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The history of the Ustick Townsite

publishedabout 1 month ago
9 min read

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Today's story was written by Sharon Fisher. Enjoy!

If you’re driving in west Boise, you might find yourself on a road with a funny name, Ustick. It doesn’t look much different from any other part of suburban Boise, with its subdivisions and strip malls. Keep following it, and it turns into major shopping around Eagle Road and heads all the way out to Caldwell, turning into Fish Road when it’s forced to bend at the Snake River.

The road is about all that remains of an agricultural community that was spawned by the early expansion of Boise, and was eventually swallowed up by it.

“What most people don’t understand, and it’s obvious once they know it, is that it was its own community,” said Dan Everhart, State Historic Preservation Office outreach historian for the Idaho Historical Society. “It was never incorporated, but it was definitely a place that had an identity of its own.”

How Ustick came to be

Pronounced “You-stick”, the community was named after Harlan Ustick, a medical doctor and land developer. “He has a hand in lots of business enterprises,” Everhart said. “One of those is orchards,” an early industry in and around Boise, and he and his wife Margaret owned acres that were presumably originally purchased for orchards, he said.

One of his other business enterprises was as a director of the Boise Valley Railway (BVR) Company. He was among a group of investors that organized the company in September 1905, with the ultimate plan of connecting Boise to Nampa on the south side of the river, said Barbara Perry Bauer, owner of TAG Historical Research and Consulting and author of Treasure Valley’s Electric Railway, in an email message.

That’s not to be confused with the Boise & Interurban Railway Company, Bauer notes. That endeavor was on the north side of the river, building separately to Caldwell. The B & I built to Caldwell in 1907 as the company had robust investors and more capital. It took the BVR line until 1907 just to get to Ustick, Bauer said. It reached Meridian in July 1908 then finally reached Nampa in October 1909.

But as a director, Ustick was in a position to profit from this. “Of course, Ustick owned acreage west of Boise, and as a promoter of the BVR, platted Ustick to take advantage of the opportunities that came with extending an interurban rail line west,” Bauer said.

“He was able to literally direct the course of the streetcar route,” Everthart said. “So wasn’t it convenient that the streetcar route, on its way to and from Meridian, went directly past this piece of property Dr. Ustick owned.”

Ustick and his wife developed a street grid and immediately began selling lots on the conveniently located land. Within just a few months, the Idaho Statesman newspaper reported that it was “growing like a weed.”

Ustick’s heyday

Born of the interurban, the town of Ustick depended on the interurban as well.

“The track ran along the south side of the road,” Bauer said. “There was not a station, per se, for Ustick but there was a shelter station, "Ustick shelter," located a little east of the village. Trying to pinpoint the exact location today is a bit hard with all the changes in transportation, but I've roughly pinpointed that it might be near Frontier Way.” The shelter was on the north side of the track, she added.

But the real benefit of interurban access to the town of Ustick was what it meant for freight. “A few hundred feet west there was a siding, ‘Ustick Siding,’” Bauer said. “The siding was a piece of track that departed from the main electric railway line where cars would move to be loaded with produce and goods from farmers in the area.”

And that wasn’t all. “A second siding for the Wood Fruit Packing house was located a bit west of the Ustick Siding,” Bauer said. “It was a separate track and went from the packing house to the line. A car could move adjacent to the shed and be filled and then transported to the main line. These were on the north side of the road.” 

“You could load commerce and freight onto specially designed streetcars,” Everhart said. Not only did this support fruit and fruit-related products, but it was also a site of dairy production. “There was a Boise Valley Cooperative Creamery cheese factory in 1907,” he said.

The town also developed a commercial district to support the needs of the townspeople, including a bank, a store (the Mercantile, or Merc), church, school, civic and social functions, and a post office, Everhart said.

At that point, Ustick becomes more than a name for the interurban station or the road. It begins to be used as identifier for that particular region on the Boise Bench, Everhart said. “That continues as the town continues to assert its own independent character.”


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The decline of Ustick

Unfortunately, Ustick never quite became as successful as other interurban towns like Meridian. The bank failed in 1911, and Dr. Ustick himself died in 1917.

What really put a halt to development was the end of the interurban.

“A catalyst for the decline was the decline in the streetcar system,” Everhart said. “There was no need to funnel all commerce and civic and industry into the streetcar after it shutters around 1928. Your personal automobile can take you anywhere you want so you can build a cheese factory and haul fruit wherever you need to."

But while the interurban was gone, Ustick still remained a community, said Judy Herman, president of the West Valley Neighborhood Association (WVNA), who has lived across Ustick Road from the townsite for 35 years, in an email message.

“When Ustick was a two-lane road, it was lined on the north and south side of the road by canals and poplar and cottonwood trees. The Merc was a neighborhood grocery store where locals could buy gas, milk and staples for the family. The Merc also had the best selection of penny candy in the area. Neighborhood kids would cross the canal on a wooden bridge to cross Ustick to buy penny candy at the Merc.”

The area kept its agricultural heritage, Herman said. “On many Sunday mornings, our family would ride our bikes on Ustick Road to Linder Road and back, usually without seeing many cars. The Eldridge Farm was across Ustick and we woke each summer morning to roosters crowing and cows mooing. We frequently bought eggs and summer produce at the farm. Local men would hunt pheasant off of Ustick Road.”

The survival of Ustick

But around the turn of the century – this century – Ustick’s survival started being in doubt.

“The town itself is less and less distinct as an individual place, as it is absorbed into the growing suburbs of the city of Boise,” which annexed the area in 1995. Then, in the early 2010s, Ustick Road was slated to grow to support that growth.

“Ustick Road was expanded to five lanes in 2014,” Herman said. “All the trees were removed that lined the street and what was left were the words ‘Ustick Townsite’ stamped in the fake brick in the sidewalk at a couple of areas on the north and south side of Ustick.”

People realized if they wanted Ustick to survive, they needed to act. Three neighbors – Herman as well as Janie Hawes and Cindy Ritchie – started the Ustick Beautifucation Project in 2016. “We partnered with Boise City Planning and Zoning, and later with Energize Our Neighborhoods, for support and help in attempting to restore the historical significance of the townsite,” she said.

“Preservation Idaho was contacted by concerned Ustick residents in 2018/2019 and we worked with the Ustick community to identify and try to get interest in creation of a local historic district designation to protect what was left of its historic built environment,” said Paula Benson, president of Preservation Idaho, in an email message. “Preservation Idaho worked with the city and with Architectural Historian Kerry Davis to survey the area in 2019 and that helped to create a permanent record of its history and built environment.”

Sadly, by that point there wasn’t a lot to save. “There is not much left that meets the National Register standards for eligibility, but there is still consideration that could be given to a conservation overlay to protect the remaining mature trees, roadways, canals, and pasture lots,” Benson said. “The community of Ustick takes pride in its history and we hope the city will seriously consider some ways to preserve what is left of its historic past.”

The WVNA is now taking the lead on preserving Ustick and its history.

“Our first goal was to have a landscaping design developed for Ustick Road in the townsite area between Wildwood and Bryson Way,” Herman said. “We worked with the University of Idaho Landscape and Design Department, and found two graduate students who were willing to take the project on and develop a landscaping design for the area. We then joined the Board of Directors of the WVNA because we learned that we had to partner with a neighborhood association to write grants and access Neighborhood Reinvestment funds for projects such as this.”

The organization held a “visioning meeting” to get neighborhood input about the project. “Neighbors were overwhelmingly supportive and over 100 community members attended the visioning meeting to look at the landscaping plans and give input,” Herman said. “Many folks who attended had actually grown up in the townsite and attended the Ustick School. They brought artifacts, trolley tokens, and vintage photos to the event.”

Herman wrote the grant, which was funded at $106,000, and the landscaping project was completed in 2019.

The organization also holds an annual event called Ustick in Bloom, which started in 2018 and is held in Redwood Park. While it went on hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID, it was back in 2022 and is scheduled for June 10, 2023, Herman said.

In addition, the WVNA is involved in a public art project with the city of Boise to be installed in Redwood Park in the next year, Herman said. “We are working with Stephanie Johnson in Arts and History and have had two committee meetings to develop a vision and focus for the public art for Redwook Park,” she said.

What to see in Ustick today

What’s left of Ustick? “You can still see the commercial district on Ustick Road,” at Ustick and Mumbarto, Everhart said. “The bank is on one side, and the Merc is on the other. On same block as the bank was the cheese factory. That’s the core of Ustick’s townsite.”

And the grid that Dr. Ustick laid out is still there. “You can drive the street grid and see older and newer houses,” Everhart said. Ustick School – the only Ustick building listed on the National Register – is at Mumbarto and Race, though it’s an apartment building now, he said.

But it isn’t clear how much longer Ustick will be able to hold out against Boise’s relentless growth. “What is the future of Ustick? That’s anyone’s guess,” Everhart said. “If you looked at an aerial view, you would see quite a few tracts of undeveloped land. There are big lots of pasture, quasi-agricultural. It seems like those can’t survive in a city that’s desperate for development. That quasi-rural nature is part of what makes it feel like a historic townsite. If those get developed, the feeling goes away. The buildings in town are all vulnerable to alteration or demolition. I’d say we’re not going to see all those buildings survive.”

And the interurban that created Ustick? “No pieces of track remain,” Bauer said. “No evidence of the shelter or sidings remain.”

But there is a trace, Bauer said. “The line crossed an irrigation canal, and when Ustick Road was widened a few years ago, one of the bridge abutments was kept,” she said. “It's now in Redwood Park, south of Ustick Road. There's no signage or information to tell you what it is. I have hope that a sign might be placed there at some point.”

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

Today's story was written by Sharon Fisher. You can read more of her work here.


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