Pearl in the early 1900's

by Sharon McConnel

(This article first appeared The Village Chronicles, a periodical by the Gem County Historical Society, Summer 2006.)

The year was 1900. William McKinley was in the White House and Frank Steunenberg was Governor of Idaho. In Pearl, along Willow Creek, in what was then the southwest portion of Boise County, Oakley Wylie was five years into his nine-year term as postmaster. It was almost 40 years after the Boise Basin gold rush. It was twenty years since the 1880 census taker had counted twenty-nine miners on Willow Creek, fifteen of whom were Chinese. Merle Wells tells us that Pearl gold mines became productive in 1894 yielding $30,000, followed by $80,000 in 1896. Let's take a look at the period after the boom, the census data, the postmaster appointments, ordinary people living ordinary lives and hanging on in a declining community.

Oakley Wylie, the postmaster told the 1900 census taker he was a miner. So who was minding the post office in this dusty mining settlement? In the Wylie household we also find his 28 year old wife Minnie, seven year old son Oakley and five-year old daughter Dora. Not exactly the stereotype image of a rough and tumble mining camp. A closer look at the census shows that of the 243 people there were fifty-one women and seventy-two children. Five households were headed by women: May Jacobs, seamstress; Annie Goure, laundress; Margurite Jury, innkeeper; Delia Caldwell, innkeeper; Ella McCabe, innkeeper.

How many extended families were living in Pearl, we can only speculate, based on last names, place of birth and parents' place of birth from the census record. Presumably 29-year old miner George Caldwell was related to 38-year old inn keeper Delia Caldwell. Both were bom in Missouri and both reported fathers born in Vermont. Fifty- two year old farm laborer Thomas McCabe was seven households from 23 year old innkeeper Ella McCabe and her two sisters. McCabe was born in Arkansas and the McCabe girls reported that their father was bom in Arkansas; in all likelihood he was their father. This is a pattern in my own family. My great grandparents moved to Pearl in 1901 and by 1910 they'd been joined by three married daughters and their families, the John McKenneys, the James "Bob" Morcoms, and the Fred Turners. There were jobs to be done and then, as now, people went where there were jobs.

Other single women include Alida Ramsay, a cook; Ella McCabe's sisters, Irene and Florence. Annie Goure, the laundress, a widow raising three children. Emily Langrose, a waitress, boarded with May Jacobs, the seamstress. Undoubtedly some of the women met their future husbands in Pearl. In June, Nancy Ella McCabe married Oscar Harper, also of Pearl, and in November Alida Ramsay married Alfred Hutchison. In 1901 Delia Caldwell, the innkeeper, married John Lenson. In 1905 Florence McCabe married Boaz Tibbs and her sister Irene married Elmer Watson.

Five married women took in boarders including Florence Grimes who is buried in the Pearl cemetery. The men were miners, laborers, engineers, teamsters, carpenters, merchants, farmers, a livery stable keeper, barber, shoemaker, shoe dealer, vegetable peddler, blacksmith, butcher, machinist, druggist, wood sawyer and stenographer. Sam Birdwell ran a saloon as did William Emke and his brother Charles, three doors away. Sixty- eight year old Edward Henneberry and his forty year-old son Richard were both millwrights.

By the time of the 1910 census the population had decreased by roughly fifty per cent. Birdwell had turned to mining and the Emke brothers had moved on. Fred Crawford was the only saloon keeper and Rene Hazelton was the hotel manager. Also, Pearl had lost its occupational diversity. Twenty-seven of the 123 residents were gold miners; the others were as follows: one each, engineer, millwright, innkeeper, merchant, 75 years old store salesman, Lewllyn Walter, and one handyman. The average age of the miners was 46 years; the youngest being Charles Danielson's bother-in-law at 19 years and oldest being Don MacAskill, my great grandfather, at 65 years. Edward and Mary Henneberry were still there, and forty year old Edward [Jr] was the millwright.

The village was not without its' "shakers and movers." Rush Von Harten, the proprietor of the dry goods store, served the 1909 -1910 term in the state legislature. His wife Luella was appointed postmistress June 1909, a position she would hold until her death in November 1914. Both she and her husband are buried in the Pearl cemetery. Their daughter Emma Luella was appointed postmistress April of 1915 and continued to serve in that capacity until May 28, 1919. On June 19, 1915, she married Arthur D. Turner and, over the next seven years, she homesteaded 570 acres.

May 18, 1915 Gem County was formed, including portions of Boise and Canyon counties. January 1919 Constitutional Amendment XVIII was ratified, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. In May of 1919, in the village of Pearl, Jules Delamaster was appointed postmaster. And in 1920 the census taker counted only 40 people living on Pearl's Main Street, a decease of approximately two-thirds. William Von Horton was still there, still running his store. Fred Turner with his three oldest sons had turned to farming since the previous census. Emily Brambee and son Frank are still there and still farming. Rinehart Schiller is also listed as a farmer, making a total of eight farmers as compared to six miners. Michael Murnane, the Irish-born head engineer from the 191 0 census, was now listed simply as a miner. A check of the Metsker Gem County Atlas show that by 1939 he had considerable real estate holdings as did the Bramlees. Josephine Craford, the widow of the 1910 Pearl saloon keeper, is now listed as having a restaurant in the Montour precinct. Dressmaker Mary Haley and her mother Julia Marrinane were also counted in the Montour precinct, although in the 1910 census they were counted in Pearl. It is unknown at this time whether this reflects a move on their parts, or whether it is a change in precinct boundaries.

People stayed on after the so-called boom, as some of the people I've highlighted show. Some moved on and some only the short distances to the surrounding communities. We'll probably never have a complete picture of what it was like to live in Pearl in the early 1900's. At times history reminds me of the fable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each person has a different view depending upon their perspective and their sources. Local history is fragile especially when it's about ordinary people leading every day lives. Hopefully I've put a human face to Pearl.

Note: The museum has an extensive collection of Pearl photographs.


Western Marriage Index
Government Land Office Records/Homestead Records
1880 census transcript by ISU
1900 census transcript by ISU
History of Post Offices in Idaho. (Gem County Historical Society collection)
Idaho Blue Book. Office of the Secretary of State, Boise, Idaho.
Metsker's Atlas of Gem County, State of Idaho. Chas. F. Metsker, 1939, Portland, Oregon.
Peavy, Linda and Smith, Ursula. Pioneer Women/the lives of women on the frontier. University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920.
Wells, Merle W. Gold Camps & Silver Cities/Nineteenth Century Mining in Central and Southern Idaho. Idaho Department of Lands, Bureau of Mines & Geology, Moscow, Idaho, 1983.


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