City of Wendell
Monday, July 13, 2015
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
Wendell is one of several Magic Valley farming communities that were created following the 1905 completion of Milner Dam. The dam, located on the Snake River about 40 miles southeast of Jerome, produced sufficient water, fed through a complex system of irrigation canals, to irrigate and transform over 400,000 acres of fertile sagebrush-covered land into a farming oasis on, first, the south and, then, the north side of the river.
From its inception, agricultural-based businesses have dominated the city’s economy. Today, lush fields of alfalfa hay, corn, wheat, barley, sugar beets, beans and potatoes form a beautiful patchwork of color and texture around the city.
Beginning about two decades ago, large dairy farms—attracted by its moderate high-desert climate, abundance of excellent quality cattle feed, water and open-space—began developing in the Magic Valley. Idaho is now one of the principal dairy producing states in the nation. Some of the state’s largest dairy farms are located near Wendell.
Interstate 84 abuts the city’s west and south boundaries. Twin Falls is 24 miles southeast and Gooding, the county seat, is 11 miles north.
Niagara Springs, one of nine units comprising Thousand Springs State Park on the Snake River, is located five miles south of the city.
The city’s slogon is "Wendell, Hub City of the Magic Valley."
American Indians of the Bannock and Shoshone Tribes exclusively inhabited what is now the Magic Valley until around 1811 when the first explorers/trappers came into the area. They followed the Snake River and explored its tributaries in search of prime locations to trap beaver.
In 1841 the first overland migration of explorers and settlers destined for what is now western Oregon passed through the area. In 1842 Captain John C. Fremont, a military surveyor, led a 39-member exploration and survey detachment through Idaho and on to the Oregon coast. Future Oregon Trail immigrants benefited from Fremont’s detail maps and descriptions of the terrain, including campsite locations.
The 1862 prospectors found gold in the Boise Basin. The following year, 16,000 people flooded into the mining district. In 1864 the U.S. military built Fort Boise 40 miles east of the original Fort Boise located near what is now Parma and destroyed several years earlier by flood. Residents living near the new Fort Boise almost immediately platted a town near the fort that they named Boise City. Mail, passenger and freight wagon services, coming up from Utah to the new fort and town, passed through the Magic Valley a few miles from what is now Wendell.
In November 1884 the Oregon Short Line (OSL) completed construction of a railroad line that began at Granger, Wyoming; angled in a northwesterly direction through what are now Pocatello, Shoshone and Nampa; until it connected with the railroad across the Snake River in Huntington, Oregon. With this rail line, trains could travel from Omaha, Nebraska, to Portland, Oregon, in less than four days.
In 1894 the U.S. Congress passed the Carey Act. Under the Act, the federal government ceded up to one million acres of arable federal land to any state that would bring the land under cultivation. Development of the land was a public-private partnership. Idaho would ultimately use 850,000 acres of its allotment.
Under the Carey Act Project, private interests financed and built dams and canals. The State sold 40 to 160 acre parcels of land to individuals. In Idaho, the Idaho State Land Board represented the State. The developers sold water rights, developed town sites and sold town site lots. (See Southwestern Idaho, Cities of the Magic Valley.)
Circa 1900 Ira B. Perrine, a local farmer and entrepreneur who produced food for the miners in the Wood River district, sought to develop a "Carey Act" diversion dam—Milner Dam—across the Snake River at The Cedars.
In 1900 Perrine and several investors formed the Twin Falls Land and Water Company to build Milner Dam and a gravity-irrigation canal system on the south side of the river. In 1905 they completed the dam, and the first irrigation water reached farmland on the south side of the Snake River Canyon.
In 1907 Perrine and other investors—including William S. and James S. Kuhn from Pennsylvania and William’s brother-in-law, Jerome Hill—formed the Twin Falls North Side Land and Water Company (North Side Project) to bring water to the north side of the Snake River. The North Side Project would include creation of Wendell as well as Jerome, Hazelton and Eden.
In July 1908 the company recorded the Wendell townsite plat—named Wendell after William Kuhn’s 15-year-old son.
The company promised the settlers that the new community would have electricity, an electric railway and waterworks. A few months later, principals in the banks in neighboring towns opened Wendell State Bank.
In October 1908 Wendell constructed its own school, which opened the following month with a single teacher and 12 students. In September 1909 the school opened with 117 students taught in four age groups and an elected board of trustees. The State provided $12 per student.
In December 1908 the Minidoka and Southwestern Railroad Company—building a 73-mile branch line from Rupert to Bliss, completed in 1910—reached Wendell.
On April 15, 1909, the town’s new newspaper, The Hub City Irrigationist, stated in its editorial, "… comfortable homes can be built here very reasonably ... an energetic man with a drop of farming blood in his veins can establish a profitable horticultural dairy or general farm business under the substantial system of irrigation ditches through which water is secured ..."
On September 21, 1909, 300 Wendell residents held a meeting to petition the Lincoln County Commissioners to become an incorporated village. Those who attended approved five men to be the village’s first Board of Trustees. On October 12, 1909, the County Commissioners approved Wendell becoming an incorporated village.
The 1910 census reported the Wendell population at 482. The community continued to grow and, on February 14, 1947, was allowed to change its legal status to an incorporated city.
An Agricultural Base
While agricultural-based businesses have underpinned Wendell’s economy for the past century, the type of commodities produced and the labor-intensive nature of the industry have changed.
The first crops grown were primarily hay and grain, using flood irrigation. Today, alfalfa hay and corn are the largest acreages followed by potatoes and sugar beets. More efficient and water-conserving sprinkler irrigation systems have, in many cases, replaced flood irrigation methods.
In the early years, most farms had a variety of large animals and poultry. Some became involved in niche businesses. A major case in point happened in 1926. R.D. Bradshaw and Sons began a honey production and processing plant in Wendell that grew into one of the largest in the nation. In 1964 the company sold to Sue Bee Honey Company of Sioux City, Iowa.
In the latter part of the century, dairy farmers in other states discovered that the Magic Valley was a prime location for dairy farms. Now, dairies with several thousand milking cows each are common.
Over the past several decades, Wendell’s smaller farms have either sold or leased to increasingly larger farm operators. Technological innovation, efficiencies of scale and the cost of environmental regulation are principal causes for this consolidation. Agriculture is now substantially less labor-intensive than just a few decades ago.
Amenities and Attractions Today
Wendell has three parks. Their amenities include a swimming pool and tennis courts. Veterans Park is a memorial park recognizing men and women who served in the military.
Wendell’s annual events include Dairy Days, held each June; Independence Day, held each Fourth of July with a fireworks finale; and each December Santa comes to kick off the Christmas season. Other city celebrations coincide with the holidays of Halloween, Spook House; Arbor Day; Veterans Day; and Memorial Day.
The 212-foot-high Shoshone Falls on the Snake River—higher than the famous Niagara Falls near Buffalo, New York—is 25 miles southeast.
All of the nine units of Thousand Springs State Park on the Snake River are within a short drive from the city. These parks, most of which are fisheries, have spectacularly beautiful spring-fed waterfalls and white-water rapids interspersed with crystal-clear pools of water that flow into the Snake River. Private trout hatcheries and commercial trout farms, as well as state and federal fish hatcheries open to the public, are located near many of these parks.
The 4,400-acre Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument—the largest concentration of Pliocene epoch horse fossils in North America—is 10 miles northwest. The visitor center and fossil displays are in Hagerman.
The Sawtooth National Forest—with peaks rising over 8,000 feet—begins about 30 miles due southeast. Downhill skiing is available in the Sawtooth National Forest at Magic Mountain Ski Resort.
Three Island Crossing State Park, the location where Oregon Trail immigrants forded the Snake River, is 30 miles northwest at Glenns Ferry.
Many Wendell residents enjoy the hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, biking, swimming, boating and winter sports available in the nearby state parks, Snake River Canyon, reservoirs, national forest and open high-desert lands managed by the BLM.