Middleton marks 100th year as an Idaho city

| April 13, 2010 | 0 Comments
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BY KRISTIN RODINE – krodine@idahostatesman.com
Copyright: © 2010 Idaho Statesman
Published: 04/10/10

As you drive into Middleton on the road that shares its name, a sign advises visitors: “Our citizens practice tolerance and welcome diversity.”

That sign used to state “Middleton, a good place to live,” and residents say that hasn’t changed. But the community felt the need to make its welcome more specific in 2003, after spray-painted swastikas cropped up on a park concession stand and a few residents reported they were accosted with racist epithets.

“It outraged the community of Middleton as a whole,” said Canyon County Commissioner Steve Rule, a lifelong Middleton resident and former City Council member. “And it stopped happening.”

“The people just kind of rallied around,” said Becky O’Meara, owner/editor of the monthly Middleton Gazette and great-granddaughter of the city’s first mayor, S.S. Foote.

OLD FLOUR MILL This is the only building remaining from the flour mill that was once a major employer in Middleton. Subdivisions have sprung up near the site on North Dewey Avenue a few blocks from City Hall.

Rallying is one of the things this community just west of Star and north of Caldwell is known for. People pulled together in February 2007, when an early-morning fire destroyed Middleton High School and hobbled the school district’s phone and computer systems. A few months later, another outpouring of neighborly concern and effort persuaded “Extreme Makeover” producers to choose Middleton’s Stockdale family as the recipients of a complete home renovation via the popular prime-time television show.

“When the going gets tough, everyone bands together,” said City Clerk Ellen Smith. “It’s a pretty neat feeling.”

Community feeling will be out in full force Saturday when Middleton celebrates the centennial of its 1910 incorporation with old-fashioned activities, food and fanfare.

The town itself started nearly 50 years earlier. Founded in 1863, it was named for its location midway between Boise and old Fort Boise near what is now Parma. Middleton is the oldest community in Canyon County and one of the oldest in the state.

Lee Moberly, a lifelong Middleton resident widely regarded as the town historian, said it seems a little odd to celebrate 100 years “when they’ve already had a hundred years and more.”

But Smith said this centennial is an occasion worth commemorating.

“It’s when we became a city,” she said. “The way I think of it, incorporation is what makes you official.”

DEATH, DIRT AND HISTORY

Like many cities, Middleton’s historical milestones were shaped by mayhem, such as the 1914 fire that destroyed the town’s two-story hotel and the 1926 bank robbery in which a bandit brandished two guns and made off with $1,800 that was never recovered.

Probably the most notorious incident took place on the south side of the Boise River about nine years before Middleton took root on the north side. In August 1854, local Indians attacked a wagon train traveling from Missouri on the Oregon Trail, killing 18 of the 20 emigrants. Known as the Ward Massacre, the battle is marked by a monument and small park just east of Middleton Road on Lincoln Road.

But one of Middleton’s biggest turning points came without Wild West drama, Moberly said: The Black Canyon irrigation project in 1948.

“All of that land north of town had been desert and sagebrush,” he said.

The Rule family was among those who benefited from the rerouted water.

“My dad plowed under sagebrush north of Middleton in the late ’40s,” Steve Rule recalled.

Historical buildings are scattered throughout Middleton, commemorated in a new self-guided tour brochure O’Meara and Moberly prepared for the centennial.

The city’s former jail and fire station sits on a ditchbank across North Dewey Avenue from City Hall, looking more like a storage shed than a public safety building.

Next door is the former Middleton State Bank, site of a 1926 robbery and now bedecked with cowboy and cowgirl silhouettes for its new life as the Our Place Saloon.

A TOWN IN TRANSITION

Horses graze in pasture two blocks from Middleton City Hall. Residents say their town has retained much of its rural feel even as its population mushroomed. The most recent official population estimate is 5,870, and local leaders expect this year’s census will tally about 6,000 Middleton residents – more than twice the count from the 2000 census and triple the population from 1990.

“It used to be you’d go downtown and you knew everybody,” said O’Meara, who remembers when the town’s population sign proclaimed 541 residents. “But so many new people have moved in, you kind of lose that knowing-your-neighbor feel.”

But she said Middleton still has “that home feeling. You feel safe and secure.”

Transportation has always been a key part of Middleton’s identity. While the Oregon Trail passed on the other side of the Boise River, an alternate route followed Middleton’s side of the stream. The Interurban streetcar ran from Middleton to Boise and Caldwell between 1907 and 1928. Now, Idaho 44 doubles as the city’s busy Main Street, connecting to Interstate 84 west of town.

“It still feels like a small town,” said Meridian School District Superintendent Rich Bauscher, who doubles as vice president of the Middleton Chamber of Commerce. “The downtown is small enough that you know all the businesses, and there’s not a lot of duplication.”

According to the 2000 census, the median income for a family in Middleton was $34,734, compared with a statewide average of $43,490 and a U.S. average of $50,046. But fewer – about 7.5 percent – of the town’s families lived below the poverty level, compared with 8.3 percent statewide and 9.2 percent nationwide.

The Middleton School District is the town’s biggest employer, officials said, with Ridley’s Family Market the biggest business employer.

Although Middleton has collected new businesses as well as subdivisions, most residents still head out each morning to jobs in Boise, Caldwell and Nampa. Easy commuter routes to Boise and Caldwell are among the city’s key attractions to homebuyers.

Shedding the bedroom-community label is “a dream of ours,” Smith said. “One of the city’s goals is to be able to sustain some beautiful business and industry and have more jobs for our citizens.”

‘A CLOSE-KNIT GROUP’

Although Middleton may not offer a wide range of job opportunities, its residents do far more than sleep there.

Community events, notably the big Fourth of July parade and Easter Egg hunt, draw big crowds, and residents gather for a wide range of fare.

“This is a real close-knit group of people,” Bauscher said.

This month the community is celebrating Middleton Unplugged, with each day featuring a community event – everything from an emergency preparedness fair to a mother/daughter makeover – or a suggested family activity. The suggestions include exploring your family tree, spring-cleaning the garage, and researching your favorite country and making a dinner reflecting that culture.

The brainchild of resident Fred Betzold, Middleton Unplugged is designed to make people more active, more interactive and less dependent on electronics.

“When you get home together as a family, that’s family time,” Betzold said. “We put our phones away, we turn our TV off and we turn our computers off.”

Unplugged made its debut last year and drew big crowds for the community events. Whether many people actually kept their televisions and computers off is an open question, O’Meara said.

“I know I didn’t,” she said. “But I sure did go to the community events.”

Betzold said he’s heard many families are meeting the Unplugged challenge, which should be easier this year because it was moved to April rather than March. Timing the no-TV event to coincide with the NCAA basketball playoffs was a point of frustration for some, he said.

The finals fell in April, and even Betzold admits he bent the Unplugged rules to catch that game.

But, he notes, “We watched it as a family.”

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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Category: Idaho History

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