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Exploring Boise’s Basque history

published3 months ago
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Today's story was written by Sharon Fisher.

Many American cities have neighborhoods dedicated to and honoring different ethnic groups, but Boise is just about the only one to have such an area designated for the Basque culture.

“Preservation Idaho's mission is to ‘protect Idaho's historic places through collaboration, education, and advocacy’ and that certainly includes the unique and important history of the Basque in Idaho,” said Paula Benson, president of the Boise-based nonprofit historic preservation organization. “The Basques began to settle in and create their own community even as they supplanted some areas that had previously been predominantly Chinese. This is often the evolution of cities as waves of immigration impact and change the demographics of a city.”

And part of that history is told through buildings. “Basque historic structures, like the Chinese, Spanish, and other cultural styles of architecture in Boise, offer both visual appeal as well as holding the stories of the history of the Basques in Boise and across Idaho; including individual people and families and their social customs,” Benson said.

Who are the Basques and how did they get to Idaho?

Basques come from the Pyrenees region bordering Spain and France. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, three million people of Basque descent still live in the region, while several hundred thousand live elsewhere in the world. “Boise, Idaho, has the highest concentration of people of Basque extraction (a total of 16,000) outside the Pyrenees,” the organization notes.

Basque are unusual in a number of ways, but one of the most notable is their language, which they call Euskara. So important is the language to their identity that Basque call themselves Euskaldunak, or “speakers of Euskara.”

“The Basques have had ethnologists and linguists scratching their heads for centuries; their unusual language is related to no other anywhere else in the world,” the National Trust writes. “The current consensus is that their language developed before other Indo-European languages did, which would explain its uniqueness.”

Many things that people typically think are Spanish, such as tapas, chorizo, and paella, are actually Basque in origin.

But how did the Basque get to the U.S., and in Boise in particular? Like many immigrants, the first Basque wave was drawn by the lure of gold in the mid-1800s, said Annie Gavica, executive director of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, in Boise. “They heard, like everybody else, that gold and silver were available in the West,” she said. “Some came to Idaho, though we don’t have a lot of records on that,” though Idaho City, being near the mining, was a popular destination, she said.

But the Basques, like others, soon learned that mining is a tough way to make a living. “Once they got here, they realized it wasn’t easy to strike it rich,” Gavica said. So they looked for other work, but in many cases were hampered by a lack of higher education and English-language skills. Consequently, they went into fields such as mining, timber, and, most of all, cattle ranching and sheepherding.

That led to the second wave of Basque immigration, from the 1900s to the 1950s. Based on their reputation of being hardworking, trustworthy, and honest, ranch owners (like Frank Parsons, who hired his neighbor’s Basque sheepherder to help run what’s now known as the Schick-Ostolasa farmstead) looked for more to hire. “Owners started asking, ‘Do you have a brother or a cousin who can help?’” Gavica said. “That’s when the second group started to emigrate here.” The third group came later, drawn by economic opportunity, she said. They settled wherever there was sheepherding – southwestern Idaho, southeastern Oregon, northern Nevada – as well as Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and California.

Basque history in Boise

But if they were sheepherders, why Boise? “That’s where the train station was,” Gavica said. “They would find work from there.”

Basques found more than work. They found a community, one that reminded them of home, when they weren’t out on the range herding sheep. “A lot of Basques who came before them figured out they wanted to work a little harder and get out of sheepherding, and they established boarding houses,” Gavica said. “They didn’t stick to one area or neighborhood, but wherever property was available. It’s pretty common in a lot of cities where the cultural districts are located, near transportation, usually the train.” At their height, there were as many as 50 Basque boarding houses, ranging from Third St. to 12th St., and from Front St. to State St., she said.

While no single neighborhood held all the boarding houses, some gravitated to Grove St. between Sixth St. and Capitol Blvd., what today is called the Basque Block. “The Basque Block itself had four Basque boarding houses just on this street,” Gavica said. “It became the nucleus of the Basque community,” especially once a Basque clubhouse was built in 1949.

Down the street, in a Basque boarding house built in 1914 by Anduizas, was another attraction. “When they built it, they put in a ball court” – which Basques call a fronton – “in the hopes that, when the boarders aren’t sleeping, they’ll spend more time and buy a drink or lunch rather than venturing out, or to attract more boarders,” Gavica said. “There’s a fronton in every town, no matter the size. They’d be very familiar with the court and the sports associated with it. It was very much a sense of home for them, to participate in handball or pala,” another Basque game.

Another cultural center for the Basques, who were largely Roman Catholic, was the church. So the Basque community raised funds and built its own church, the Church of the Good Shepherd, which was dedicated in 1919, Gavica said.


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Where you can find Basque history and culture in Boise today

Now, with fewer sheep, there are fewer sheepherders, but the Basque stayed in Boise and entered other fields. In some cases, they moved from herding sheep to herding humans by entering politics, such as former Boise mayor Dave Bieter and former Idaho secretaries of state Pete Cenarrusa and Ben Ysursa.

Here’s where you can see Basque culture in Boise today:

On the Basque Block

The place to start your exploration of Boise's Basque community is the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, which includes regular standing and rotating exhibitions, a museum shop, and regular events and classes.

Next door is the Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House, which operated as a Basque boarding house between 1910 and 1969, and is today a museum.

Across the street is the Basque Market, which features ingredients from the “old country,” prepared food, and events, often centered around food, such as paella made in a pan the size of a wagon wheel.

At the corner of Sixth and Grove is the former Basque clubhouse, now known as the Basque Center. It’s now a public bar and rental space, often hosting events for the Basque community as well as others.

Across Sixth St. from the Basque Center is the Basque restaurant Leku Ona.

Up Grove St. from the Basque Museum is the Anduiza Building, the former boarding house that holds the fronton. Pre-COVID, as many as a hundred people regularly played, Gavica said. While it was largely shut down during COVID, it’s opening back up, she said, noting that there are adult leagues in the fall and spring that teach people how to play the sports if they don’t know how. “You don’t have to be Basque, just a member of an association,” she said. “It starts them in a league, and should they want to keep going with it, that’s great.”

At the corner of Capitol Blvd. and Grove is Bar Gernika Basque Pub and Eatery.

On Capitol Blvd., around the corner from Grove St., is a Basque mural celebrating Boise’s Basque culture, including a sign explaining who everyone is.

Bookending the Basque block are two public art exhibits honoring Basque culture, by Boise artist Ward Hooper.

Preservation Idaho holds weekly WalkAbout Boise historic preservation tours on Saturdays from May to mid-November, and they start on the Basque Block and feature a number of stops there, Benson said. “By starting on the Basque Block, we can show how one cultural group can have a profound and long-lasting impact on the development of a city,” she said. “The earliest Basque buildings on the Basque Block show how an established merchant anchored his home in an area that became a community that supported and celebrated his home country.”

Beyond the Basque Block

If you want to venture beyond the Basque Block, there are other sites to visit.

The Church of the Good Shepherd, located at Fifth St. and Idaho St., is now owned by St. Luke’s Health System and is offices, Gavica said. While there is no longer a Basque church per se, a number of priests from the Basque country or of Basque descent have spent time here. A Basque priest who was here about ten years ago at St. John’s is now in Merced, California, but he livestreams a Mass for the Basque community as well as offering Mass at a number of Basque festivals in the western United States, she said.

The Basque Museum has a map showing the locations of the former Basque boarding houses, some of which are still extant. “All of the boarding houses that are still standing, you wouldn’t know it was a boarding house,” Gavica said, though some have signs.

The WalkAbout Boise tour also includes Basque sites outside the Basque Block area. “As we move off the block, you still see the influence of the Basques in Boise through boarding houses and other buildings that have survived and have blended into the architectural diversity of the city,” Benson said.

At 14th St. and Idaho St. is Txikiteo, another Basque restaurant.

And if you’re willing to leave Boise altogether, Epi’s Basque Restaurant in Meridian serves homestyle Basque food.

Basque festivals

If you want to really immerse yourself in the taste of Basque culture, come to a festival. In Boise, that would be the San Inazio festival, put on by The Basque Foundation (also known as Euzkaldunak). It’s typically celebrated the last weekend in July in conjunction with the feast day of St. Ignatius, born in what is today the Basque country, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1541, and today the patron saint of the Basques.

“There are many festivals in the Basque Country,” said Isana Urquidi, San Inazio publicity chair, in an email message. “The Basque community here wanted to bring that to their life in the states, so they started celebrating San Inazio. Many Basque festivals have religious roots; this one is tied to Saint Ignatius.”

This year’s festival is coming up on Friday, July 29 through Monday, August 1. “This year is unique because we have groups from the Basque Country joining us to celebrate,” Urquidi said. “This is our first big San Inazio back since having to cancel related to COVID, so it is a little bigger this year.”

Friday is “friends and family night,” which is casual and consists of people hanging out on the Block, eating, and some music throughout, Urquidi said. “With everyone coming into town, it’s an opportunity to meet and hang out,” Gavica said.

Saturday is the main day of the festival, where Grove St. is shut down and music and dance is on the schedule all day. “It starts with the young Basque dancers, who range from four years old to 14 years old,” Urquidi said. “The Basque music group Txan Txan will also perform, followed by the adult dance group. All day, food and drink are available for sale and a Basque game called pala is played between teams in the fronton.”

Saturday night also includes a Mass at St. Mark’s Church, which features not only a reading in the Basque language but also a traditional Basque dance from the city of Oñati, Urquidi said. “It is quite an amazing dance that begins before Mass, occurs during Mass on the altar, and finishes after Mass in front of the church.”

Following Mass is a street dance until about 11 pm. “There is a group here called Amuma Says No that will perform and a group coming from the Basque Country also,” Urquidi said.

Sunday is “park day.” “Families bring their own food and drink to snack on throughout the day and there is a mix of traditional Basque games such as txingas and American games such as an egg toss,” Urquidi said, followed by another street dance on the Basque Block.

Best of all, you don’t have to be Basque to attend. “All events are free and open to all,” Urquidi said. “The only limiting factor is that only people over 21 are allowed in the Basque Center bar.”

For a San Inazio festival on steroids, every five years it becomes Jaialdi, a week-long festival. “They bring a band, group of dancers, and athletes to Boise for the festival,” Urquidi said. “These groups are chosen through an application process, with many groups entering to be chosen. It’s essentially a much larger San Inazio, so there’s an increase in the number and diversity of activities hosted. There are some events at Jaialdi that require a ticket for entrance, but once again you don’t have to be Basque for any of them.”

Jaialdi typically starts with “sports night,” held at the Idaho Central Arena, with traditional Basque rural sports such as weightlifting, weight carrying, and other feats of strength and endurance, Gavica said. During the weekend, Jaialdi is typically held at Expo Idaho and features dancing and food, she said.

Also during Jaialdi, Preservation Idaho typically holds a Basque-centered version of its WalkAbout Boise walking tour, called WalkABasque Boise, Benson said.

Jaialdi was postponed in 2020 due to COVID, and while it was hoped it could be held in 2021 and then in 2022, eventually it was just called off. (The musical groups appearing this year from the Basque country are the ones that had been scheduled for 2020.) The next Jaialdi is scheduled for 2025.

And up in Sun Valley, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival is set for October 5-9, 2022. The annual festival celebrates and preserves the history and culture of sheep ranching and herding in Idaho and the West.

While Basques aren’t as much of a discrete community in Boise as they once were, they still play an important role in Boise's identity.

“The social structures that developed helped to solidify the area and the saving of many of the buildings in the 1970s has allowed that history and those stories to remain alive,” Benson said. “The museum, the Basque restaurants, the fronton court, and the social center all speak to how a cultural community can come together to preserve itself even as the city around it morphs and changes.”

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

This story was written by Sharon Fisher. Sharon is a digital nomad specializing in history and tourism. Check out her book out about the history of Kuna, Idaho. You can read more of her work here.

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