This article originally appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of Pioneer Magazine.
By Kellene Ricks Adams
The settling of southeastern Idaho actually began perhaps centuries before the official March 16, 1883 dedication of Rexburg, Idaho, one of the area’s oldest, still-existing settlements. The Rexburg area had been on the migratory route of both Shoshoni and Bannock Indians, and early fur trappers traveled the area before LDS pioneers arrived to make their mark.
In addition to the Shoshoni and Bannock tribes, occasional bands of Crow, Blackfeet, Flathead, Nez Perce, and Sioux Indians passed through as well. The first known white men in the area were Andrew Henry a partner in the St. Louis Mission Fur Company, and his colleagues, who built a small fort about seven miles north of Rexburg on the Snake River in 1810. The winter that year was severe, and the men returned to St, Louis. During the next several decades numerous trappers came and went, with a few actually staying.
By the time Rexburg was officially dedicated, there were a few scattered settlers in the Upper Snake River Valley, including a small gathering of Saints led by John Poole living in Poole’s Island (today’s present-day Menan). It was Brother Poole’s positive reports, along with supporting statements from other visitors to the area, that persuaded Church leadership to ultimately send an official group to settle the area.
“The size of the sagebrush-some taller than a man on horseback-—and trees and the thick grasses of the country through which they traveled* indicated good soil fertility” records Idaho historian David 1 Crowder in his book Rexburg, Idaho: The First One Hundred Years. “The land was relatively flat with some gentle hills rising to nearby mountains.
“There was abundant water. Irrigated agriculture was a definite probability with water available to power grist and lumber mills. The mountains could provide ample timber for building purposes. A concerted effort to populate the valley with hardy, stalwart members of the LDS Church seemed a logical conclusion.”
Thomas E. Ricks, a highly respected Church member and successful colonizer (he and his family had helped settle Cache Valley), was called to serve as bishop of what Church leaders called the Bannock Ward, a vast area that ran north, east, and west of the mouth of the Portneuf Canyon near Pocatello, Idaho, as far as there were members of the Church. The new bishop didn’t even know how far that was!
In January 1883, Bishop Ricks, accompanied by William B. Preston, president of the Cache Stake, headed to the area to check it out. They met with members already living in the area, instructing them to work together in planting crops and building meetinghouses, On this trip, they also selected a site for the future settlement they were planning to establish.
Although the settlement of the area would follow the pattern established by the Church for the last 30 years as it had settled areas all over the West, in this case there was one important difference: Church leaders didn’t have to call men on missions to settle this area. Thanks to the glowing reports of the area and many members’ respect for Bishop Ricks, men volunteered for this opportunity. Several loaded wagons left Cache Valley on January 23, less than three weeks after President Preston and Bishop Ricks had made their initial visit to the area with the intent of settling it. (Ricks had actually visited the area previously several times in other capacities.)
Less than a month later, construction on Rexburg’s first buildings began. President Preston decreed the town’s name in honor of Bishop Ricks and his long service in the Church, “The German ancestral name was variously spelled Ricksville, Ricksburgh, Ricksberg, Rexford, Rixburg, Rexburgh, and Rexberg,” Crowder notes. “This created confusion for several years for outsiders—mostly newspaper reporters and other correspondents, who consistently misspelled the name. The local people knew the correct spelling very well.”
The settlers worked hard and fast, stopping briefly on March 16, 1883, for a public meeting to formally dedicate their new town to the Lord. Important matters were given priority, as Church leadership was officially organized (Bishop Ricks called as his counselors Jacob Henry Flamm and Francis Christopher Gunnell, with Thomas E, Bassett as ward clerk) and community gathering places were built.
“During the summer of 1883, the road from Utah to the Upper Valley was filled with wagons full of people and supplies,” notes Louis J. Clements in “Snake River Echoes,” an Upper Snake River Valley Historical Society publication. “Hundreds of people were seeking the promise of new homes and lives in the Snake River Valley By the end of 1883, there were 815 members cited on the records of the Bannock Ward, The end of the second year, the number had risen to 1420.” It didn’t take long for the fledgling community to establish important resources for its citizens, “
In the fall of ’83, William F. Rigby moved his saw mill from Beaver Canyon north of Dubois, to Rexburg,” reports Clements. A general store was started by Bishop Ricks in the center of town. A furniture and hardware store was begun soon after. Produce raised in gardens found a market in Utah and the western Idaho mining camps. In 1886 Henry Flamm and his son- in-law opened a second general store. The Flamms allowed credit to their patrons and enabled many to wait until their crops were harvested to pay their bills.
A modern steam mill was put in operation near the end of 1884 by thomas ricks. Wheat was brought to the mill from all over the valley. The next few years saw Jacob Brenner’s blacksmith shop, C.E. Bramwelfs furniture store, and John R. Winter s general merchandise store come into being. Soon the town had three hotels. . , .[and] on April 1, 1884, a post office was established with Thomas E- Bassett as postmaster. A pony express system brought the mail directly from the train at Market Lake (Roberts) to Rexburg.”
In early 1884, the Bannock Ward was changed to the bannock stake, and Bishop Ricks was called as stake president. During the first six weeks following this change, several wards were created in the area; several more followed during the next few months, and the area continued to grow.
A pivotal point in the history of Rexburg was the creation of what would eventually become ricks college and today is called byu-idaho. First called Bannock Academy and sponsored by the Church, the facility initially served as an elementary school. Through the years, the school evolved and played a major role in the development and growth of Rexburg.
With crucial components of the community, such as stores, schools, and religious organization, in place, Rexburg was well on its way to becoming a successful settlement. Through the years the town, which has remained strong but fairly small, has weathered its fair share of challenges and obstacles, from the threat of losing Ricks College in the late 1950s to the devastating Teton Dam break, only to emerge stronger and more united than ever.
The Teton Dam Disaster
The year 1976 was a year-long birthday celebration for the United States, Like the rest of the nation, citizens of Rexburg intended to commemorate the milestone in huge July Fourth celebrations.
However, the bicentennial in Rexburg turned out much different than originally planned. On June 5, 1976, the nearly completed Teton Dam, located a few miles outside of Rexburg, burst, and millions of gallons of water swept downstream.
Evacuation of people from the flood path was incredibly rapid as repeated radio warnings and state and county law enforcement officers combined to alert everyone of the impending disaster. Despite the warnings, most people expected that by the time flood waters reached Rexburg, it would only amount to a few inches. Residents were stunned when the wall of water reached the town.
“The hills above the city were crowded with people who had left their homes and businesses,” reports Crowder. “The scene was surrealistic. Water spread out as far as could be seen. Livestock, trailer houses, and debris of all sorts could be seen being carried along. Immediately m front of the wall of water was a great cloud of dust, raised by the water. . . . Houses were being torn from foundations. . . , The destruction was almost more than could be comprehended. Everyone was dazed.”
U.S. President Gerald Ford declared the area a disaster area, and federal assistance soon arrived. However, even before official help came on the scene, the area was flooded once again with help from the LDS Church and other religious organizations, the local authorities, Red Cross and other agencies, and literally thousands of volunteers from nearby communities and neighboring states.
“When federal authorities arrived to assess damages and determine needs, they were amazed to find people working to clean up the mess,” writes Crowder. “The experience they had had with other disasters was that people usually waited for the government to come and take over. One man, a high-ranking military officer, could not restrain the tears when he saw that people were busily engaged in putting their lives back together without waiting for someone to do it for them.”
- David Crowder, Rexburg, Idaho: The First One Hundred Years, The Caxton Printers, Lid. Caldwell, Idaho, 1983.
- Snake River Echoes: A Quarterly of Idaho History, Vol. 12, No. 1. The. Upper Snake River Valley Historical Society, Rexburg, Idaho, 1983.
- Snake River Echoes: A Quarterly of Idaho History, Vbl. 12, No, 4. The Upper Snake River Valley Historical Society, Rexburg, Idaho, 1983.
- Louise J. Clements, Teton Flood: June 5, 1976 Revisited, The Upper Snake River Valley Historical Society, Rexburg. Idaho, 1991.