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From Boise

The artist of the Old West

published28 days ago
9 min read

Editor's note: Today's story is by Sharon Fisher. It explores the life of Mary Hallock Foote, an American author and artist who is known for her illustrated short stories portraying life in mining communities out west at the turn-of-the-century. She rose to somewhat celebrity status for her writing and illustrations while living in Boise in the 1880s. Enjoy!

The country, as distinguished from its improvements and its people, is beautiful – a vast sage plain that falls in great steps from the mountains to the canyon of the Snake, and then rises gradually on the other side to other mountains. It is one of the compensations of being a pioneer that one may see it wild and unbroken.
- Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

Unless you’re a fan of 19th-century women’s literature, you've probably never heard of Mary Hallock Foote. She and her husband, Arthur De Wint Foote, had a major influence on the Boise and Idaho that we know today.

Mary Hallock Foote

“Mary Hallock Foote has likely received less notoriety in recent years than she deserves based on her impressive accomplishments,” said Paula Benson, executive board president of Preservation Idaho, in an email message. “The role of women in the latter part of the 19th century was often diminished both socially and legally based on their gender alone, even while the role of women in actual society was not only crucial but often dangerous. She occupies a unique and cherished place in Idaho history.”

The life of Mary Hallock Foote

Hallock Foote was born in 1847 in Milton, New York to an upper-class family. She studied art at The Cooper Union School of Advancement of Science and Art and went on to become an illustrator in New York. Her work appeared in literature by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Louisa May Alcott.

In 1876, she married Arthur De Wint Foote, a civil engineer born in 1849 in Guilford, Connecticut, and proceeded to travel the West with him during his career as a mining and irrigation engineer.

An illustration by Mary Hallock Foote.

Part of the reason the Footes traveled so much is that Arthur's career wasn’t always successful. Often, it seemed like the problem was that he was ahead of his time, and other people were able to take advantage of the pathways he forged.

One example – and the project that brought the Footes to Idaho – was in 1884, when Foote started to develop an irrigation system intended to bring the desert to life. In 1885, Foote built a house, known as the Stone House, for the family, overlooking the Boise River.

“We came out on the last long bench above the valley of the Boise and saw, across a bridge in the distance, the little city which was called the metropolis of the desert plains, the heaven of old teamsters and stage drivers crawling in at nightfall; saw the wild river we had come to tame, slipping from the hold of the farms along its banks that snatched a season’s crops from it as it fled.”
-Mary Hallock Foote

The Footes lived in Idaho for about ten years, trying to bring the project to fruition, giving up and moving to Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico; and finally to Grass Valley, California. The irrigation system was eventually completed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1909, using Foote’s original plan.

Throughout her life, Hallock Foote wrote articles and stories about life in the West, including the mining camps and engineering sites where they lived, and illustrated them as well. Published in some of the leading publications of the day, her work promoted the West, including Idaho, to people who might never have seen it before.

An illustration by Mary Hallock Foote depicts their home on the Boise River.

“There are two ways in which, I think, Molly Foote's work spread the word about Idaho,” said Judy Austin, a speaker for the Idaho Humanities Council – referring to Hallock Foote by her family nickname – in an email message. “One is the series of drawings and brief essays that she did for Century magazine, edited by Richard Watson Gilder, who was her dear friend Helena DeKay Gilder's husband. The magazine was – and I think still is – sponsored by the Century Association, a private men's club in New York City whose members are a pretty elite group. Thus, those essays and drawings will have reached a pretty upper-crust East Coast audience who might otherwise know nothing about Idaho.”

In particular, because Hallock Foote was from the East Coast, she could describe the West in a more accessible way to that audience, Benson said.

“As an educated ‘gentlewoman,’ she had a unique insight into life in the West vs. the East, and could both write about it and illustrate it in a way that helped many outside of Idaho and the West understand what life was like here on a day-to-day basis,” Benson said. In addition, her relationship with her husband gave her access, she added. “Her unique perspective of the West was informed by her being a woman who lived much in the company of men during an era when behaviors and language was often unedited based on who was in the room.”

Hallock Foote’s writing and art didn’t just provide a window into new geographic areas like Idaho, and industries like mining, but what those communities looked like from a woman’s perspective.

The imaginative builder in the West, as in the East, frequently "slips up" in practice: but it will be he that first catches the spirit of the landscape and makes its poetry of suggestion his own. The people of certain races build with an unconscious truth to the nature around them which is like an instinct; or perhaps it is part of that providence which is said to attend upon the lame and the lazy. They are crippled by their poverty; they have the temperament that can wait. They cannot afford to "haul" expensive lumber or pay for carpenters to aid them in their experiment; so they scrape up the mud around them, make it into adobes and wait for them to dry, and pile them up in the simplest way, which proves to be the best. They build long and low because it is less trouble than to build high; for the same reason, perhaps, they do not cut up their wall space into windows. The result is the architecture of simplicity and rest; and it goes very well with a country that pauses, for miles, in a trance of sky and mountain and plain, and forgets to put in the details.
-Mary Hallock Foote "Afternoon At a Ranch," Century Magazine, 1889

“It's possible that, because she was a woman, her essays/drawings/suggestions would be less business-oriented,” Austin said. “I really don't know how a man would have approached those projects!”

“Her views would have been informed by what she heard and saw in the company of men in mining towns and elsewhere, but also by her own understanding of what it took to be a woman, wife, and mother,” Benson said. “I imagine it helps to inform much of her work in a way that is not seen in the writings and illustrations of men of that era.”

Hallock Foote did more than promote the mining towns in the Western frontier, including Idaho. By engaging in her own profession, at times being the sole breadwinner of her family, she acted as a role model to other women, decades ahead of her time.

“Mary Hallock Foote managed to write books and create illustrations of her own and other author's writings while doing the basic ‘womanly’ work of running a household and raising children,” Benson said. “She was also sometimes the breadwinner in her household at a time when that would not have been noted by many.”

The Coming of Winter, illustrated by Mary Hallock Foote.

When the settlers stop, it is not because they have reached the place to which they meant to go, but because they have found a sheltered valley with water and wild grass. The wagon needs mending, they build a rude cabin, the baby is born, summer has passed. It is too late to move that winter .... The home-seeker, with all the West before him, will be wary of the final choice which costs him the freedom of the road.
- Mary Hallock Foote, "The Coming of Winter," Century Magazine, 1888

“In her memoirs and letters, Mary consistently reveals her devotion to her husband’s dream of irrigating the Boise River Basin and supported him in every way possible,” said Stacey Guill, author of The Stone House in the Cañon: Mary Hallock Foote and A Vision of Home in the West – a book about the Footes’ Idaho house – in an email message.

Many people, particularly women, empathized with various aspects of Hallock Foote’s life.

“My husband is a mining engineer and for most of the early years of our marriage I, like Mary Hallock Foote, followed my husband around the West, living in many small mining communities,” Guill said. “I understood her determination to create a home for her husband and children and at the same time nurture her artistic spirit. The clearest representation of this is the Footes’ beautiful home in the Boise River Canyon.”

Novel brings new attention

Like so many 19th-century authors, Hallock Foote might have been forgotten other than by a few fans. But in 1971, novelist Wallace Stegner published a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Angle of Repose, based on Hallock Foote’s life, which, with the permission of her estate, drew heavily upon her unpublished memoir and letters.

An illustration by Mary Hallock Foote

Perhaps too heavily. Some felt that Stegner’s use of Hallock Foote’s writing bordered on plagiarism. At the same time, some also criticized artistic license he took with some of her motivations behind her unpublished writing.

(I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.)

In any event, the book renewed interest in Hallock Foote, and in 1972 her memoir was published, under the title A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, edited by historian Rodman Paul.

“Rodman Paul, the editor of her memoir, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, was a close friend of mine,” said Austin. “Like Wallace Stegner, Rod had never been to Boise before. In both cases, I answered a lot of questions about this part of the world for them – and I read Rod's work as soon as it came out.”

That led to Austin’s further involvement with Hallock Foote. “Dick (Richard W.) Etulain, at the time the president of the Western Literature Association, asked me if I could put together a slide presentation on Mary Hallock Foote's Idaho,” she said. “I did – and I've given it more times than I could possibly count, to more different groups than you can imagine. Including a reunion of her sister's family here in Boise several years ago!”

The Foote Park project

In 2013, work began on further recognition of Hallock Foote and her husband, led by Dr. Janet Worthinton and Mary Ann Arnold. In an echo of Hallock Foote and her husband, Arnold was a retired project controls engineer with Morrison Knudsen, while Worthinton was a retired history professor.

While there was already a Foote Park at the site in the Boise River canyon – now owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – that had once been the Footes’ Stone House, little remained of the structure beyond the foundation, and it had just a single interpretive sign with few details.

After gaining approval by federal and state agencies in 2014, the pair traveled around Idaho, raising awareness and funding for the $70,000 project, including a $30,000 donation by Morrison Knudsen.

The Foote House Interpretive Site

The updated interpretive site opened in 2019 and featured a rectangular frame showing the view Hallock Foote used in one of her illustrations, as well as information about the building and the couple. It also included three-foot lava rock walls to recall the design of the original house.

“Every time I visit the site, I think of their shared struggles and how Mary embraced this incredible rugged environment, as evidenced by her beautiful prose and evocative drawings,” Guill said.

The interpretive site went on to win an Orchid Award from Preservation Idaho in 2019.

“The Foote Park Interpretive Center is an impressive collection of information and photos set in the location of one of Mary's homes,” Benson said. “You can understand much about the era and her and her husband's lives by visiting the site. It gives both a broad and an intimate insight into history in a unique setting.”

“The Interpretive Center helps to ensure that Mary's role in Idaho history will never be overlooked,” Benson said.

The Foote House (bottom right). Credit Boise & The Treasure Valley History Facebook Page.

The Foote Park Center is open during daylight hours year-round. From Highway 21, turn to cross Lucky Peak Dam, follow the ridge road for about 1/2 mile to the Foote Park Sign, turn right downhill back towards the river, and travel about 1/2 mile to the park at the end of the gravel road.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

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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