Idaho’s rich past im­pos­si­ble to ex­am­ine with­out rec­og­niz­ing Basque cul­ture

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - STAY CONNECTED - BY ARTHUR HART Spe­cial to the Idaho States­man

I first en­coun­tered Basque cul­ture in Au­gust 1945 af­ter en­rolling at Biar­ritz Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity in the south­west cor­ner of France, one of mil­lions of Amer­i­can sol­diers in Eu­rope wait­ing to go home af­ter the sur­ren­der of Ja­pan fol­low­ing the drop­ping of the first atomic bombs in World War II.

Like many thou­sands of oth­ers, my col­lege ed­u­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Wash­ing­ton had been in­ter­rupted by the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor on Dec. 7, 1941. I was an art ma­jor at the time, so in 1945 I en­rolled in classes in paint­ing and sculp­ture at Biar­ritz, taught by Amer­i­can pro­fes­sors.

Be­fore the war, Biar­ritz was de­scribed by one writer as “a place of es­cape for the rich and fa­mous from the cold win­ters of north­ern Eu­rope. The ho­tels were lux­u­ri­ous. There was a casino too, of course. This served well as a con­fer­ence and lec­ture hall dur­ing the Uni­ver­sity’s time there. The beau­ti­ful vil­las were also rented to the Amer­i­cans.” My art classes were taught in Villa Rochefou­cauld, once oc­cu­pied briefly by Queen Vic­to­ria of Eng­land.

Jai Alai was the first uniquely Basque game of which I be­came a fan, es­pe­cially games be­tween French and Span­ish teams, played on an out­door court more than 400 feet long.

When I ar­rived in Boise in 1969 as the new di­rec­tor of the Idaho State Mu­seum, I found that there were two Basque pelota courts where one ver­sion of the game was played. I also learned that the Basque com­mu­ni­ties in Moun­tain Home and Shoshone, Idaho, had courts, as did On­tario, Jor­dan Val­ley, Arock, Mc­der­mitt and Rome in Ore­gon, and Yakima, Wash.

The State Mu­seum had a women’s aux­il­iary then led by Adelia Garro Sim­plot, one of sev­eral women of Basque de­scent who worked to in­crease pub­lic aware­ness of Idaho’s fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, and es­pe­cially the part the Basques had played in it.

In 1985 we in­cor­po­rated the Basque Mu­seum and Cul­tural Cen­ter with the 1863 Cyrus Ja­cobs House on Grove Street as head­quar­ters. We soon ac­quired the build­ing at 611 Grove St. and be­gan to cre­ate a mu­seum. Among ex­hibits I de­signed were “Who Are the Basques?” with por­traits of Adelia Garro Sim­plot, Sec­re­tary of State Pete Ce­nar­rusa, Joe Eig­uren, au­thor of the first Basque-english dic­tio­nary, and other prom­i­nent Idaho Basques; and a map of the Basque coun­try, il­lus­trated with pho­tos col­lected at Biar­ritz in 1945.

An­other of those first ex­hibit pan­els was il­lus­trated with pic­tures of fa­mous Basques, rang­ing from the great artist Fran­cisco de Goya to movie star/pi­anist Jose Iturbi. We could have in­cluded St. Ig­natius of Loy­ola, St. Fran­cis Xavier, mu­si­cians Mau­rice Ravel and Placido Domingo, and a pair of politi­cians, Sec­re­tary of State Ben Ysursa and Boise Mayor Dave Bi­eter.

And would you ever have guessed that base­ball star Ted Wil­liams was of Basque de­scent? I wouldn’t.

Arthur Hart writes this col­umn on Idaho his­tory for the Idaho States­man each Sun­day. Email hist­[email protected]

Idaho State His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety

Idaho’s Basques had a lively so­cial life, with plenty of mu­sic and danc­ing.

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