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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Wilder

Friday, February 9, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Wilder Water Tower.

Located on a fertile high-desert plain on the western edge of Canyon County and surrounded by fields of onions, hops, seed corn, beans and seed alfalfa is the peaceful community of Wilder.

The Snake River flows three miles to the southwest, and the Boise River is five miles north.

Historical Tidbits

For millennia, the land around Wilder was part of a vast inhospitable sagebrush-covered plain. American Indians and, later, trappers, explorers and Oregon Trail immigrants merely passed through. In the early 1900s with the prospect of irrigation water coming to the arid but fertile land, that all changed.

Staking a homestead claim on land in a temperate climate with fertile soil and plenty of irrigation water excited the passion of settlers anxious to reclaim the land so they could have a good quality of life for themselves and their families and lay the foundation for a new community that became Wilder. It started when Congress established the U.S. Reclamation Service—now U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—in 1902.

Led by J.H. Lowell, residents successfully petitioned the Reclamation Service to build a reservoir and irrigation water system that would reclaim parched land in western Canyon County.

The reservoir was to be built over a natural depression called Deer Flat, 12 miles southeast of Wilder. The Reclamation Service designed the reservoir to receive water diverted into the New York Canal from the higher elevations of the Boise River at Barber Dam, about 25 miles east. Construction of an earthen dam and a system of 46-to-74-foot-high dykes that created a reservoir about 10 miles long and two miles wide named Lake Lowell began in 1906.

The Reclamation Service also provided expertise and low-cost, long-term loans to the water users to develop a complex system of irrigation canals and ditches.

The settlers organized the "Water Users Association," a co-op that would be the legal entity which was the debtor on the loans; worked with the Reclamation Service in the construction of the canal system; owned the system and would repay the loans. Many of the water users were employed in the construction of the irrigation systems.

Boise River water began filling Lake Lowell in 1909. A year later, Lake Lowell irrigation water finally reached Wilder through the Golden Gate Canal. By then, many settlers had cleared and leveled their land and dug ditches to flood irrigate their farms and were awaiting the arrival of the water. Within a few years, the farmers had transformed the high desert into an agricultural oasis.

The Water Users Association developed the town site and sold lots, but there was no agreement on what to name the town. One group preferred "Golden Gate," suggesting the town was a gateway to Southwestern Idaho farmlands and they had already applied the Golden Gate name to a canal, a school, a church and one or two businesses.

Others supported the name of "Wilder," after Marshall P. Wilder—publisher of The Delineator, a popular women’s magazine, and a man whom many believed had railroad connections. Wilder offered to print a favorable article in his magazine if they named the village after him. Some residents speculated that if they named the town Wilder, their benefactor would use his considerable influence and money to promote the town.

In 1911 the Water Users Association put the matter to a vote. They voted to name their town Wilder; however, there is no record that M.P. Wilder ever gave anything to the town.

The same year, the Oregon Short Line Railroad extended a branch line to Wilder, a long-awaited transportation service that allowed easier access to distant markets, faster communication and better transportation.

A general store and school were the first buildings erected in the new community. The school also served as a civic center and a place for church services.

Soon, the city had a drugstore, two churches, a barbershop, a farm implement store, a hotel, a hardware store, a lumberyard and an Odd Fellows Hall.

By 1918 the Wilder Herald newspaper was publishing and the town had a telephone company, fire department, Masonic Lodge, Ladies Service Club and a library.

Residents of that period liked to point out an apparent curiosity in the diversity that existed among Wilder area residents. The town had seven churches and seven bars, but churchgoers outnumbered bar patrons.

For a brief time, one entrepreneur named Mr. Small extracted gravel from a 20-foot-deep mine with lateral tunnels dug under parts of Wilder. One known use of the gravel was construction of the concrete walls in the now historic Methodist Church. Unable to stay ahead of the groundwater seeping into the mine, he filled the mineshaft and quit the gravel mining business.

On May 15, 1919, Wilder was incorporated as a village. The Canyon County Commission appointed the first board of trustees, and, a week later, Wilder began operations. In accordance with a change in state law, Wilder became a city in 1967.

Agriculture and Crop Innovation

The temperate climate, fertile soil and irrigation systems encouraged farmers to innovate with a variety of crops. In addition to alfalfa for hay, wheat and barley, farmers diversified their crop rotation to include potatoes, onions, corn, beans and alfalfa seed. Corn seed would also soon become a major farm crop.

In 1934 following the repeal of prohibition, the family of former Idaho Governor Phil Batt—1995 to 1999—experimented with raising hops, which are used in the production of beer. Their successes led to Wilder becoming noted for its hops production.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city has two parks. The landscaped downtown 2½-acre City Park has a community bathroom, gazebo, children’s playground, swings, merry-go-round, a brick fireplace and electrical hookups. The smaller landscaped Memorial Park is dedicated to our Armed Forces.

The City History Museum is located in the old city jail.

The city’s premier annual event is the Independence Day celebration each July 4th. It begins with a parade that ends in City Park where there are food vendors and entertainment that includes games, contests, children’s rides and even a dunk tank where the mayor is usually a target. A local band provides music for dancing on the gazebo floor. The Wilder Chamber of Commerce gives door prizes throughout the day.

Lake Lowell is an excellent large and small mouth bass fishery that offers boat ramps and picnic facilities. The lake is part of the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge that also includes 110 miles of the Snake River and 86 islands. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds and 180 different bird species inhabit the refuge.

Twelve miles northwest is the 1,300-acre Old Fort Boise Wildlife Management Area at the confluence of the Snake, Boise and Owyhee Rivers. The Roswell Marsh Wildlife Habitat Area is located another five miles northwest. Both are run by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and provide opportunities for viewing wildlife, hunting and fishing.

Hunting, hiking and camping are available within an hour’s drive northeast in the Boise National Forest or south in the Owyhee Mountains. Whitewater rafting and kayaking are available on the Payette River east of Emmett. Downhill skiing is available 54 miles northeast at Bogus Basin Ski Resort.

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