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Boise’s Basque Block

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Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs

One of the most idiosyncratic aspects of Idaho, and Boise in particular, is its connection to the Basque Country. Because of geographic and climatic similarities to their homeland, thousands of emigrating Basques chose Idaho as their new home. Their influence remains strong throughout the state, but nowhere is it more celebrated celebrated than in Boise’s Basque Block.

Basque-Block-Boise

A wonderfully-realized mural on Capital Boulevard welcomes visitors into the block. For the uninitiated, the painting works as a visual introduction to the Basques and their history in Idaho. Scenes from the homeland mix with representations of Idahoan pastoral life and even a recreation of Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the tragic destruction of the important Basque city by Nazi-backed fascists.

The block itself centers on the Basque Heritage Museum and House, both of which we took a tour of. The museum is excellent, with exhibits that throw a light on the Basques, their homeland, language, history and present-day situation. Basques are a fascinating people, thought to be among Europe’s oldest cultures, with a language whose roots can’t be traced to any other. Though its history has been fraught with hardship, the Euskal Herria, as they refer to it, has become one of the most prosperous regions in Spain.

The Basque Boarding House is one of the oldest surviving houses in Boise, owned and run by the same Basque family for decades. It’s remained largely unchanged over the ages, and is now filled with artifacts and furniture dating from the early 1900s. We were given a tour by the museum’s director, Patty Smith, who (despite the very English name) is of Basque heritage and knows practically everything about the culture. She also showed us into the block’s pilota hall, where the fast-moving sport is still frequently played.

Outside the museum and boarding house, there’s a lot more to discover. Public art, like the larger-than-life laikas (Basque farm implements) which crown the entrance to the block. Basque poems and songs inscribed into the sidewalk. And restaurants like Bar Gernika, which serves up traditional fare such as chorizo sandwiches and a delicious lamb grinder.

No visit to Boise is complete without a tour of the Basque Block. The fascinating and surprising connection to the Old World is one of the city’s defining characteristics.

Location on our Idaho Map
Basque Cultural Center Boise Idaho – Website

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January 10, 2013 at 9:58 am Comments (3)

The Boise Art Museum

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Founded in 1937, the Boise Art Museum has a premium riverside location in an Art Deco building just off Capitol Boulevard. We took a quick tour of the current exhibitions, and had the chance to meet an artist at work on her latest installation.

Looking-At-Art

The Boise Art Museum consists of fifteen rooms, most of which host temporary exhibits, and a sculpture garden. The permanent collection focuses on art of the Pacific Northwest, ceramics, American Realism, and a surprisingly heavy emphasis on Asian Art. We saw some of the collection in an exhibition called Eastern Traditions / Western Expressions: pieces from Japan, China and Korea nicely juxtaposed with works from America and the west, in order to highlight just how deep the influences of the Orient reach.

We were quickly finished with our tour of the museum; the permanent collection was rather small, and there weren’t any temporary exhibits at the moment. But this left us more time to watch installation artist Billie Grace Lynn at work on her White Elephants. In the museum’s Sculpture Court, her team was busy arranging a collection of bags. Once fans were attached, we watched as the empty white bags inflated into enormous white elephants.

Billie noticed us and, after approaching to introduce herself, invited us to crawl inside one of the elephants. I went in with a member of her team who was busy attaching the fan from the inside. It reminded me of our elephant adventures in Sri Lanka, and that’s the story of how I came to be sitting inside an giant nylon elephant, chatting about Sri Lanka with a total stranger. Not exactly how I envisioned my day when waking up that morning!

Location of BAM on our Idaho Map
Boise Art Museum – Website
Billy Grace Lynn – Website

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Boise-Art

Hung Liu – Mandarin Ducks, 2005 (Oil on canvas)
Museum purchase with funds donated by Anita Kay Hardy in loving memory of her parents, Earl M. and LaVane M. Hardy – Courtesy of Boise Art Museum

Roger Shimomura – American Infamy #2, 2006 (Acrylic on canvas)
Museum Purchase – Courtesy of Boise Art Museum

John Takehara – Akebono, circa 1968 (Porcelain with red copper glaze)
Gift if the artist – Courtesy of Boise Art Museum

Export Potiche, decorated with peonies, roses and butterflies (Chinese, circa 1680)
Gift from Clyde R. and Helen M. Bacon Collection of Asian Art – Courtesy of Boise Art Museum
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January 9, 2013 at 6:42 pm Comments (2)

The Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa

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Airplane Models

Dedicated to America’s military past, the mammoth Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa is a privately-funded collection of wartime memorabilia, stories and airplanes. It’s the kind of place you could spend days at, and still not see everything.

Warhawk-Air-Museum-in-Nampa

A few people had recommended a visit to the Warhawk Air Museum, but we just couldn’t get excited about it. I’ve never been too interested in military history and, as a German, Jürgen is naturally disinclined to the glorification of America’s fighting prowess. But the museum won us over completely. A collection of antiquated fighter planes joins memorabilia, uniforms, posters, photos, postcards, toys and even a recreation of the Berlin Wall within two hangars adjacent to the Nampa Municipal Airport. Ambitious, exhausting and utterly fascinating.

We were given a tour of the grounds by Sue Paul who, along with her husband, founded the museum in 1997. It’s a non-profit, and all of its treasures have been donated privately, from the pilot jackets to the planes themselves. The goal is the simple preservation of military history, with exhibits organized by conflict: the two World Wars predominate, but there’s a growing section dedicated to the Cold War.

The airplanes are the most impressive attractions in the museum, and not all of them are American. There’s a beautifully restored German Fokker DR-1 from WWI, gleaming blue with an Iron Cross stamped boldly on the tail, and the body of a Mig-17: the famous Russian fighter which caused our boys so much trouble during the Vietnam War.

Boise Bee

My favorite was the Boise Bee, flown by Idaho’s own Duane Beeson. During WWII, Beeson was one of America’s deadliest aces, but was taken prisoner after being shot down over Germany. Luckily, the Germans respected enemy pilots, and Beeson was treated well, returning home a highly-decorated hero after the war’s conclusion. He continued working for the Air Force in experimental flight labs, before suddenly developing a rapidly-growing brain tumor which killed him at the age of 26.

These kinds of stories abound in the Warhawk Air Museum. Every display includes at least one binder replete with photographs and stories from the war. So, you’re not just looking at the clothes of a particular soldier, but seeing his face, reading the love letters he sent to his sweetheart, learning about his family, his career, where he fought and how he died. Or whether he’s still alive.

Indeed, many soldiers honored here are still kicking, and they’ve found a friend in Nampa. The museum has recently kicked off the Veteran’s History Project, which endeavors to interview as many veterans as possible. Already, over a hundred former soldiers have sat down in front of the camera. Such a cool idea, giving these fighting men and women a place to record their experiences, before it’s too late. And you can tell they appreciate the chance — just watch the beginning of the interview with the personable Sgt. Frederick Hill, who’s so thrilled to share his story that he can hardly contain himself.

Nampa’s Warhawk Air Museum truly surprised us. The sheer amount of items on display and the amazing stories make it an absolute must-see for anyone, even those of us not normally interested in military history.

Location on our Idaho Map
Warhawk Air Museum – Website

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January 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm Comments (2)

Okay Fine, Here’s a Potato Post

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They’re the first thing most people think of when they think “Idaho”. And usually, they’re the only thing people think of. Potatoes aren’t just the most famous product of Idaho, but practically the only thing the state is known for. Crazy, when you consider the amazing variety of sights and experiences available here. It is, I suppose, a testament to the marketing prowess of Idaho’s potato manufacturers.

Harvesting-Potatoes

The eastern city of Blackfoot is the unofficial capital of Idaho’s potato industry, home to the bulk of production as well as the Idaho Potato Museum, which we visited with high hopes. How could a potato museum in Idaho be anything but amazing? But the tiny rooms and paltry exhibits failed to impress. One of the most feted items is The World’s Biggest Potato Chip. Pfah! The thing isn’t even a potato chip, but a crisp! A crisp, I tell you! It’s not even that big, and it’s cracked. And please don’t get me started on the museum’s heralded “Free Taters for Out-of-Staters” gimmick. Turns out that the free “taters” are just a carton of dehydrated hash browns. And they’re not even “free”, since you have to pay entrance to the museum to get them.

A better potato-centric experience came a couple days later, when we drove past a crew working in a field. They were taking potatoes out of the ground, cleaning them and then then loading them into a truck. These weren’t the perfectly oval-shaped type you can buy at the supermarket, but ugly mutants up to a foot long. Most of Idaho’s potatoes go to industries and fast-food chains like McDonald’s, where beauty isn’t a requirement. The guys found it amusing how interested we were in their work, and let us take a few giant specimens home with us.

So that’s it: our potato post. Out of 91 days in Idaho, we spent a total of about two hours thinking about them. I don’t care that the license plates brag about their “Famous Potatoes”… the state has a lot more to offer.

Location of the Potato Museum

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December 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm Comments (3)

Don Aslett’s Museum of Clean

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Cleaning Products

Tucked away in the otherwise uninspiring town of Pocatello is one of the most bizarre museums we’ve ever visited. The Museum of Clean is the ambitious venture of Don Aslett: America’s undisputed Cleaning King.

Don-Aslett

Don Aslett has been battling dirt and grime for over fifty years. In 1957, he established a janitorial service called Varsity Contractors to help finance his studies at Idaho State University. The business grew quickly and eventually became one of the country’s biggest cleaning services. Today it boasts over 30 offices around the country.

That might be enough accomplishment for the normal person but, as we would soon discover first-hand, Don Aslett is anything but the normal person! Cleaning is not just his profession, but his obsession. His mission. He’s written over 360 books on the subject, with titles like Clutter’s Last Stand: It’s Time To De-junk Your Life! and Is There Life After Housework?: A Revolutionary Approach to Cutting Your Cleaning Time 75%, and has been on TV hundreds of time, including appearances on QVC and Oprah. He wants to clean up the world. And by creating the Museum of Clean, he’s put his money where his mouth is.

I had been expecting something small-scale, perhaps a collection of old vacuum cleaners. So when we pulled up in front of the massive six-story museum in Pocatello, I was floored. All this, for the history of cleaning products? Well, not quite. This isn’t the Museum of Cleaning but the Museum of Clean — an important distinction. Mr. Aslett is building a shrine to the very concept of “clean”. Clean floors and houses, yes, but also clean living. Clean energy, clean morals and a clean world. And why not? We’ve visited museums dedicated to potatoes, illusions, Evita Perón, and whores. Why not a museum of clean?

We were lucky to find Don Aslett inside, hard at work on yet another exhibition. He’s in his seventies but has the energy of a teenager, and gave us an exhaustive tour of his new museum, constantly cracking jokes and detailing his life philosophy. He’s got one of those larger-than-life personalities, and the time we spent with him was highly entertaining. And surreal.

The museum is truly something else. The first thing you’ll notice is a gigantic playground in the foyer that brings to mind a Motorcycle Death Globe, where kids can sweep up toy coins or squeegee windows (our vacuum-obsessed nephew would love this). Scattered about the museum are old Amish bath tubs, toilets, dental equipment, a library dedicated to “Clean”, artwork, video exhibitions and more. Much, much more. The scary thing is that the museum is only a third complete. Four of the six floors have yet to be filled out… I can’t imagine what the place will be like once finished. You’ll need three days to fully explore it!

The keyword for our time in Idaho has been “unexpected”, and Don Aslett’s Museum of Clean provided yet another absolutely unpredictable surprise. It’s strange, amazing and inspiring all at once … just like Don Aslett himself. Do yourself a favor and check it out. And if Don’s around, as he probably is, make sure and say “hi” from us!

Location on our Idaho Map
Link: Museum Of Clean

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December 28, 2012 at 9:12 am Comments (0)

Philo Farnsworth – Rigby’s Favorite Son

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Television History Book

Potatoes aren’t the only thing to spring from the fields of southeastern Idaho. In 1921, a brilliant young engineer had a “Eureka” moment that forever changed the world. While working on the family farm in Rigby, Philo Farnsworth figured out the principle of the image dissector, leading to his invention of the electronic television. He was fourteen years old at the time.

Dissector

The only son of a humble Idaho farming family, the future genius showed engineering prowess at an early age, repairing generators and charging his mom’s old hand-powered washing machine with an electric current. Young Philo was fascinated by electricity (a novel innovation in rural 1920s Idaho) and spent his time brainstorming its possible uses. One day while working in the field and contemplating the even, wavy rows of dirt, he realized how light waves could be manipulated into a series of lines to display images.

Excited, Philo ran down to the schoolhouse and drew a diagram on the chalkboard for his science teacher. It was the first sketch of a television device and although the teacher likely couldn’t understand a bit of it, he encouraged the boy to continue developing his idea. Philo did so, and in 1928 was ready to demonstrate the world’s first all-electronic television system to the press.

Philo’s innovations weren’t limited to the world of TV — he would go on to invent the baby incubator, and make essential contributions to radar, the electron microscope and infrared glasses. It’s surprising that the Mormon farm boy from Idaho never became a household name; he certainly deserves to be. TIME Magazine, in fact, named him as one of the most important people of the century.

We visited a museum dedicated to the young scientist in his hometown of Rigby, where we saw some of the original models of his television, read about his life, and gave ourselves headaches by trying to figure out his scientific diagrams. We also learned the story of how the RCA Corporation (which became NBC) first tried to hire Philo, and then shamelessly attempted to steal his invention as their own. The ensuing years of court cases and patent fights threatened Philo’s mental well-being, and even his place in history.

It’s baffling how unknown Philo Farnsworth is. We’re a country that regularly puts individual genius on a pedestal; consider the almost embarrassing fawning over Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But here’s this kid who invents our favorite device ever and nobody knows his name. It’s something that should be corrected. Philo’s story is fascinating, and the chance to learn about his life is definitely worth a side-trip to Rigby.

Location on our Idaho Map

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December 8, 2012 at 10:50 am Comments (0)

The Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace

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The History Of Prostitution

Word had spread around Wallace that the Feds were on their way in, and the town’s bordellos had to close up fast. Under the vigilant eyes of Madame Ginger, the working girls of The Oasis grabbed what they could carry and left everything else behind. Their departure marked a sudden and unexpected end to prostitution in Wallace. The year was 1988.

Atari-Idaho

For the next five years, until being sold in 1993, The Oasis was locked up and undisturbed. The building’s new owner found everything inside the former bordello just as Madame Ginger and her girls had left it — clothes, toiletries, personal items, drawings, Atari systems, price lists, liquor, even the now-rancid food in the refrigerator. He realized almost immediately that he had a ready-made museum on his hands.

It goes without saying that, in 1988, prostitution in America was completely illegal, even in out-of-the-way Wallace, Idaho. But Madame Ginger had been careful to make generous “donations” to the police department, and was one of the town’s prime philanthropists. As such, she was popular with locals and could even call upon the law for assistance, when needed. For all intents and purposes, The Oasis was a legitimate business… and what a business it was! With five girls working sixteen-hour shifts, profits were estimated to clear a million a year.

And that’s despite the competitive prices. Even those of us who’ve never, ahem, procured a Lady of the Night understand that $15 for an eight-minute session isn’t bad. During our fascinating tour of the Bordello, we found the price list posted up in Madame Ginger’s bedroom. Eight minutes was “the basic” session (let’s not kid ourselves, guys, that’s plenty of time). But there were other variations; you could go up to an hour, have a bubble bath, or purchase extra positions. The basic fare only included missionary.

Prices For Paid Love

The tour was compelling, often hilarious, occasionally sad and completely surprising. I had been expecting a staid, informative presentation of the prostitution racket in Idaho’s mining towns; not a bordello as it looked while still operating. We saw the girls’ music collections (Lionel Richie, Diana Ross), their reading selections (almost exclusively romance novels, which broke my heart), and wardrobes. We saw where they bathed, where they ate and, of course, where they worked.

Madame Ginger had expected to quickly return and resume business, but the FBI stuck around for years conducting a wide-ranging investigation into Wallace’s corrupt sheriff. When the Feds finally left, times had changed and bordellos were no longer a welcome enterprise in Wallace. With the money she had saved, Ginger moved to Coeur d’Alene and lived out the rest of her years in style.

Location on our Idaho Map

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Idaho-TV-Room
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October 16, 2012 at 2:51 am Comments (13)

The Cataldo Mission – Idaho’s Oldest Building

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The oldest building in Idaho is also among its most impressive. The Jesuit mission at Cataldo, built between 1850 and 1853 for the Coeur d’Alene tribe, has survived the ages magnificently. After finishing the White Pine Scenic Byway, we toured both the church and its museum in the nearby visitor’s center.

Cataldo-Mission

The Jesuits were welcome guests in Idaho, invited by the Coeur d’Alene, who hoped to share in the white man’s powerful religion. Father Pierre-John De Smet headed up the delegation and had a church built on the banks of the Coeur d’Alene river, meant to evoke the grand cathedrals of Europe. With its wooden altars painted to look like marble and chandeliers made of tin cans, Europeans might have sneered at the makeshift quality, but the church was impressive enough to the Coeur d’Alene, who came to worship in droves.

The church was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1962. It’s been left mostly untouched since its inception, and its interior is creaky and beautiful. There are a couple small exhibits, demonstrating the methods used in the church’s construction, and an audio tape on loop which plays songs and prayers from the 1800s.

The accompanying museum is also worth visiting. With items on loan from the Smithsonian, it presents a fascinating tour through the shared history of the Catholics and the Coeur d’Alene. Pictures and anecdotes describe the historic meeting of the cultures. We learned, for example, that Father De Smet was wise enough to disregard the famous inflexibility of Catholic dogma, and incorporate the pagan beliefs of the Coeur d’Alene into his teachings.

The Cataldo Mission was an unexpected highlight during our tour through Idaho. Even for the most time-constrained tourist, the museum and church ought to be worth a couple hours.

Location on our Idaho Map

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Kitchen Idaho
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October 10, 2012 at 3:48 pm Comments (2)

The Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage Center

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Learn How To Hunt

PETA members, feel free to skip this post. You’re not the target audience for the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center, and probably won’t appreciate the photos which are to come (hint: a lot of dead animals). Everyone else, please follow me.

Lionesse

Quick, who’s the greatest hunter of all time? If you know as much about hunting as we did, you’re staring blankly into space right about now, with ridiculous names like “Elmer Fudd” floating through your brain. But now that I’ve visited his museum, I would be able to answer confidently: Jack O’Connor! Jack O’Connor is the greatest hunter of all time.

The museum, found in Lewiston’s Hell’s Gate State Park, collects Mr. O’Connor’s trophies from around the world, along with photos and stories from his life. Animal heads from Asia and Africa to North America line the walls, including impressive kills such as Bighorn Sheep, lions, and the Greater Kudu. Despite having been beheaded and mounted on a wall, the animals somehow maintain their majesty. Touring this museum was almost more fun than a zoo, because you can get real close without getting bit.

Jack was a writer for Outdoor Life magazine and authored a number of books on hunting, some of which have become definitive guides to the sport. Born in 1902, he belonged to a different era than ours: the kind of era where it was socially acceptable to grab a gun, fly to Africa and shoot anything that moved. Back then, it wasn’t a shocking moral crime to kill a tiger. You just killed the thing, and then took a picture of yourself posing with its corpse.

As is often true of hunters, Jack O’Connor was a fierce conservationist and helped promote many of the regulatory laws that still govern the sport to this day. While in the museum, I read from one of his books about the mating habits and gestation time of Dall Sheep. Sure, he was killing them for sport, but O’Connor was an absolute authority on the animals and had a greater respect for them than most anyone else.

After touring the center, we spent some time talking to the attendant, who’s a hunter in his own right. Discounting The Slingshot-Frog Incident of my tenth year, I’ve never shot a living creature, but I appreciate the idea of hunting; the patience, skill and preparation involved, and the admiration it must give you for nature.

Location of the Jack O’Connor Museum
Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage & Education Center – Website

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October 5, 2012 at 1:34 am Comments (2)