Apart from some decades-old rose bushes, which will soon bloom for another season, there is no sign of life at 617 Ash Street. But that's not how Richard Madry sees it.
"This was my home," he said, giving Boise Weekly a brief but very personal story of the single-story sandstone house. "I came here before I was 2 years old and lived here for the next 20 years."
The 900-square-foot building, which was once surrounded by rows of wood homes in a densely-populated neighborhood, now sits by its lonesome. Madry looked out on the backyard and framed a section of the property with his outstretched arms.
"We had all kinds of vegetables and flowers back here and three gorgeous fruit trees," he said. "Right across River Street, that's where the city's first fronton [handball court] was built for the Basques. And over here [Madry swung his arm to the north and pointed to where Giraffe Laugh day care is now located], that's where the local grocer was located."
Madry recalls his childhood neighborhood well, but the centerpiece of his existence—and in many ways just as firm as the stone house in which she lived—was his grandmother and primary caregiver, Erma Hayman. She lived at 617 Ash St. until she was 102 years old and, shortly after her death, Madry sold the house and property to the Capital City Development Corporation with hopes of keeping the structure in its original foundation.
"I know they'll do the right thing," said Madry, "and it just so happens that this year there will be a lot of activity here, and they'll have some big decisions to make."
One of CCDC's first decisions was to allow a precedent-setting archeological dig—part of a University of Idaho field school set to begin at the end of May and run for the following six weeks.
"Hats off to our board," said CCDC Executive Director John Brunelle. "The timing of the proposal for the archaeological dig was pure coincidence. We're going to need to make a decision on the house, after some good due diligence, but in the meantime, our board smiled upon the archaeology project. There might not be another chance quite like this."
It's not every day that archaeologists and CCDC cross paths, but when it came time for historians and Boise's urban renewal agency to consider the life of Erma Hayman and her stone house, the exceptional was indeed possible.
"This is an extraordinary thing that they're doing for us," said Dr. Mark Warner, chair of the University of Idaho Department of Sociology and Anthropology. "This takes a lot of foresight to say, 'Let's capture some of the history that's beneath of feet and let's try to learn about a part of Boise that is largely invisible to its citizens.'"
As BW learned more about Erma Hayman and the history of the River Street neighborhood, it became clear that what had become increasingly "invisible" to Boise's citizens needed to be, quite literally, unearthed and shared.
Down By the River
What is now known as the River Street neighborhood was homesteaded in 1863 by John McClellan, who built a cottonwood shack from logs floated down the Boise River. Two years later, McClellan named a swath of land "Lover's Lane," which would later be called the Pioneer Pathway. In 1892, the Oregon Short Line Railroad laid tracks through the area and the term "other side of the tracks" became a stark reality as the rails divided race and prosperity. As a result, the River Street neighborhood became a place where African Americans, Eastern Europeans and Hispanics made their homes.
"Idaho was an extension of the South. It's a Civil War story. As Union troops advanced into the South, some people fled because they didn't want to be involved in the war and some people fled because they hated blacks. So, yes there was a Civil War divide in this town," said Dr. Todd Shallat, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University. "In many ways, Boise was a Southern city. In many ways it still is. Idaho was a white flight state then and it still is."
Shallat is plain-spoken, and while he sat outside the stone house, he spoke bluntly about the River Street area, which had been called "Color Town" by some and worse—including the "N" word—by others when referring to the neighborhood south of Boise's downtown.
"Boiseans called this place 'Color Town,' so did the cops," he said. "This was the other side of the tracks, the most integrated neighborhood in town. It's a very complicated story and it's a story that we help tell by this house."
Shallat told BW that he considers himself a preservationist, but in the strictest definition of the word.
"I may not care as much about the architecture, but I'm really concerned about being informed of Boise's context. Maybe this house is a wonderful learning example," said Shallat. "When we have concerns about the present, we look at our past. If you think about it, our future is all about how much or little we know of our history."
According to John Bertram, vice president of Preservation Idaho and an expert on Boise history, "Way too often when we hear about historic buildings, they point us to a mansion on Warm Springs Avenue or a huge house on Harrison Boulevard. We often leave out the working class, and Erma Hayman's home is very representative of our working class."
Bertram is particularly connected to the Hayman House project.
"I knew [Erma] for many years. I first met her in the 1970s," he said.
The stone house was built on Ash Street in 1907, and though its builder is unknown, Madry, Shallat, Warner and Bertram all pointed to its sandstone construction as being similar to the Idaho Capitol Building, which was being built at the same time. It was also the same time that Erma Andre was born, the 12th of 13 children. She grew up in Nampa, where her father led a family orchestra with each member on a different instrument—Erma played the piano. In 1928, she married Navy Madry and raised three children. Navy died of leukemia in 1935, leaving 28-year-old Erma a widow, and she moved her family to a home on Boise's Pioneer Street.
She was a versatile professional, known as an excellent seamstress and a voracious reader of any book, magazine or newspaper article on fashion. Her sewing skills helped her family survive the Great Depression. Though Erma went to secretarial school, she was unable to find a full-time job. She eventually made herself a maid's uniform and would serve parties on Warm Springs Avenue for $1 a day.
Erma had little patience for African-American stereotypes of the day. Her daughter, Jeanne, recalled that her teacher at Park Elementary School wanted her to play Aunt Jemima in a school play. Erma marched all the way to school to inform the teacher of her disrespect. Jeanne ultimately played a ballerina.
In 1943, Erma married Lawrence Hayman, a baggage handler for the Union Pacific Railroad, and they purchased the stone house at 617 Ash St. During World War II, Erma was a real-life "Rosie the Riveter" at Boise's Gowen Field, where she repaired aircraft.
"It's because she was so small and she fit into all these small nooks and crannies," said Madry.
Her longest professional assignment was at the old Lerner Shop on Idaho Street, where Erma dressed windows for more than 20 years. Even after her full-time retirement at the age of 65, she kept working at Lerner's for seven more years. Shortly thereafter, Erma was a site manager for the Meals on Wheels program and was the chair of the River Street Neighborhood Council.
"I remember when she pushed to get them to install a traffic signal at 13th and River streets to make that crosswalk safer," said Bertram.
Meanwhile, Erma was caring and cooking for a full house, in spite of the fact that the home more often than not had a lot more people than it did space.
"There were eight of us living there," said Madry. "And there was one bedroom and one bathroom. You work things out." Madry also recalled his grandmother making certain that all of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren paid particular attention to their studies.
"Oh my yes, homework was a very big deal. We didn't get away with anything," said Madry, who would go on to become the first African American to graduate from Boise State University when it became a four-year college. "I owe her more than I can ever imagine."
Erma died on Nov. 2, 2009, aged 102. To this day, there are still some of her favorite items inside the home on Ash Street, including a wind chime by the kitchen window looking out on what was once a glorious garden.
"But now that same space where the garden grew will become an archaeological dig," said Madry. "That's pretty exciting. Who knows what they'll find?"
The Big Dig
William White grew up in Boise.
"It's my hometown. My parents—my dad was black, my mom is white—when they dated back in the 1970s, they would go to the River Street neighborhood because it was one of the few places where they could openly be together back then."
White received his bachelor's degree from Boise State and a master's degree from the University of Idaho, both in anthropology.
"And I always wanted to be an anthropologist," he said. "And a number of years ago [now Boise Democratic Sen.] Cherie Buckner-Webb and [then-Boise Councilman] Jerome Mapp would always tell me to do something with the River Street neighborhood. And that was always in the back of my mind."
White was a student of Warner's at the U of I, and that's where he first brainstormed the idea of an archaeological dig in the River Street neighborhood and, in particular, at the home where Erma Hayman once lived.
"This project will be Bill's dissertation for his doctorate from the University of Arizona. But the River Street neighborhood first came on my radar back in 2006," said Warner. "The stars just aligned for us."
When BW called Warner at his U of I office on the Moscow campus, he said he was still putting together the details for the accredited course that will be the framework of the archaeological dig at the Hayman House.
"We just got the OK," he said. "If you think of it, a lot of archaeology takes place in the middle of nowhere, so this will be a rare opportunity for the public to see a site."
It's not the first time that Boise will host an inner-city dig.
In the fall of 2012, U of I archaeologists unearthed marbles, shoes, tobacco tins and china at the Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House on Grove Street. In June 2014, archaeologists descended on the Fort Boise area near the VA hospital, to find children's toys and a lot of nails.
Warner oversaw both of those projects, as well.
"We had more than 1,000 people visit the Basque Block project in two weeks and we saw 400 people show up in one week at Fort Boise last summer," said Warner.
White said so many people showed up at the previous digs that this year's project at the Hayman House will allow the public to sign up to help through the Idaho Archaeological Council.
"They'll be coordinating everything," said White. "Yes, there will be an opportunity for the public to volunteer to work alongside us, digging and washing artifacts."
For the most part, the project should see plenty of students from accredited colleges and universities working for six weeks beginning in late May.
Which begs the question: What might they find at the Hayman House?
"You might have a diary and I could learn something about you by reading that," said Warner. "But if I went through your trash, I would probably learn a lot more about you, things you never thought about. The trash that people leave behind tells us an incredible amount of how they lived their lives—bits and pieces of their day-to-day life that don't get recorded in textbooks, but provide a rich narrative of how people lived. Individually, we may not find something earth shattering. But collectively, it will tell us a rich story about how they lived."
White added that archaeological digs usually unearth what people lost.
"Children's toys, keys and things they discard. A long time ago, trash didn't come as often as it does now," said White. "Bits of plates, glasses, you name it. We should be able to peel away the layers of soil, almost like pages of a book, and then we peel away layers of time. They are all tiny pieces of a puzzle that put together our history."
Should the Hayman House Stay?
Bertram told BW that he's concerned about a few comments he's heard indicating that the home might be moved or razed in favor of modern development.
"We're a little alarmed when we hear that," he said. "If it's relocated, it loses its focus and any connection to the neighborhood where it belongs."
More importantly, Bertram said, he wants to see the Hayman House nominated to the National Registry of Historic Places.
"But that would be impossible if it's moved," he said.
Meanwhile, at CCDC, which owns the property, Brunelle said no decision will be made until a thorough review of all the options.
"We're balancing a lot of different things. And make no mistake, this property is very interesting. We've been moving pretty fast, faster than ever, on a lot of projects and it's important not to take too much time, but we'll do a full due diligence over the next six months and a lot of smart folks have a lot of opinions. And the most important piece of this is public outreach," he said. "This is all really within the scope of a redevelopment agency that wants to preserve our history and not make some of the mistakes that different entities have made in the past by not preserving."
Bertram said he envisions the stone house being revitalized and reopened for future exhibitions and readings, with some interpretive signs outside along the nearby Pioneer Corridor; benches for people to linger; and a small outdoor area for classes.
"They could learn so much about our city, the neighborhood and my good friend Erma," he said.