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Archaeological Dig Uncovers the 'Other Side' of Boise History

Animal bones, 13 marbles, shoe leather, ceramic shards, a cherry pitter, and the remains of what may be the oldest Basque racket court in town.

The items hint at a picture of life a hundred years ago in Boise’s River Street neighborhood just north of the Boise River. Most closely associated with the city’s African-American community, the neighborhood was in reality a more diverse one with residents from the Basque Country and from Ireland. Chinatown, too, was mere blocks away.

A common thread through the diversity: “This was a block of Boise’s relatively disenfranchised,” said Mark Warner, a professor of archaeology at the University of Idaho.

The blue-collar neighborhood is the focus of a six-week archaeological dig continuing through July 3 near the corner of Ash and River streets. Much of the dig is taking place surrounding the 108-year-old Hayman House. A black woman, Erma Hayman, bought the house in 1947 after she was denied the opportunity to buy a house on the Boise Bench. She lived in the house until her death in 2009. Her family sold the house to the Capital City Development Corp. at that time.

“The big narrative of this project is finding the remains of everyday life and people largely forgotten. Working class folks,” Warner said.

A couple of weeks in, the dig uncovered the remains of an outdoor fronton — a Basque handball court — beneath a green patch of lawn owned by Boise Parks and Recreation that faces River Street. Warner believes it may be the oldest fronton in Boise, or the oldest on record. A Sanborn fire insurance map from 1912 includes the fronton as well as scores of long-gone houses.

“But just because you have a map, it doesn’t mean something is really there,” Bill White said.

In this case, it did.

White, a Boise native, is working toward his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Arizona. It was he who suggested a dig focusing on the River Street area. He plans to base his dissertation on the dig and has already produced the River Street Digital History Project with support from the Boise Department of Arts and History.

Growing up in Boise, attending St. Paul’s Baptist Church, White was “keyed into the African-American community” and its deep Boise history, he said. Lots of people had suggested focusing his research on River Street. The suggestions stayed with him while he was away from Idaho doing contract archaeology in other states.

This particular dig has had both good timing and great “serendipity,” he said. The city has been receptive to having the project on its land. The Capital City Development Corporation, the city’s urban renewal agency, owns most of the property where the dig is taking place, save two small sections owned by Boise Parks and Recreation. The neighborhood, which has caught the eye of developers over the years because of its prime location near the river between Boise State University and Downtown Boise, also benefited from the recession a few years ago that put development on hold, White said.

“That was a godsend for archaeology,” he said.

The project is unique in terms of social outreach, Warner said. The dig is happening in concert with oral history week at the College of Western Idaho. The project includes interviews with former residents. Some interviews are spontaneous, when those residents stroll by and share their stories with researchers.

“That’s rare,” said Lindsay Kiel, a University of Idaho graduate student in archaeology who’s working on the dig.

“I love to learn about the past and the people for whom documentation may not exist. Or it may exist and not be the whole story. It’s nice to dig and find things no one will tell you,” Kiel said.

The River Street dig is the third large urban archaeology project led by University of Idaho in Boise in recent years. Digs on the Basque Block in 2012 and at Old Fort Boise in 2014 precede it. The project is directed by the University of Idaho in partnership with the city, the Idaho Archaeological Society — which has provided volunteers — the Boise National Forest and the College of Western Idaho.

Warner said he doesn’t yet know where U of I’s next big Boise dig will take place. He’s open to suggestions. The dig site is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays until July 3 from around 9:30 a.m. to around 3:30 p.m.

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