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A House of Stone, a Heart of Gold

The amazing life (and home) of Erma Andre Madry Hayman


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"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.

Erma's House

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.