Editors note: Hello friends! Today's story is a great bit of Boise history that I would bet most of you don't know. I didn't know anything about this special historic farmstead and the great group of humans working super hard to protect and restore it. Thanks so much to Sharon Fisher for writing today's newsletter. Enjoy! -Marissa
Sequestered in one of Boise’s toniest subdivisions is one of Idaho’s oldest farmsteads, lovingly preserved to give visitors a real taste of what 19th-century life in Idaho was like.
“The farmhouse itself is the oldest continuously inhabited farmhouse in the state of Idaho,” said Jay Karamales, chief historian of the Dry Creek Historical Society in Boise, which was formed in 2005 to help preserve the Schick-Ostolasa farmstead.
Founding the farmstead
The Schick-Ostolasa farmstead starts with the history of southwest Idaho itself, in August 1862, Karamales said. “Up until that time, white or Anglo civilization had been following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark,” he said. “The farthest output was Fort Hall” – near modern-day Pocatello. From the Pacific side, permanent towns and cities had pushed up to what is today Walla Walla, Washington. “In-between, you had 500 miles of nothing but sagebrush desert,” and obviously no infrastructure or anything to support the wagons that had been traversing the Oregon Trail every year since 1842, he said.
But in August 1862, the Grimes Party of prospectors peeled off the Oregon Trail and headed north into the mountains, and found gold near where Idaho City is now, Karamales said. “That’s why Idaho City is there,” he explained.
Word got out quickly, and by the end of 1862, something like 10,000 people had poured into the Boise Basin, with 15,000 there by spring 1863. “They weren’t all prospectors,” Karamales said. “They were people who follow miners or come to boom towns to make their living – bartenders, prostitutes, priests, grocers, and freighters. The professions miners need.”
One of those people was Phillip Schick, born in 1838 in New York, the son of immigrants from Hanover, Germany. “He came west after the news of the California gold strike in 1849, when he was old enough,” Karamales said. “He sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco, and over the next few years, worked at various jobs along the West Coast between San Francisco and the mouth of the Columbia River.”
When Schick heard about the gold strike, he was in Lewiston, itself founded just a year previously after a gold strike around Orofino. “There were two ways people in the Boise Basin could get what they needed,” Karamales said. “Food, tools, and everything needed to be either brought in on the backs of pack mules, or on ox-drawn wagons. They were the 18-wheelers of the day.”
Schick signed on with a wagon train of ox-drawn carts to bring supplies down from Lewiston and camped where the Home Depot is today at State Street and Highway 55, between Eagle and Garden City. “One of the nights they were camped there, the oxen wandered off,” Karamales said. “Schick had to track them down. He followed them over some hills into what we now call the Dry Creek Valley, with lush, waist-high grass.”
Fortunately for Schick, in February 1862, the federal government had signed the Homestead Act, to make it easier for settlers to obtain land. “If you came out west, you could find up to 160 acres of unclaimed land, stake a claim, live on it for five years and make improvements showing you intended to stay there, and then you could apply to have that land given to you,” Karamales said.
Schick came back in 1864 with George Banker and took out the first homestead in Dry Creek Valley. “Everybody else coming in wanted to seek their fortune panning for gold,” Karamales said. “Schick never engaged in the mining business. He wanted to set up a home.”
Developing the farmstead
With a tent, a couple of horses, and some hand tools, Schick and Banker started one of the first farms in the Boise area. “Boise didn’t exist until July 1863,” Karamales said. And it was a great place for a farm; while the average soil depth in the area was six inches, the Dry Creek area had 66 inches of volcanic soil, as well as the creek itself, for water.
Schick and Banker planted corn, rye, barley, and vegetables, Karamales said. “Vegetables especially were in very short supply,” he said – so short that miners came down with scurvy.
Later, Schick bought out Banker’s share, and gained neighbors. “A lot of people came right on their heels and established homesteads,” Karamales said. “It wasn’t for the fainthearted. People from the East had no idea how to make a living grubbing sagebrush and planting crops. They’d come out – yay! Free land! – set up a homestead, find out how hard it was and move on.”
Consequently, Schick was able to acquire additional acreage, including a parcel of land closer to Dry Creek that had a year-round cold-water spring. Around the same time, Albert Robie and Alexander Rossi came down from Lewiston and set up the area’s first sawmill on Shafer Creek, up in the hills north from Dry Creek. “He bought some lumber, built himself a one-room cabin, and dragged the cabin to the new acreage next to the spring,” Karamales said. “That’s where the farmhouse is now. The center part of the house is his original cabin.”
The house, and the farmstead, grew over time, as Schick got cattle, chicken, and hogs, and ran either cattle or sheep depending on the market, Karamales said. The farm grew to 500 acres, and Schick was prosperous enough to start thinking about a family.
In 1870, Schick courted and married Mary Yaryan, the daughter of a family from Indiana that had settled closer to the river, near where the quarry in Eagle is today. In 1873, they had their first and only child, Clara. “I expect they intended to have more, but they never did,” Karamales said. Clara, who lived until the early 1960s, remembered growing up in the one-room farmhouse. “It really was the Wild West,” Karamales said, noting that militias were formed to fight off attacks from Native Americans and that outlaws were robbing stagecoaches at the same time the Schicks lived in the valley. “But there’s no record he had any trouble.”
In 1879, when Clara was six and Schick had been in the valley for 15 years, the valley was all homesteaded out. The road from Boise to the Boise Basin at Placerville and Centerville ran through Dry Creek past the Schick ranch. “He was very well known,” Karamales said. “If you went to Horseshoe Bend or Pearl, you came past the Schick’s ranch.”
But there wasn’t yet a school. So, Schick made a proposition to his neighbors: He would donate the materials to build a schoolhouse if someone else would donate the land. A neighbor, John Glenn, donated a one-acre parcel with the proviso that no dances would be held at the school. Thus the Dry Creek School, sometimes known as the Schick School, was born. To get a teacher, he offered her free room and board at his farmhouse, so he bought more lumber and built a living room and added two bedrooms on a second story.
“Now he’s gone from a frontier cabin to a pretty prosperous Western farmhouse,” Karamales said. As yet, it had no kitchen or bathroom, but he built a separate building on top of the cold-water spring, which became the kitchen. “That’s how the farmhouse we have today grew into its present configuration.”
Adding the Ostolasas
In 1902, in a bizarre accident, Schick died. “He and Mary were coming back from Boise in a buggy with groceries and supplies and had just gotten over the rise from what is now Pierce Park Road,” Karamales said. “He had flames billowing off his back and he didn’t notice.” Eventually, he passed out, and Mary was able to roll him into Dry Creek. “All his clothes had burned off, and his back was so badly burned they could almost see the bones,” he said. “Three days he lingered.”
Mary continued to live at the ranch, while Clara and her husband Forrest See, who had a house in Boise, would sometimes come out and live for a while. Eventually they bought the ranch from her and ran it. In 1920, they sold it to an investor, a banker from Boise named Frank Parsons, who owned property all over the Treasure Valley to give himself an income stream. “He needed someone to run it for him,” Karamales said. Parsons was a good friend of a sheep rancher, Colin McLeod, whose ranch was where the Avimor planned community is now. In 1927, Parsons hired one of McLeod’s Basque sheepherders, Costan Ostolasa, to run the ranch. He did until 2005.
In 1942, Parsons died, and his estate sold the ranch to the two Dechambeau brothers from Garden Valley, who lived in Eagle, running cattle between their feed lot and Dry Creek. “He had progressive ideas,” Karamales said, and upgraded the farmhouse, making it the first one in Dry Creek to have electricity and a telephone. In 1942, it gained an indoor kitchen, and in the early 1950s, a pantry was turned into an indoor bathroom. “Up until that time, the women’s outhouse and been just out the back, with the men’s 100 yards away behind the horse barn,” he said.
Around 1979, the Dechambeau brothers wanted to retire, and developers were buying up land in the Foothills. “They sold the ranch to a consortium of developers who had plans for Dry Creek,” Karamales said. The Ostolasas continued to live in the house and work the ranch, while the Hidden Springs planned community started its first phase of construction in 1997.
Restoring the farmstead
Phase 5 of the construction was expected to move the Ostolasas to a new house for ten years for free, and to tear down the farmstead, including the house, the barn, and the outbuildings. “Fortunately, the early residents of Hidden Springs, including archeologist Claudia Druss, had gotten to know the Ostolasas and knew how historically important [the farmstead] was,” Karamales said. “With the bulldozer literally on the property, they founded the Dry Creek Historical Society, and arranged a deal where the developer would sell two acres of the property, including the farm and the barnyard, to Ada County, which leases it to the society for $1 a year.” The Dry Creek Historical Society took possession of the property in 2005.
The Ostolasas did move to a new house for ten years, which gave the Dry Creek Historical Society the opportunity to begin preserving the farmhouse and setting it up as an agricultural museum for southwest Idaho. They also started preserving the outbuildings. “The granary was about to fall over,” Karamales said.
Now, the Dry Creek Historical Society is preserving the woodshed. “We were hoping it would be done this year, but we’re just putting the walls up,” Karamales said. The next estimate is spring 2022. The tackshed, which isn’t in bad shape, is the one building left on the property that hasn’t been preserved, he said.
That said, there have been a few casualties. “It’s pretty hard to keep 160-year-old buildings standing,” Karamales said. “There’s always something.” For example, in the 1950s, lightning hit a tree, which fell and smashed the blacksmith shop. “They didn’t need a blacksmith shop on the property, because they weren’t repairing old metal tools, so they never put it back,” he said. The Dry Creek Historical Society is considering using archeology to show the boundaries of the building and have a couple of local blacksmiths out to give demonstrations, he said.
It's incidents like that which are Karamales’ biggest fear, along with fire. “There’s a great photo in the house, from 1890 or 1900, that shows the house and women of different ages and their babies sitting on the lawn, and at the corner of the white picket fence there’s a sapling tree six feet high,” he said. “It’s a silver maple that’s now 100 feet tall and massive. We’ve had to trim the branches that hang over the house, and I’m always very leery whenever the wind picks up.”
The Schick-Ostolasa farmstead was also named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. “Claudia, who was the driving force behind organizing the Society in the first place, did the research and paperwork,” Karamales said. In addition, she published a book in 2015, Dry Creek Chronicles, which talks about every homesteader in Dry Creek, decade by decade – who they were and what they grew. Today, she still lives in Hidden Springs, he said. Altogether, five books have been written about the Dry Creek area, he added.
One of the biggest projects was preserving the barn, which involved local historian and Finnish woodworking expert Frank Eld. He got involved with the Schick-Ostolasa farmstead while working on his master’s degree in public history at Boise State University as part of a class project.
“I’d been there before, but had never actually been in the barn,” Eld said. “I took one look and said, ‘I’d like to go in the barn.’”
Eld was known for his work with historic barns, to the extent that some people call him the “barn whisperer.” He helped found the barn registry for Preservation Idaho, based on a similar program in the state of Washington, and had dismantled and moved a barn in historic Roseberry.
“Everybody loves a barn,” Eld said, citing the slogan he created for the Preservation Idaho program. In his almost 50 years of restoration in Roseberry, the barn drew more volunteers than any other activity, and the same was true for the barn at Dry Creek, he said.
Eld’s first step was to research the ban. “When I walked into the barn, I said, ‘This is different. It’s like nothing else I’ve seen in Idaho. There’s a story here. I’m going to find it.’”
What struck Eld about the Schick barn was the size of its posts and beams. “They were very large,” he said. “An Idaho barn would typically have posts that were 8 x 8. They were 10 x 10, with 8 x 8 crossbeams.” So he started reading what was written about barns. “New York barns have larger beams, and a larger superstructure,” based on barns from Germany and other European countries. Schick was from upstate New York, of German history. “That explained the size of the beams.”
Other differences between the Schick barn and typical Idaho barns were that there was no passage door for a wagon, no windows, and vertical boards to let in light and air, rather than the board and batten construction typical in the West. The front also featured square holes. “It took me a while to run that down,” Eld said. “They’re typical in New England barns.” They were pigeon holes, or bird holes, which allowed birds to come in and feed on the fleas and other vermin in the barn. “If the farmer needed something to eat, he could go to the barn and shoot himself a pigeon,” he added.
When you think about it, it made sense for Schick’s barn to look like one from New York. “Normally, when you move to a new area, you build a barn like your neighbors’,” Eld said. “He had no neighbors. He was first. So he built what he was used to from New England.”
Similarly, Eld tracked down the provenance of an unusual axe he found in the barn. “My research quickly revealed that the axe is a New England style, used in the mid-19th century, usually for hewing ships' beams,” he wrote in a Facebook post describing his find. “Last year I bought an almost identical one in Massachusetts. Both have a maker's mark, but they are nearly illegible, except for a fairly clear Auburn stamp on Schick's axe.”
But after searching for more than a year, Eld couldn’t find any toolmakers in Auburn, New York that made such an axe. Then, he ran across a book of historic axes. “In it, I found our axe! It had been made by the Underhill Edge Tool Co in Auburn, New Hampshire.” He soon tracked down the company, the home of which now houses the Auburn Historical Society, who was delighted with the find, and was able to confirm that it was built by the company sometime after 1845.
Preserving the barn was a big job. “Of course, the roof was absolutely gone,” Eld said. “It was rotting. Leaking like a sieve. And the beams around the bottom were all rotted out. They needed to be stabilized first.”
At that point, what Eld calls his “Finnish karma” came into play. It was time to start the project, and he wondered where he was going to get the 10 x 10 beams. “Out of the blue, I got an email message forwarded by Jay, from Bruce Reay. He and his sons had a mill for themselves, and Jay helped him out on some research, and he wanted to know what he could do in return for Dry Creek. I said, ‘You are the godsend of what we need right now.’” Normally, such beams would have cost $5,000 to $10,000 to purchase, he said.
Most recently, Eld directed a project to replace the roof – normally a $30,000 project for the labor alone, which, due to volunteers and donations, cost just $13,000 for materials.
Visiting the Schick-Ostolasa farmstead
Today, the Dry Creek Historical Society has a 10-member board (it’s currently down one member) and 170 active members, many of whom live in Hidden Springs or in the Dry Creek Valley. The Society is also gaining new members from the Cartwright Ranch planned community, Avimor, Eagle, Boise, and even some from out of state.
Karamales himself moved to the area in 2011 from Virginia, where he’d been interested in Civil War and World War II history since the 1980s. “When I heard there was a historical society here, I joined,” he said. The original generation was aging, moving away, or didn’t have time. “Within a year, they asked me to be on the board,” he said. While he served a couple of terms as president, he much prefers his current role as historian. “I’d much rather do historical research and preservation than run an organization,” he said.
The farmstead itself is open to the public from the first weekend in May to the last weekend in September, on Saturdays, from 12:30pm to 4:30pm, as well as by arrangement. The Dry Creek Historical Society also holds Old Time Farm Day, which spreads across the farmstead’s two acres, as well as the Hidden Springs community barn next door. In addition to live music and food, the event features historical exhibits and events such as gold panning, sheepherding dogs, soap- and candle-making, laundry, and Lewis and Clark and Civil War reenactors. Throughout the year, the farmhouse holds front porch concerts, and at Halloween, there’s a haunted house.
The Dry Creek Historical Society has received a number of awards for historic preservation from organizations such as Preservation Idaho and the Ada County Historic Preservation Council. “Any group that’s dedicated time and money to the restoration and rehabilitation of historic projects in Idaho is a real hero to us,” said Paula Benson, president of Preservation Idaho. “It’s representing the initial settling of the area, as well as its evolution over time as families and ethnic groups settled in the area. It’s really a celebration for us, and one of our primary missions.”
In 2007, Preservation Idaho granted the organization a Cultural Heritage Preservation “orchid” award for the farmstead as a whole, and in 2021, it received an “orchid” for excellence in historic preservation for the granary. In addition, in 2020, Preservation Idaho held its Orchids and Onions awards ceremony at the farmstead. “It was the middle of the pandemic, and we had to cancel everything, but the event was too important to cancel,” she said. Limited to 40 attendees, the event, held on a blustery day, included a tour of the farmstead.
“You really got a feeling of what it was like to live on a farmstead like that with Mother Nature,” Benson said. “It was subsistence living, and you had to do it in all kinds of weather. You really got a feel for what it was like to walk around the farmstead and tour the buildings in that kind of weather.”
It’s that kind of active participation that makes the Schick-Ostolasa farmstead so important, Benson said. “Where the bathroom was. How they cooked. Where did they get the eggs from. What was the barn like,” she said. “It’s not just about museums, but something that’s a living remembrance of a specific era or, in this case, a hundred years of Idaho history.”
The Schick-Ostolasa farmstead is located at 5006 W Farm Ct, Boise, Idaho 83714. Visit www.drycreekhistory.org for more information and visiting hours.
Thanks so much for reading!
With love from Boise,