward tidbits and old cats."
Like many other Idaho communities of that era, Caldwell was sharply divided between a "saloon" crowd and a "church" faction. The saloon crowd -- heavily male -- favored an "open town," open to the time-honored pastimes of such places. The real foot soldiers in the church movement were the town's formidable women, many of them members of both the WCTU and the Presbyterian Church. Caldwell's middle-class women were a strong-willed lot, if only by dint of surviving the harsh rigors of the place. In the 1890s, a magazine called the Idaho Woman was published in Caldwell and mailed throughout the state; it was edited by a man, Rees H. Davis (who'd bought the Tribune from the Steunenbergs some years before), but heavily supported by the three Gilgan sisters -- Anna, Delia, and Martha -- who ran millinery and hairdressing shops on Main Street.
This clutch of activist women had a keen sense of political possibilities. In the 1896 election, Idaho voted two to one to become the fourth state -- after Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah -- to grant women the vote. The next year, Caldwell became the first Idaho community to put a woman in elective office, that of alderwoman. This drew a huzzah from the Idaho Woman: "There will hereafter be no question respecting the ability and intention of Caldwell women to engage intelligently and actively in political affairs."
Boone's rallying cry against the evils of whores and whiskey encountered an eager response among the town's womenfolk. Men were less receptive to the didactics of the preacher with his swooping nose and great balding brow. As a group, they were not much for church attendance: surveying the faithful in the Presbyterian Church one day, a visitor remarked that there would "not be enough men in heaven to carry the bass." Not surprisingly, many of the freighters, barkeeps, and ranch hands groused that "Boone is killing the town." Rees Davis at the Tribune was profoundly skeptical of all these moral crusades. "The plain fact of the matter," he wrote, "is that there are no serious evils in Caldwell to be reformed, except such as God Almighty planted in the human breast."
It was the WCTU that, in March 1900, founded the Caldwell Free Reading Room, a nascent public library. If they closed the town's saloons, the women reasoned, they were obliged to provide some other place where men could be assured of "light, warmth and welcome." Originally quartered in the rear of S. N. Moe's jewelry store, the room was supported by a series of "ice cream socials," then by monthly subscriptions from Caldwell's businessmen. By 1906, the room housed seven hundred books and subscribed to five magazines. One Caldwell youth who made heavy use of the Reading Room was a former Tribune printer's devil named Lawrence Henry Gipson, who in 1904 was awarded Idaho's first Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University and who would go on to receive a Pulitzer Prize for his magisterial study of Great Britain before the American Revolution.
In that era, when feminine cultivation was seen as the redemptive antidote to the unruly masculine world, Caldwell's women never flagged in their relentless quest for high culture. As early as 1901, Grace Darling Morrison -- soon to be the state's first lady -- led the town's women in a study of the "History and Appreciation of Art." These same women formed the Forward Society, which promoted lectures and concerts, and the Village Improvement Society, dedicated to broad-gauged moral uplift.
A regular reader since college -- particularly in history and political economy -- the governor was a loyal client of the Reading Room. At times, though, he wondered whether his thinking apparatus wasn't rusting for lack of use. "You have probably thought many times what I found to engage my gigantic intellect out here in the western solitude," he'd written his family in Iowa, "but if you could see gentle 'Blizzard' [the family milk cow], you would have no more anxiety that my mind might decay through inactivity. It takes all the eloquence of a Demousthenes [sic], the strategy of a Napoleon, the wisdom of a Solomon, the patriotism of a Washington, the craftiness of a Tecumseh, the strength of Samson, and the humility of a Sister of Charity, to draw the lacteal fluid from her udder."
At the corner of Kimball and Main, the governor turned west up Main Street, past the Railroad Chop House, which boasted the best plank steaks in town; Frank Wood's bakery, its distinctive sign, a loaf of bread, shapeless under a puffy frosting of snow; W. H. Redway Hardware, where a few days before Christmas the governor had spent $2.50 on a dazzling red sled for his son; Swain Beatty's barbershop, bath rooms, and cigar store, crowded today as every Saturday with ranch hands getting their monthly trims and leaving off their laundry; and Ah Kim's Chinese restaurant, one of Caldwell's four Asian eateries.
"We have been asked by a number of strangers if there is a white restaurant in town," the Tribune had recently noted. "To all such, we must reply, we don't know, but Charley Kim is half white and well done." The color of the hands that stirred the soup was an old concern among Caldwell's citizens. In 1884, the Pacific Hotel advertised "none but white cooks employed." Gradually, miners, ranchers, and railroad men came to relish Ah Kim's, Lee Chung's, and Sing Lee's chop sueys and egg foo yungs; children bought firecrackers from the pigtailed fellow who ran a laundry on Main Street; and the town's housewives bought their vegetables from the wizened China Jim, who rattled through the streets in his wagon chanting "green onion, radish, lettuce, turnip." But they weren't pleased with eighty-eight-year-old Guy Lee, said to be running an opium den. Nor were they entirely comfortable with the influx of Chinese to the lower end of town, many of them ex-railroad workers now digging Canyon County's irrigation ditches.
Few of the Cantonese immigrants had ever felt much at home in Caldwell either. These "coolies" had been brought in by the thousands to lay track on the Union Pacific, and when those jobs ran out, they dispersed to the mining camps. By 1870, the Idaho Territory had the largest concentration of Chinese in the trans-Mississippi West outside California: 4,274, or 28 percent of its population of 14,999. Appropriately enough, for a people who'd come in search of the "Golden Mountain," some five hundred of them worked gold-mining claims along the Snake River Canyon southeast of Caldwell. Tolerated by the earliest pioneers, they were not welcomed by white miners determined to defend their turf. Indeed, all along the Pacific Coast and through much of the Rocky Mountain West, Chinese immigrants encountered fierce resistance from laboring men, who saw them as threats to their livelihood.
Soon this opposition took its toll. By 1900, the Chinese foothold in Idaho had shrunk to 1,467. In 1904, when a lone Chinese man disembarked from a stagecoach in Twin Falls, 180 miles down the Snake River from Caldwell, a citizens' committee gave the "venturesome Celestial" the best meal the town afforded, then took him to the ferry and told him to "hit the breeze" for Shoshone. "The idea that Chinamen are a factor in civilization," noted the Twin Falls News, "is not entertained here."
Nor was it entertained in Caldwell. In 1886, the Anti-Chinese League resolved that, since the Chinese were "unsocial in their habits, treacherous in their instincts, and barbarous in their nature," it would "prevent the further influx of Chinese" and would seek to "rid ourselves of those who are already in our midst." By 1890, the last Chinese had been expelled from town.
By the new century's first decade -- with their numbers, and thus their perceived threat, considerably diminished -- they filtered back but once again met resistance. Several Chinese restaurant men were driven from the area -- sometimes by municipal authorities, sometimes by young toughs who played "football" with the restaurants' fancy crockery. In nearby Emmett, the town marshal ordered Charlie Tong to leave town after he was accused of "familiarities with little girls." That same evening another "Chinaman" was severely beaten.
When the governor and John Rice announced plans in 1903 to launch a Caldwell beet sugar factory, the Tribune warned that this would encourage the employment of Chinese and Japanese. "Will they endure to see the white man brought into direct competition with the raw fish-eating Orientals?...Did not Caldwell rise in her majesty a dozen years ago and expel from her noble precincts the radish raising Chinaman?"
Caldwell wasn't exactly partial to Jews, Negroes, Italians, Indians, or Basques either. The one Jewish merchant -- clothier Isidor Mayer -- was something of a curiosity. One Halloween, he found his shop door blocked by a huge boulder, which took four men an hour to dislodge.
Always ready for a little foolery himself, Frank Steunenberg once gave a dinner party served by a Negro who was positively obsequious to the governor and his guests: "Yassuh, boss" and "Sho nuff, boss" and all that. Only at dinner's end did the servant reveal himself as Sam Clay, a senior clerk at the Caldwell Trust and an old family friend, who had used handfuls of ash from the iron stove to make himself up in blackface. They all had a big laugh that evening.
No Negroes lived in town (in 1900, a scant 293 could be found in the entire state). Some of Caldwell's young folk had never seen one, save for McKanlam's Colored Vaudeville troupe, which played once a year at Isham's Opera House. Occasionally, a couple of black prizefighters, known as "thugs," came down from Boise to do battle for the delectation of the Pastime Club. Two of the best riders in Caldwell's renowned Fourth of July parade were ranch hands named Nigger Bill and Indian Jake. People said the colored boy could ride anything that wore hair, but that didn't mean they wanted him at their supper table.
Basque herders had begun to emigrate to Canyon County's sheep country but from the start were vigorously resisted by ranchers already working that range. Terming the swarthy newcomers "filthy, treacherous and meddlesome," the Tribune warned that "unless something is done [they] will make life impossible for the white man."
The governor's first errand that snowy afternoon was to Al Isham's office in the Opera House Block for the physical examination he needed to renew his life insurance. One of Caldwell's most indefatigable entrepreneurs, Dr. Albert Franklin Isham had emigrated from his native Vermont to Idaho in 1883 to serve as the Oregon Short Line's assistant surgeon. The next year, he resigned the post to settle in Caldwell and devote himself to a thriving private practice and a new pharmacy and soda fountain on Main Street. Caldwell's doctors often doubled as pharmacists, filling their own prescriptions, rolling their own pills. Later Isham launched a creamery to supply the town with fresh milk and butter, bought the Pacific Hotel, and built a new brick building to house his drugstore and medical office, rental business suites, and the Caldwell opera house.
Like a thousand other "opera houses" in towns across the land, Isham's had never played host to a real opera, and wasn't likely to. In nineteenth-century America, the word theater still had a disreputable ring, so managers routinely called their houses something else -- usually "opera house" but occasionally "museum," "auditorium," or "academy of music" -- to reassure virtuous ladies and high-minded gentlemen that attendance wouldn't blight their prospects for salvation.
Caldwell's opera house was a modest theater, with rows of benches toward the back, lines of kitchen chairs, and a few proper theater seats (thirty-five cents if reserved in advance), with boxes draped in velour flanking the stage. Before long it was a regular stop for vaudevillians, blackface minstrel shows, itinerant culture on the Chautauqua lecture circuit, as well as traveling theatrical companies. Audiences were too small to attract New York road companies, but the house got regional troupes out of Chicago or Denver, sometimes traveling by wagon. It was attractive to some companies because it helped round out their schedules between Salt Lake City and Portland. Graduation services and political rallies filled the rest of the bill.
The governor attended the theater every chance he got. A passionate fan of the dramatic arts, he preferred "those entertainments that pictured the lighter side of life." Nobody could laugh more heartily than he, great guffaws rumbling out of that substantial belly.
The opera house's impresario, at age forty-seven, was a striking figure with a handlebar mustache, dark hair slicked with pomade, and piercing eyes. A bit of a dandy, Isham managed to appear onstage in a formal cutaway at every program, if only to announce coming attractions, and his appearances grew more elaborate as he ran for -- and became -- mayor. Though he had a wife, Lida, and two daughters at home in his handsome Main Street residence, he was a notorious ladies' man who carried on a long surreptitious affair with Laura Patton, a Caldwell schoolteacher. He was also a skilled physician, regularly attending the Steunenberg family. That afternoon, finding the governor in good health, he certified as much to the New York Life Insurance Company.
From the doctor's office, the governor crossed the street to his bank, the Caldwell Banking and Trust Company. That crossroads -- Seventh and Main -- was the heart of Caldwell's business district and its most prestigious intersection. To the north, at the end of Seventh Avenue, loomed the Union Pacific-Oregon Short Line depot; to the south, the site of the new Italian Renaissance city hall, for which ground was soon to be broken. The four corners in between boasted the Saratoga Hotel, the Caldwell Banking and Trust Company, the First National Bank, and the Odd Fellows Building.
In the middle of Seventh Avenue, north of Main, stood the bandstand on which the eighteen-piece Caldwell Cornet Band -- the ultimate expression of community pride in turn-of-the-century America -- under the baton of its "musicologist," Professor A. T. Gordon, performed each Friday evening from April through November. With snow banked up on all sides, the bandstand didn't look inviting that night. But the governor relished soft summer evenings when the whole town turned out, tapping their feet to the rat-a-tat-tat of the snare drums, singing along with those grand old patriotic airs. The setting sun glinted off the brass tuba, casting shimmers of golden light along Main Street; gray heads nodded over their knitting in camp chairs set against the bank's wall; sheep men, drowsy with beer, gawked from the windows of the Palace saloon.
The architectural vista at Seventh and Main inspired lofty comparisons. As plans for the new city hall were unveiled, the Tribune rhapsodized: "The scene that will present itself to a person as he steps off the train will be the most beautiful in the city." Aside from the hotel and the bank, "the two most handsome" buildings in town, "the city hall in the distance will remind [one]...of Trinity Hall, Boston."
The governor had good reason to be proud of the bank he and his brother had erected only the previous year at a cost of $20,000. Seeking something truly distinctive, the Steunenbergs had turned to Idaho's preeminent architects, J. E. Tourtellotte and Company of Boise, who produced a structure quite unlike anything in town -- a graceful building, perhaps a bit eccentric, but right up-to-date in the "commercial style" of the fashionable Boston architect H. H. Richardson. Boston was clearly in the minds of Caldwell's young citizens, just as the trees of Iowa had stuck in the governor's head.
Two stories high, the bank's red-brick facade was broken by rows of great white arches framing the windows. On the Main Street side, a stairway led down to Hart Norman's popular O.K. Barbershop, while a Romanesque doorway opened on a marble stairway leading up to the bank proper. The high-ceilinged main banking room presented a row of ornate brass tellers' cages across the rear wall and desks for junior officers up front; to the left and up a steep stairway was the Steunenberg brothers' three-room executive suite. Clerks filled the first room. As befitted a former governor, Frank occupied the spacious corner office, bathed in light from five arched windows. A.K., the bank's cashier and himself a former mayor of Caldwell, worked in a smaller adjacent room, overlooking Seventh Avenue. Office space in the rear was rented out to John Rice and the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company. All the offices, and the connecting hallway, were lined with polished oak wainscoting, lending those chambers a sobriety distinctive in that raw town-scape.
Theodore Bird, the agent the governor had agreed to meet in his office that afternoon, represented the nation's largest insurance company. New York Life had been active in Idaho for four decades, paying its first death claim there in 1865. Given the perils of western life, insurance was a popular commodity (nearly a third of those on whom New York Life paid death claims in nineteenth-century Idaho died violently, many by gunshot). The company -- then in a spirited struggle with its major competitors, Mutual and Equitable -- pressed its branch offices to recruit and hold clients. In 1895, it had established an elite rank of agents called Nylics, after the company's initials, who were awarded five escalating Nylic ranks in recognition of the business they brought in. Nylics were entitled to wear the appropriate badge on their watch chains. At company conventions, cheerleaders sang the "Nylic Song":
Nylic, Nylic, lic, lic, lic.
When you write 'em, make 'em stick.
Do we write 'em? Well I guess.
Nylic! Nylic! Yes! Yes! Yes!
Theodore Bird had displayed the requisite Nylic zeal in pursuing the governor's policy renewal. Barely forty-eight hours later, revelations of an immoderate pursuit of profit among these "protectors of widows and orphans" would drive New York Life's president, John A. McCall, from office. The insurance scandals -- revelations of political slush funds, retainers paid to U.S. senators, huge sums to corrupt the press, a company-sponsored bordello called the House of Mirth -- had already forced resignations by the chief executives at Equitable and Mutual.
But little of this was known to Bird and Steunenberg as they transacted their business. Handing over Dr. Isham's hour-old certificate and his new premium, the governor received a freshly endorsed policy, which he carefully folded into his coat pocket.
After the insurance man had left, the governor spoke briefly with his brother and with Sam Clay. If Frank then kicked his feet up on the big oak partner's desk -- on which he liked to whittle with a favorite pen knife -- and gazed out the wide windows at the ever-falling snow, he could have reflected on the solvency of his multiple enterprises. The Steunenbergs had realized a tidy profit from the sale of the Tribune to Rees Davis in 1893. "If we've enlarged our supply of the world's goods, we think we have earned them," they wrote in their last issue. "We bought the Tribune as a business proposition, have run it as a business proposition, and part with it on the same grounds." That rang with the brothers' steely realism, but one suspects it was something of a pose as well. They must have loved the newspaper game, since they couldn't stay out of it, at various times over the next decade owning part or all of the Caldwell Record and its successor, the Caldwell News.
But never again were they full-time newspapermen. By April 1894, Frank -- with several Caldwell partners -- was panning for gold in the hills north of Boise. "Mr. Steunenberg has great faith in the ultimate success of his venture," the Tribune reported, "and his host of Caldwell friends sincerely hope that inside of a year he will have acquired a few millions." He never hit the mining jackpot, but on the day of his walk, he held interests in gold and silver mines worth $1,800.
In 1894 as well, A.K., with John Rice, James Ballantyne, and others, founded the Commercial Bank. A decade later, when Frank was brought in as president, it became the Caldwell Banking and Trust Company. Spurred by A.K.'s zeal, the brothers established other banks in St. Anthony, Paris, and Glenns Ferry, Idaho, and in Wallowa and Vale, Oregon, which eventually yielded the governor banking stock worth $12,000. Meanwhile, the brothers had moved into real estate with a land speculator, Colonel Charles A. Hand, laying out the "Steunenberg-Hand addition" in southeast Caldwell. With other parcels in town, the governor now had some $11,000 worth of prime building lots. Not to mention his four-hundred-acre sheep ranch near Bliss and other land in the Twin Falls area, now worth $16,000 but soon destined to quadruple in value owing to the irrigation project there. Then there were the 10,500 merino sheep Frank owned with Charles S. Coon, his share worth some $7,000; thirty-three shares in the Barber Lumber Company, $3,000; and his house and personal property, $3,600.
Altogether, the governor was worth more than $55,000 -- equivalent to almost a million in 1997 dollars -- not bad for a forty-four-year-old who had come west eighteen years before with only the few hundred dollars he'd sunk in the Tribune and who had earned only $3,000 a year during his four years as governor. A few years back, the Tribune had said he was "getting rich."
And he wasn't through by any means. "We are here for the money," A.K. had proclaimed years before, and, indeed, money seemed these days to be the governor's preoccupation. Several weeks earlier, he'd written an Idaho industrialist a letter brimming with fresh prospects for profit:
My business ventures are all looking well -- some of them a trifle slow -- but safe. What mining deals I am in are all being conducted in the other fellow's money -- I am at such hand every day, either with the sheep, at the ranch or in the timber, and I have within the last month looked up a number of new things, and have two that are good viz, one, an irrigation deal of 12,000 acres in Eastern Idaho; some one of the roads building west will have to come through it....I have also investigated the timber belt of Eastern Oregon on the lower Grande Ronde and entire Wallowa rivers. It is the best lumbering chance I have ever seen....If I find time this winter I will try to float a deal on both these propositions.
Yet prosperity hadn't brought the governor peace of mind. The sepia photographs and other memorabilia of his gubernatorial years that covered his office walls never failed to stir a sense of loss, even bereavement. His years in public office had begun, as did many such careers in the West, with the very process of state making. In 1889, his neighbors chose him as one of nine delegates to represent Ada County (Canyon County wasn't carved out of Ada until 1892) in the convention called to write the Idaho constitution. Thus emboldened, he won a seat the next year in the first state legislature, served two terms on Caldwell's city council and a stint as Canyon County auditor. By August 1894, as his gold-mining operation failed to pan out, the Tribune reported that Steunenberg was getting serious about politics and henceforth would "engage actively" in it, and as a Democrat, too, although his father and brothers were all Republicans -- another sign of his stubborn independence. Soon he seized the critical position of secretary to the Democratic State Committee and from there made a nimble leap into the governor's office.
Frank couldn't escape the feeling that high office had been snatched away from him unjustly, that he'd been blamed unfairly for mishandling labor unrest in the state's northern panhandle. In 1900, recognizing that his gubernatorial days were over, he'd made a bold bid for a U.S. Senate seat, only to be humiliated by his "arch enemy," the former Republican senator Fred T. Dubois. Sensing a power vacuum among the Democrats, the shrewd Dubois simply walked in, took over, and ensured his return to the Senate on the Democratic ticket. In 1902, Steunie -- as the Dubois faction contemptuously called him -- tried to regain control of the party, hoping to install his sidekick Frank Martin as governor, then capture Dubois's Senate seat for himself. Instead, he was soundly thrashed again.
By now Dubois had a firm grip on the state's Democratic machinery, keeping Steunenberg at bay. Moreover, the continued flood of conservative Midwestern emigrants, particularly from the governor's native Iowa, had helped transform Idaho into a largely Republican state, erecting additional barriers to his ambitions. For all these reasons, Steunenberg took a couple of years off from politics in 1903-04.
But the old itch kept demanding to be scratched. With Fred Dubois's term in the Senate running out in March 1907, Steunenberg dreamed of paying his old rival back. "There was strong talk of running him again," recorded his sister Jo. His frequent trips around the state, to visit his sheep ranches, banks, and irrigation projects, were convenient excuses to get back in touch with his supporters. Only that past summer, he and his son Julian had made a six-week trip by buckboard and pony to the Salmon City area in central Idaho, ostensibly to do some salmon and trout fishing but trolling in other waters as well. He was a natural campaigner; even his critics conceded that he was "a great, open-minded fellow, hearty and cordial in his actions and manner of speech." For months, he'd been spending three or four days a week in Boise, now a burgeoning city of 18,000, or elsewhere in the state, talking with merchants, bankers, farmers, and sheep ranchers, returning to Caldwell and his family only on weekends.
On election day that fall, he and Sam Clay had been talking politics when Frank exclaimed, "Oh, I love it! It's a great game and I would rather play it than to do anything." He surely did miss politics. People kept telling him he could win. After New Year's, there'd be some tough judgments to make.
As the governor left his office around five o'clock, he paused for a moment in the blowing snow to cast a proprietary glance at the family's latest venture: the half-sunk foundation of a matching office building, to be called the Steunenberg Block, which would soon rise beside the bank. Excavation had begun three months before and, though construction had been suspended for the winter, the two-story brick structure was scheduled for completion by summer. Three broad-shouldered emporia would elbow one another at street level, with offices on the floor above. And the name Steunenberg would be carved in a rectangular parapet above the second-story windows. The governor could be pardoned if he relished the notion of future generations seeing his name there chiseled in stone, impervious to wind, storm, or the passage of time.
The Steunenberg Block was one of a host of downtown projects that had already broken ground or were in an advanced stage of planning. The acquisitive town sizzled with rumors about the latest ventures, fresh real estate purchases, mysterious strangers from back East said to be buying land on the sly, snapping up buildable lots before they were gone. "Get hold of all the town lots you can," a Caldwell businessman confided to a reporter down from Boise, "buy them with as little payment as possible, then put on a long face and hold out to the end."
By 1905, Caldwell was enjoying a classic boom. Within five years, it had added electric power (the generators didn't come on until dusk and shut off at midnight), two telephone companies (many merchants subscribed to both companies, proudly advertising "both phones"), a municipal waterworks, Idaho's first public park, new county fairgrounds, a flour mill, a creamery, a new hotel, several dozen stores, and start of construction on a new city hall "suitable to the wealth and dignity of this city." One week that fall, seven private homes were under construction in various parts of town.
The Oregon Short Line was so overburdened with freight and traffic in and out of Caldwell that some businessmen thought of chipping in and hiring a man "to help the boys at the depot." That didn't mean the Short Line and its parent, the Union Pacific, were beloved institutions in Caldwell. Indeed, all along those tracks, the "railrogues" were Idahoans' favorite objects of derision. Folks could remember not so many years before when Populist orators spoke from a wagon near the Odd Fellows Hall in the light of a great bonfire made of railroad ties from "the great monopoly Union Pacific." Now the Evening Capital News of Boise could carp: "The Oregon Short Line Railway seems to be short in more ways than one, short in engines, short in cars, short in service, short in light for its cars and short in efficient officials."
Merchants, farmers, and mine operators alike seethed at the freight rates, which they considered extortionate -- as well as at the railroads' practice of heavy rebates to the biggest shippers, like Standard Oil and Armour, which only drove rates up for smaller customers. These widespread abuses had stoked explosive resentment across the country, which Frank Norris, the California muckraker, captured in his 1901 polemic, The Octopus, depicting the iron horse as "the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, Cyclopean...flinging the echo of its thunder over the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the Leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the Monster, the Colossus, the Octopus."
Judge Frank J. Smith of the Seventh Judicial District, which included Caldwell, feared that the railroads' clout could only stir deep unrest in Canyon County. "Conditions in Idaho," he warned in a press interview, "are bad enough to make anarchists of nearly everybody." The root of the problem, he thought, was blatant favoritism in railroad taxation. "The railroads [in Idaho] are assessed at the rate of $9,500 a mile. In Montana they are assessed at $16,000 a mile." Some Idaho trackage, he thought, was easily worth $25,000 a mile. On the other hand, the judge remarked, when the tax assessor visits the lowly shack of the homesteader, he "notes the sewing machine, the lone cow, a pig, half a dozen chickens and levies an assessment on each for their true value. No wonder the people have anarchistic tendencies."
Quick to feel the depth of public anger, Wisconsin's Progressive senator, Robert La Follette, had launched a well-publicized investigation of railroad income. In Washington, President Roosevelt made railroad rate regulation his top priority: that very month he demanded legislation that would at last give the Interstate Commerce Commission authority to prevent the railroads from imposing "unjust or unreasonable rates."
As the governor crossed Seventh Avenue, he approached the pale cream facade of the Saratoga Hotel, Caldwell's principal hostelry, the fulcrum of its social life. One of divers hotels across the land -- as well as a Chicago bordello and a Dodge City saloon -- named after the swanky New York racing resort, it was further evidence of Caldwell's homage to eastern models. A dandy little hotel for a town this size, it belonged to a rival banker, Howard Sebree, president of the First National Bank, who'd entrusted the management to his son Ralph. The Sebrees had spared no expense to create an establishment "first class in all its appointments and fully up to the requirements of the place for many years." For $2.50 a night, each of its fifty rooms supplied hot and cold running water, steam heat, and electric light, courtesy of the Sebrees' own Caldwell Power Company. They had spent upwards of $40,000 on construction and furnishings.
Built in the French chateau style popular at the moment, the Saratoga had a mansard roof with a line of dormer windows, corner turrets, a Palladian window, and bay windows flanking the canopied Main Street entrance. From that arched doorway, a broad corridor led to a rotunda, where tables provided blackjack, faro, and roulette to meet the needs not just of hotel guests and local gamblers but of the big spenders who came through town on stagecoaches bound for California. Farther back was a comfortable bar, the favorite watering hole for the town's more prosperous merchants; a spacious dining room that, gourmands down from Boise were pleased to report, set "a very good table"; and an adjacent ballroom, where, on St. Patrick's Day, 1904, one hundred invited couples had waltzed and reeled into the wee hours to celebrate the hotel's grand opening.
The governor was a man of fixed habits: every Saturday he was in Caldwell, he crossed the Saratoga's threshold just before six to pick a Tribune from the stack of papers on the gift shop counter. Press time was 5:00 p.m. Saturday -- and the first bundle always went to the Saratoga -- so these copies were barely an hour old. There they were now, the ink still wet on the grainy paper, smudging slightly under the pressure of his thumb. How he loved that smell. It swept him back nearly three decades to his days as an apprentice at the Knoxville Express, where one of his tasks had been to carry the papers from the press to waiting delivery wagons. The aroma of wet ink and pulpy newsprint had lingered in his nostrils ever since, the sweet fragrance of fresh news.
Sinking into a creaking leather chair in the Saratoga bar room, hard by a fire in the brick hearth, Caldwell's first citizen may have ordered a cup of the hotel's mulled cider -- strictly nonalcoholic -- to ward off the blizzard's chill. Then, with a palpable flush of satisfaction, he spread the good old Tribune on his knee and began his practiced perusal.
Under "Commissioners' Proceedings," he would have noticed with deep satisfaction that the Canyon County Board of Commissioners had that week opened sealed bids for $62,605.20 in bonds to fund the new courthouse, a project for which the governor had strenuously campaigned the autumn before. After years of palaver, the county would finally have a real temple of justice, a bright, clean place in which the district judge and the probate judge could dispense due process.
Another page 1 item announced the imminent arrival of yet another fraternal organization to go with the town's Elks, Odd Fellows, Masons, and Knights of Pythias lodges, the sturdy foci of its social life. "An Eagle Aerie will be instituted in Caldwell on the evening of January 10," it said. The Aeries of Pocatello, Weiser, Nampa, Boise, and Mountain Home would attend. And the paper brought welcome news: the Reverend William Judson Boone had married the children of two of the governor's oldest friends. John J. Plowhead, a promising attorney and the son of his former banking partner Jacob Plowhead, had quietly wed Ella Horn, the daughter of the town's veteran newsdealer Jake Horn.
On page 3, the governor surely skipped chapter 9 of "The Wife's Secret, or a Bitter Reckoning," by Charlotte M. Braeme, a novel the Tribune was running in weekly installments. But if his eye strayed to an adjacent column of aphorisms, he might have smiled at a few of the pallid pleasantries: "'Many a man,' says one of the lady journalists, 'has fallen in love with a dimple.' Yes, and discovered later that it was only a wrinkle."
On page 4, the Tribune published a self-serving colloquy:
"Where are you going to, my pretty maid?"
"I'm going a shopping, sir," she said.
"And who gets all your valued trade?"
"The store that advertises, sir," she said.
Finally, toward the back of the paper was a column of "personals," long the most popular of the Tribune's features. The governor noticed that his brother Pete got a mention that week: "Mr. and Mrs. Ettenger of New Plymouth were among those who spent Christmas in Caldwell. They were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. C. B. Steunenberg." There was news of the younger set: "Miss Dolly Dement entertained about 20 of her High School classmates Tuesday evening. The young people spent a most enjoyable evening." And dispatches from the world of agriculture: "A splendid milk cow and 50 February lambs for sale by V. D. Hannah."
In a quarter hour, the governor skimmed the cream off the week's news. Just then, he heard the whistle at the Caldwell Steam Laundry, which blew four times daily -- at 8:00 a.m., noon, 1:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m. -- to mark off the town's working day for those who didn't carry a watch. It was time to head home; the rest of the paper would have to wait until supper was done. Folding the Tribune into a neat square, he stuffed it in his overcoat pocket. In the lobby, he exchanged a few words with Mike Devers, manager of the Caldwell Clothing Store across the street and a charter member of the Bachelors' Club, who'd stopped by for a drink or two at the crowded bar; he waved to Alex Ballantyne, who, with his brother Hiram, ran a mining supplies company just down the block. Then, sniffing the wood smoke curling from his neighbors' chimneys, Frank Steunenberg set off through the darkening evening toward his own glowing hearth.
Caldwell was known as a "Saturday night town," with stores staying open late for the benefit of ranchers and sheepmen who came in to pick up supplies, then make a round of the saloons, perhaps ending up at a dance hall or bordello in Tough Town (where one madam offered a weekend special for hands who wanted to sleep into Sunday). The storm discouraged pedestrians that night; yet, with New Year's Eve impending, shoppers scurried under the new carbide street lamps, returning Christmas gifts or laying in delicacies for the approaching revels. At the hitching posts along Main Street, teams in harness and gleaming saddle horses stomped and steamed in the blowing snow.
Store windows were decked with illuminated balls, red and green crepe paper, and heaps of pine boughs. Every shop made its unique appeal to holiday appetites. Baker and Ford, a fancy grocery, offered crocks of hot sauerkraut, roasted oysters, and mincemeat. The Steunenberg household spent fully twenty-five dollars each month at Baker and Ford, for the governor was a renowned trencherman. Food was plentiful and cheap in Caldwell: with creamery butter thirty cents a pound, breakfast bacon sixteen cents a pound, honey ten cents a pound, it was hard for Frank to stop eating. In a typically self-deprecating letter, he wrote his parents in 1890: "I only weigh 212 pounds -- a falling off of one-half (1/2 pound) during the year. If this rate continues it will only take 424 years to reduce me to nothing....Still I confess, I would rather pine away to nothingness at the rate of one-half lb. per year than to be guaranteed perpetual existence with a gain of one-half pound per year; for instance, at the age of 5,000 years I would weigh 2712 pounds, which you all will agree would be somewhat of a burden even in 'Sunny Idaho.'"
It wasn't so much his size that made people cock an eye at the governor; it was the way the weight was distributed, much of it packed around his stubby neck and sloping shoulders, then again just above his belt. A long swatch of auburn hair was invariably plastered fiat across his right forehead. The cumulative picture of awkward dishevelment gave many people the feeling there was something "a little bit different" about Frank. One amiable commentator said he was "a fit subject for a portrait by Rembrandt." Another thought he had "the face of a Roman Senator," but not the heroic features of Marcus Antonius, more the slightly cockeyed visage of Popilius Lena. A friend fondly remarked, "He didn't have so many peculiarities, but those he did have, he hugged very close to him."
Farther down the block, Eddie Adam, the mustachioed newsdealer in his bowler hat, who'd recently had a large abscess on his cheek lanced, was back at his old stand offering periodicals, "peerless root beer," ice cream sodas, cigars, and exotic tobaccos ("Better smoke on earth than in 'hell," he advertised). Tom Little, the cranky Irishman who ran the town's largest dry goods store, displayed silks and linens and Hart, Schaffner, and Marx tweeds. Isham's Opera House Pharmacy tempted passersby with French bouillon and oyster cocktails.
It had been a profitable season for the town's merchants. The day after Christmas, the Statesman's Caldwell correspondent reported: "Never before in the history of Caldwell have the holiday sales of the several stores at this place been greater. Never before have there been more presents sent away to friends both east and west. Never were there fewer poor. This all evidences that the people of this section are prosperous and look forward toward the future with a most hopeful outlook."
The reporter's comforting assertion about the dwindling poor, accurate enough in its broad strokes, disguised more than it clarified. The poor were still there in ample numbers, though difficult to track to any locality, for Caldwell hadn't yet fragmented into socially or economically homogeneous districts. The only section in which the working class had begun to predominate was the "Golden Gate" strip along the Boise River, designated as the yards for the new San Francisco, Idaho, and Montana Railroad. But the working poor often lived side by side with substantial citizens: Walter Sebree, proprietor of the Caldwell Power Company, and George Chaple, manager of the Independent Telephone Company, for example, built substantial homes right down the street from several boardinghouses chockablock with Italian quarry workers and Greek railroad laborers.
There were no enterprises in town large enough to attract a working-class settlement. The county's biggest employers were its ambitious irrigation schemes, which recruited hundreds of Asians and southern Europeans to dig and maintain the "ditches." Carpenters, masons, roofers, and the like -- at a premium in Caldwell's construction boom -- also worked all over town. None of the town's individual firms -- livery stables, flour mills, lumber companies, plow and tractor dealers, the brickyard, creamery, bottling works, or even the two telephone companies -- employed more than a dozen or so workers apiece.
Nonetheless, Caldwell had a tradition of labor organizing. In 1888, the Knights of Labor had founded a Caldwell branch -- Local Assembly 1118 -- embracing a curious amalgam of agricultural workers, day laborers, skilled craftsmen, even a few small merchants. For the Knights drew their principal distinction not between labor and capital but between producers and parasites. Only the latter -- a category that lumped lawyers, bankers, gamblers, and saloonkeepers -- were rigidly excluded. In 1894, Caldwell's Knights nearly put their own candidate in the state legislature. But ground down by friction with craft unions, the Knights of Labor atrophied both nationally and locally. By the turn of the century, Assembly 1118 had dwindled away.
Then, early in 1903, Caldwell's blacksmiths organized to exact what advantage they could from the relentless demand for their services. Led by Al Butts and Tom Ward, two renowned wielders of hammers and tongs, they seemed destined to become Caldwell's first independent craft union. Something intervened. For three weeks later, the smiths voted to cast their lot instead with the American Labor Union, a Chicago-based federation that, professing its faith in Socialism, had set out to wrest working-class allegiance from Samuel Gompers's sober American Federation of Labor. Though the blacksmiths retained leadership of the Caldwell branch, with Butts as president and Ward as treasurer, other officers represented a wide spectrum: Loren Tompkins, a carpenter; Frank Hardy, operator of the Exchange saloon (whose occupation would have excluded him from the Knights); and Herb Van Housen, proprietor of the Pioneer Barn. According to the Tribune, the branch's first fifty-five members were drawn from "nearly all the trades of the city." Interest in the new organization was intense; by month's end, its membership neared a hundred.
The Tribune welcomed the new union to town, with deep misgivings about its Socialist principles. Caldwell's merchants were even more distrustful of the larger unions muscling up in metropolitan centers to do battle with corporate trusts. Indeed, the town looked with suspicion on all "combinations" -- as such agglomerations of economic power were known -- whether assembled by labor or by capital.
What true destitution persisted in Caldwell was widely scattered: itinerant farmworkers, out-of-work ranch hands, out-of-luck miners who drifted through Caldwell, pitching tents or building shacks on vacant lots along the railroad right-of-way, even on undeveloped stretches of up-and-coming Cleveland Boulevard. Furnished rooms were so "desperately scarce" in town that the Tribune offered to run ads for them free of charge.
In that winter of 1905, few of Caldwell's citizens dwelled much on endemic poverty (any more than most Americans had heeded Robert Hunter's bold assertion in his book Poverty, published the year before, that fully ten million persons lived in poverty in a nation of eighty million). So vigorous was the town's economy, so busy its construction crews, so roseate its prospects, it was easy for its citizens to forget the squalor of the "money shuffle," which in many cases had sent them trekking west in the first place. As the new year began, the deposits in Caldwell's three banks together totaled nearly $1.5 million. An editorial in the Tribune had assumed the voice of an imaginary man who'd left Caldwell to prospect for wealth in California and was now back for a look at his old town. "Ought to have staid here with the other boys, and I would now be with them on millionaire row," he moaned. "Wealth just seems to grow here in Caldwell. Beats the world. Everybody getting rich."
The community's general air of well-being was reflected in the bustling jollity of Caldwell's holiday festivities, formally ushered in on Saturday, December 23, with Christmas exercises at three downtown churches. The most impressive were those at the Presbyterian Church, the house of worship that attracted many of Caldwell's leading citizens. Belle Steunenberg had stood proudly among its founders, a teacher in its Sunday School, a doyenne of the congregation, a community leader "jeweled with Christian graces," until her inexplicable defection to Caldwell's tiny eight-member Adventist Church when it was inaugurated a year before -- an act of such breathtaking betrayal it had left a strong residue of resentment in the front pews.
To assuage some of the bitterness among Belle's former congregation, the governor still attended an occasional Presbyterian service, though without much enthusiasm. He once confessed to a friend that "his church attendance, he feared, was prompted more by anticipation of an intellectual treat than spiritual improvements." He had to concede that the Presbyterians knew how to put on a show. That Saturday, the adult choir's "Joy to the World" had been followed by songs from the youngest congregants, including a solo by the governor's niece, Grace van Wyngarden, still pale from her bout of typhoid; a "Rock of Ages" pantomime by Mrs. Stone's class, the young ladies dressed as the heavenly host, all in gold and silver, with wings sprouting from their shoulders; and finally the smallest child of all, Gladys Gordon, singing a "rock-a-bye" with the aplomb of a prima donna and "a clear, sweet voice which sounded to the roof."
Then a portly member, dressed as Santa Claus, pulled up in a sleigh and, taking his traditional position in the choir loft, delivered a gay, bantering speech. "Have all you children been good this year?" he asked to squeals of affirmation. Descending to the foyer, Santa opened his sack, tossing out green net bags tied up with crimson yarn, each containing candy, nuts, and a bright golden orange. All this in the glow of an admirable balsam -- which the congregation's men had cut in the crisp air of the Owyhee Mountains -- now dressed out in cardboard angels and colored balls and illuminated this year, for the first time, by genuine electric lights.
At noon on Christmas Day, the governor and Belle had attended the traditional family dinner at A.K.'s house. The hustling young entrepreneur and his family occupied an imposing Colonial Revival mansion, its great front portico supported by three Tuscan columns, approached by a new cement sidewalk on North Kimball Avenue, where the city's "quality" clustered in the lee of the Presbyterian Church.
Although Frank, A.K., and their wives certainly ranked among Caldwell's first families, they were less self-assured than they appeared. In a town that had long cherished the notion of unrestrained opportunity, the uncomfortable specter of social class reared its head. When James Munro, a clerk in the Steunenberg bank, married Estella Cupp, the eldest daughter of the town's most prominent real estate broker, the Tribune called them "popular young society people" -- a frank recognition that a "smart set" was coalescing in this nominally egalitarian community. A Young Man's Dancing Club invited these socially active young people to occasional soirees at Armory Hall.
Some of Caldwell's new elite never quite felt they belonged. During a prolonged stay in the nation's capital, Frank Steunenberg shied away from the fashionable dinner parties to which he was invited. "Why," he told a friend more eager than he to see how the smart set lived, "to accept one of these invitations means the wearing of an evening costume and what a pretty figure I would cut!"
A. K. Steunenberg had a thick sheaf of credentials. But consider his reaction as a guest of Bob and Adell Strahorn, the most worldly members of Caldwell's inner circle, at their summer home in northern Idaho. "You can imagine my consternation when I 'butted' into a regular dress suit card party," A.K. wrote his wife. "I was the only one who did not wear a white front and a claw hammer. And to make matters worse they played a game called 500 I think that I had never played before. Being like a fish out of water anyhow that did not tend to give me any reassurance....I sailed in and got through without making any very bad breaks or spilling my coffee. The ladies were perfectly lovely and seemed to try and relieve my embarrassment and I guess the men did too....The main theme of conversation at the card party was the help problem...not being able to procure help of any kind."
None of these insecurities could be detected that Christmas afternoon as a gracious A.K. welcomed the boisterous clan beneath his portico. No fewer than thirty Steunenbergs gathered around the heavily laden table, headed by the seventy-two-year-old patriarch, Bernardus, a shoemaker by trade, a Mexican War veteran who'd come west from Iowa to join his children earlier that year. Seven of his ten offspring were there that afternoon: five sons -- Frank; A.K.; Pete, the most raffish of the brothers, a part-time printer who sometimes dealt cards down at the Saratoga; Will and John, lifelong bachelors and partners in a shoe store ("Fitters of Feet," they called themselves) just behind the Saratoga -- and two daughters -- Elizabeth ("Lizzie"), married to Gerrit van Wyngarden, a Caldwell contractor who'd built both Frank's house and the new Caldwell Banking and Trust building, and Josephine ("Jo"), at thirty-four still unmarried, who made a home for John, Will, and Bernardus at her commodious house on Belmont Street, while finding time to repair Frank's shirts as well. The "plump" and "jolly" A.K. played Santa at his own festivities, distributing elaborately wrapped gifts to all the children.
The "social event of the season" took place that night, a gala masquerade ball at Armory Hall, next door to the Saratoga, attended by several hundred townspeople decked out in garish masks and costumes. Tailors in town did a booming business in rented evening wear of all kinds.
But the most celebrated holiday event that year was a progressive dinner called A Trip around the World, a benefit sponsored by the ladies of the Reading Room, representing many of the world's cultures through their distinctive food, drink, art, and language. The first such extravaganza ever held in Caldwell, it had an air of urbane sophistication that drew many of the town's leading citizens. Livery stables donated carriages to shuttle the gentry from house to house at half-hour intervals. It began at the home of J. G. Cowden, a preacher, with hot mulled punch and gingerbread cookies in a Boston setting; then on to Africa to examine the "pickaninnies" and taste stuffed dates at the residence of William C. Stalker, the town's leading dentist and ardent Prohibitionist; Holland at the home of realtor William Cupp, just recovering from a vicious kick by a horse at Campbell's livery stable; Japan, replete with a "magic fish pond," at attorney William Stone's; and finally La Belle France at the Blatchleys', where "Professor" Gipson -- the Rhodes scholar's father -- explained the oil paintings on the walls in French "to the amusement, if not the edification, of those present."
The town mounted professional exhibitions as well. On December 27, Isham's Opera House was packed for the Great McEwan, a hypnotist and prestidigitator who'd built a regional reputation with his recondite feats ("You'll laugh, you'll scream, you'll shriek at the antics of the hypnotic subjects"). The Methodist Church presented the Lilliputian Sisters, midgets named Lucy and Sara Adams, with an "amusing, elevating and refining" program of duets, dialogues, and posings. And, of course, there were countless private entertainments. One night, twenty-five young people gave a skating party at Scovel's Pond -- a few show-offs competing for attention by carving fancy figures in the ice, while most couples were content to glide arm in arm in great lazy circles under the shimmering stars.
The night before the governor's walk had witnessed the season's grandest dinner party, cohosted by Caldwell's social arbiter, Queen Carrie Blatchley; William Judson Boone; and their spouses for a group of refined young couples, including two attorneys, an insurance agent, a pastor, and the manager of a lumber company. "Very pleasant," Boone recorded in his diary. "Fine time."
Indeed, to Boone, his guests, and many others, that winter in Caldwell seemed a fine time and place to be alive. Despite its early dependency, there lingered in town a fragile sense of autonomy -- the notion that its citizens controlled their own destiny -- which had animated so many American communities in decades past but which had widely atrophied of late. Perhaps because Idaho was the last of the forty-eight states to be entered by whites -- it was settled almost as an afterthought by pioneers who'd pressed through to the Pacific Coast, then doubled back -- the heady feel of self-determination hung on there longer than it did elsewhere. And with it came a certain egalitarianism, an impression -- quixotic perhaps -- that no man in town stood too far above another, that no path was permanently closed off to anyone who kept his shoulders in his work, his faith in Almighty God.
On that snowy night of the governor's walk, Caldwell looked for all the world like the quintessential nineteenth-century American community, sufficient unto itself, proof against an uncaring world. But there were ample warnings that this Currier and Ives print was no longer quite true to life. Many in town had felt the first whiff of anxiety that America's social landscape was changing, that corrupt forces were abroad in the land, relentlessly impinging on the autonomy Caldwell had taken for granted. Among these perceived threats were Chinese, Italian, Greek, and other swarthy immigrants; the railroads, resented for inflating freight rates and otherwise gouging customers; corporate trusts, concentrating ever-greater economic power in their hands; labor unions, meeting employers' challenges with conglomeration of their own; the relentless encroachments of class distinction. Even the impulse to purge the town of drink, gambling, and loose women seems to have grown, in part, from a forlorn hope that a newly purified community could better stave off external threats. But nothing stemmed the mounting uneasiness that Caldwell's citizens weren't fully in control of their own lives, that malign forces threatened their well-being.
Such perhaps were some of the bleak thoughts that had troubled the governor's sleep the night before. Now his mood may have lifted a bit as he negotiated the icy boardwalk along Main Street and swung back onto Kimball again, crossing Indian Creek, then retracing his steps up the wide, dim boulevard. As he followed the frozen plume of his breath, his boots crunching eight inches of freshly fallen snow, some of his fears may have been swept away, at least for the moment, by the dazzling whiteness of his beloved town. He could look forward to a hearty supper warming on the big iron stove, then a long winter's evening in the bosom of his family.
Entering Sixteenth Avenue, he could see the lamplight burning behind the columns of his front porch, the warm glow filtering through the lace curtains of his living room, where, minutes before, Belle and their two youngest children had knelt at their evening prayers. He reached down and pulled the wooden slide that opened the gate leading to his side door. As he turned to close it, an explosion split the evening calm, demolishing the gate, the eight-inch-thick gatepost, and the nearby fencing, splintering yards of boardwalk, scooping a shallow oval hole in the frozen ground, and hurling the governor ten feet into his yard.
At first, Belle thought the potbelly stove had exploded. But thirteen-year-old Frances, who was especially close to her father, had been eagerly glancing out the window, impatient for his arrival. Having seen the flash by the gate and watched Frank fall, she was at his side in a few seconds, joined almost immediately by Belle. For one terrible moment, mother and daughter stared in blank incomprehension at the governor, sprawled on his back, naked from the waist down, blood seeping from his mangled legs, staining the snow an ugly pink.
Across the street, the door to a modest one-story house burst open and C. F. Wayne, a nurseryman, rushed into his yard.
"Has anything happened?" he yelled.
"Come here, quick!" shouted Belle.
Wayne sprinted toward the side gate, through which he'd passed barely fifteen minutes before. He and his family had lived in Caldwell for three years, but he scarcely knew the Steunenbergs, having bought his property in the fall and moved in only on December 10. He'd glimpsed Frank Steunenberg from afar, though they'd never met face-to-face. But the boy who usually did the Steunenbergs' farm chores was away for the holidays and Wayne had agreed to handle them in his absence. That evening he'd milked the cows and fed the goats and chickens, finishing about six. After stopping off for a few words with Belle, he'd gone out through the side gate and home to his own dinner. He was taking off his overshoes when the blast tumbled chairs and shook dishes from the table. His wife thought it was an earthquake.
Now Wayne joined Belle at her husband's side. "Is this Mr. Steunenberg?" he asked. But the governor made no reply.
"How did this happen?" Wayne asked.
"Send for Mama," said the governor, although his wife was standing right there. Then he stirred and mumbled, "Who shot me?" Then, "Take me inside. I'm freezing."
Wayne tried to lift him, but not only was he too heavy for one man to carry, his lower body was so broken, his limbs "mere shreds of flesh," that the nurseryman dared not move him. To one townsman who saw the governor's heavy frame a few minutes later, it looked "as if mice had chewed his clothes," so riddled were they by fragments from the explosion. His favorite shirt, the one with the cheerful flowered pattern, now had a dozen holes in front to match its missing tail. For days thereafter, passersby were picking "little bits" of the governor out of the debris.
Most of the damage had been done to his right side, which had been turned toward the gate as he sought to close it. His left shoe and overshoe and his left glove were still "good as new," while not a shred of the right shoe or glove was ever found.
The governor grew impatient. "Why don't you take me in the house?" he demanded.
Wayne said he'd go for help. After admonishing Frances to telephone family friends, he raced out to Cleveland Boulevard, where he tried to rouse John Rice, but the lawyer's wife said he hadn't yet returned from arguing his big case in Boise. He tried two more neighbors before finding Bill Lesley, a richly mustachioed construction worker who lived a block southeast on Cleveland and had been shingling houses that year along the boulevard. Before Wayne and Lesley could get to the governor's house, Julian Steunenberg and Will Keppel came running. A sturdy youth with a shock of blond hair, strikingly like his father in face and figure, Julian had been particularly close to the governor. He and Will had been strolling two blocks behind him when they felt the explosion, then dashed with pounding hearts to Frank's side, where they were quickly joined by Gerrit van Wyngarden, the governor's brother-in-law, who lived two blocks west on Dearborn. Together the trio tried to lift the grievously wounded man, but as they did the flesh on his legs simply gave way. Finally, someone got a blanket, into which they placed the governor, managing to carry him that way into the house and lay him on a bed in his daughter's downstairs bedroom.
From all over Caldwell, townspeople streamed through the icy night toward the governor's house. Frances's first frantic phone call had reached Ralph Oakes, a family friend and co-owner, with his brothers Adrian and Charles, of the Oakes Brothers dry goods store on Main Street. Ralph believed the governor's boiler had exploded and passed the word.
When the bell at the Arthur Street firehouse began to toll, the town's able-bodied men followed a well-established routine. Anyone on Caldwell's streets with a team of horses raced to the firehouse -- a shed tacked onto a shack called City Hall -- where they hooked up the two hose carts, each with six hundred feet of hose, and the hook and ladder. (In this dollar-driven town, their haste wasn't entirely altruistic: the first wagon to reach the fire with a hose cart earned $2.50, the second $1.50.) Others grabbed axes and ladders. Even when they discovered that there was no fire at the Steunenbergs', folks kept coming. Eventually nearly five hundred persons -- fully a fourth of the town -- were gathered on Dearborn Street across from the governor's.
The Reverend Mr. Boone and his wife had been entertaining their closest friends, the Blatchleys, when they heard a "terrific" noise. They thought something had fallen on the roof.
Cy Decker, the bellboy at the Saratoga Hotel, was buying a sweet bun at Frank Wood's bakery, where they said a gasoline engine at the governor's house must have exploded.
A. B. "Shorty" Martin, who operated the Caldwell Steam Laundry, was eating supper at home. It was so cold he'd left the fire on under the boiler at the laundry; now he assumed it'd blown up. But reaching the laundry, he found the building intact. When the town's barber, Swain Beatty, an Iowa State boxing champion, ran up to tell him the trouble was over at the governor's house, they raced together across an apple orchard toward Dearborn Street. "Lord, it was cold," Martin remembered.
At A. K. Steunenberg's house, Josephine had come for supper. Everyone was sitting down to dinner when the chandelier rattled. At Sam Clay's house, the "dishes danced" on his table. Nearby, Pete Steunenberg thought the tank on his roof must have exploded. He called central. When the telephone girl said he was wanted at the governor's right away, he began to run.
Will Steunenberg had just eaten supper and was back at his store arranging a display of boots when the concussion spilled them on the floor. A minute later, Ralph Oakes rushed in to say there'd been an explosion at Frank's house. Will asked him to telephone for doctors and a team of horses, then took off up Dearborn Street. It was like trying to scramble across an ice floe in a nightmare. "The ground was so slippery it was very hard to run," he said later, describing how he'd slid a foot back for every two feet gained.
When he reached the house, his brother had already been moved inside. Belle was lighting kerosene lamps to replace the electric ones, for the neighborhood's electric power had been knocked out by the blast. Windows on the north and west sides of the house had been shattered, as had those in other houses for blocks around. Shards of glass littered the floors. A large clock had toppled from its shelf, striking five-year-old Frank Junior, who'd been lying on the leather couch below.
"Frank has shot himself somehow," Belle told Will, in a curious conclusion. "Hurry in there."
When Will entered the front bedroom, it was "horrible": the governor writhing on the bed, his right arm hanging by a few shreds, his right leg mangled, both legs broken at the ankles. He kept asking to have his legs rubbed.
Struggling to raise himself on his one good elbow, he said, "I'm a dead man."
Falling back, he asked twice to be turned on his side. When those around him complied, he said, "Turn me over on my belly." But he couldn't get comfortable. "Lift me up," he implored. "Lift me higher." They raised him to a sitting position.
Three of the town's doctors -- John Gue, W. E. Waldrop, and John A. Myer -- had arrived. There was nothing they could do.
Cradling his brother in his arms, Will asked him twice whether he'd seen anyone in the street before the explosion. The governor didn't answer, staring up at him with wide, stunned eyes. Although he spoke clearly enough, he couldn't seem to hear the questions, leading his family to assume that his eardrums had been broken by the bomb's concussive force.
Just past 7:10 p.m., he gasped three or four times, like a man trying to catch his breath, and muttered something unintelligible. As Will leaned closer, trying to hear those last syllables, the governor sank back and died.
Later, several newspapers and magazines reported that the dying governor had looked up at his wife and said, "What's the matter, Mother? What does it mean?"
Frank Steunenberg never uttered those words. But the questions were real enough, reflecting a thirst in the press and the public alike to know just what had happened that snowy evening in Caldwell. What sinister forces were lurking out there in the dark, waiting to strike down the best among them?