Located thirty miles northwest of Boise on Highway 16, the “Gem of the Payette” is 48 miles long and averages 22 miles wide. The town of Emmett, sitting at 2373 feet above sea level, is the County seat. In the early 1900’s fruit packers adopted the label of “Gem of Plenty” because of the fertility of the valley. During the mining era the valley was known as the “garden” for the mining regions.
Rising 5,906 feet, Squaw Butte, named by Native Americans who used this area as their winter resort, stands at the north end of the Valley. The Payette River was named after Francois Payette, who was put in charge of Fort Boise in 1818 and traveled through the area. Permanent settlement began in the early 1860’s, after gold discoveries in the Boise Basin brought people over the already established stage and pack train routes. Two of these trails joined at the Payette River north of the present river bridge. It was here that in 1863 Nathaniel Martin and Jonathan Smith decided to build a ferry to cross the river that swelled to over a mile wide each spring. The community of Martinsville, later named Emmett, grew up around this ferry site, which handled not only local trade, but also heavy traffic from the Basin Trail. The next year Doc Burdge came with his family and opened the first store and gristmill. The grinding stones from this mill are located in the Emmett City Park. The Burdge house was one of the grandest in the 1870’s. The Martin House, built in 1878, located on Riverside and Wardwell, is the oldest house still standing in Emmett.
Six miles from Emmett was the Payette River Ranch, also called the Government Ranch because of the government stockpiles there. The Martinsville Post Office moved to the Payette River Ranch in 1870 and was renamed Emmett, for the son of Tom Cahalan, who had the name recorded in Washington, D.C. When the post office moved back to Martinsville a year later, the recorded name remained with it, and Martinsville eventually became Emmett
Roadhouses were necessary to give travelers a place to stop and get a drink, a meal, or lodging. Falk’s Store was one such stop and at one time was the principal village in the lower valley. Located ten and a half miles from Emmett near the present county line, it provided the only store between Boise and Baker, Oregon, doing an estimated $60,000 a year in business. Although nothing remains now, there also was a hotel, saloon, two stores and other small businesses.
In 1883 James Wardwell had the town platted, and in 1900 the town was incorporated as Emmett. After the closing the pearl mines in 1906, the power lines were extended to Emmett. A series of irrigation projects made it possible for more rapid expansion of the town as the major service center for a farming and fruit-growing valley.
Attempts to enter the Emmett Valley from the southeast end were very limited due to the steep terrain. The early routes went up to Montour and then on to the Boise Basin or the Overland Stage Route west of Emmett. Freezeout Hill was so named because old-timers had to lock or “freeze” their wagon wheels and slide down the hill. Sometimes it took as many as twelve teams of horses and more than a day to pull a freight wagon up the hill. The story is told of early freighters attempting to come down during a winter nearly freezing to death on top before they could get down the next day. The tough old hill has been known as Freezeout ever since. The winding road to the west of the new grade was constructed in 1919.
Picket’s Corral, located at the head of the valley east of Emmett, is a natural lava rock corral. It became the rendezvous headquarters for horse thieves, bandits, murders, and bogus-gold dust operators that were notorious throughout the northwest. Just down the hill, a cabin of driftwood logs was a roadhouse for weary travelers. A stockade of 10-foot high log pickets was built at the opening of the rocky gorge. Stolen horses were put in the stockade and then led out the back of the canyon during the night and then sold in Oregon. The Payette Vigilantes, headed up by William J. McConnell, eventually brought the Picket Corral gang and the Washoe Ferry outlaws to justice. McConnell later became governor of Idaho and a United States Senator.
Black Canyon Dam
In 1905 a diversion dam and canals were built on the Payette River, 15 miles north of the present dam site. Some of the concrete canal wall remain and can be seen along the highway.
With the pressing need for irrigation water, the Bureau of Reclamation completed this dam in 1924. The 183-foot high dam was built on a natural dam site, created by the huge black basalt rocks that blocked travel up the canyon, and for which the canyon was named. The water level behind the dam must remain at a certain level to divert water into the canals that take the water as far as Middleton. Today the backwaters are excellent for water spots and recreation.
Ten miles north of Emmett lies the natural hot springs called Roystone Hot Springs. An early settler developed the, springs into a fruit and vegetable farm taking produce to the various mines. In 1923 Roy Stone and his wife bought the springs and Mrs. Stone was responsible for the development of a summer resort and health spa named Roystone Hot Mineral Springs. Besides the large hotel there was an enclosed swimming pool and bathhouse. Now owned and operated by the Johns Family, it is available for public use with reservations.
During the gold rush to the Thunder Mountain Mines, Sweet served as an important freighter’s supply station. At the turn of the century, Sweet boasted of three hotels, three saloons, a bank, a newspaper, two lodge halls, and other business. It was named for the first postmaster Ezekiel Sweet. After the gold rush subsided and a series of fires in the business district, the town began to deteriorate, and was not rebuilt.
Fifteen miles north of Sweet, the Ola Valley was settled as early as 1864. It was, and remains today, a farming and ranching area. Due to the hardpan and lava rock formations, rock cribs are still used to anchor the fences. Ola’s community hall, two-room schoolhouse, and church built around 1910, are still used today.
Colonel Barnard and W.W. Wilton wanted a town midway through the Valley to extend the railroad from New Plymouth to Emmett; they were hoping it would be a major rail center. That dream was never realized. W.W. Wilton named the town after his daughter.
In the early 1860’s the Marsh-Ireton Ranch was established as a stage and mail stop along the freight road to the Boise Basin. After the railroad came through the Valley in 1911, the Montour business district and town were platted. They vied for the Boise County seat, but in 1915, the town was incorporated into Gem County with Emmett as the County seat. Dreams of prosperity faded, when in 1941, the new highway bypassed Montour, and shortly thereafter the school closed due to school reorganization.
The last store closed in 1968. In the 1970’s, ice jams along the backwaters of the dam flooded the Valley. The Bureau of Reclamation bought out the landowners and has since turned the area into a wildlife refuge and camping area. A natural landmark is the small butte, generally known as Regan Butte, named after the homesteader who ran cattle there in the late 1800’s.
William J. McConnell wrote, “It is a strange analogy that life should mean death, for the life of early places was gauged…by the growth of the cemetery.” Emmett’s original cemetery located on West Fourth Street was moved to its present location in 1918. Other county cemeteries are located in Sweet, Ola and Pearl.