Founding Father Walter E. Pierce was truly one of Boise’s visionary leaders in his time. In a 1937 newspaper article, Mr. Pierce was lauded as “the most important single human factor transforming Boise from frontier village to metropolitan city”.
Walter was born in Texas just prior to the start of the Civil War. He was one of six children in a once-wealthy Rhode Island family who had suffered a reversal of fortunes and relocated to a Texas sheep ranch in 1954. But the family was obliged to flee to Kansas just after Walter’s birth in 1860 “on account of the Indians, who were very troublesome.”
Walter’s father died when he was just a child, so he had limited opportunities for education, and was largely self-taught. Walter was involved in a variety of enterprises while living in Kansas, including retail work, running a hotel, raising sheep, and working in the construction trade. As a tribute to his personal appeal and work ethic, he was, as a young man in his 20’s, elected to the town council in Richfield, KS in spite of his Democrat affiliations in a predominantly Republican town.
Walter felt, however, that economic conditions in that part of Kansas were trending downward, so he declined to run for reelection and set off to seek his fortune in the West, settling in Boise at the age of 30.
Immediately upon arriving in Boise in 1890 he, along with two partners from Kansas, opened a real estate firm which was widely predicted by the locals to close within 90 days. But he proved the nay-sayers wrong with his active development of properties beginning in the north end which was then composed of a few farms, orchards, and mostly open space – and extending his eventual reach from the Natatorium on Warm Springs out to Pierce Park. He is said to have built and lived in more fine houses than any other Boise leader through his habit of building himself a home in each of his new developments, living in it until the development was firmly established, and then selling at a profit. Perhaps most notable of his residential properties was the home he built in 1914 on N. 25th which was later purchased by the State and served as the Governor’s mansion for a number of years.
Walter was involved in Boise politics, serving as mayor of Boise from 1895 – 1897, when he was still under the age of 40. The race must have been spirited, because he won by a margin of 2 votes, 436 to 438. During his tenure he was said to have ”inaugurated the first street-paving, even though at that time it was accomplished under great difficulties and met with great opposition, while now everybody concedes that it was the right thing to do.”
In 1907 he opened a 185 acre public playground known as Pierce Park which boasted picnicking, tennis courts, a manmade lake, and the largest bandstand in the state – and which later became the Plantation Golf Course and Country Club.
And he built downtown “skyscrapers” along the way – not the least of which is the Idaho Building just kitty corner from this building, which incidentally utilized the architectural services of Charles Hummel’s father.
Not only was Walter involved in property development, he was also a major force in the growth of electric power in the region. It was largely due to his contacts on the east coast that he was able to obtain Philadelphia financing to build the Boise & Interurban Electric Railway which was the “northern route” of the railroad loop to Caldwell, running from the Natatorium to downtown, and then through Eagle, Star & Middleton.
A testament to his financial success was the terms of his divorce from his first wife, Georgie, in 1913. Her divorce settlement included their “handsome” home at First and Idaho, their electric automobile, $100,000 in stock, and $100,000 to be paid in installments over ten years. In current dollars, the settlement exceeded $5,000,000.
Walter Pierce gained prominence for his many highly successful commercial endeavors, but when interviewed for a newspaper article in his later life, he responded that his proudest accomplishment was planting and tending some 7,000 trees throughout the city.
Walter Pierce died in 1951 at the age of 91, leaving behind his second wife and two daughters.
By Marcia Wing, presented to the club November 20, 2014