Idaho gardens & Chinese gardeners: our connection to the Beijing Olympics

Here’s the Idaho connection to gardens and to China (China, because of the Olympics and all the hub-bub). In the 1880’s, it was estimated that one third of the population of Idaho was Chinese.

from the McCunn website

from the McCunn website

Idaho’s most famous gardener hailed from China. Sold into slavery by her family, she was shipped to San Francisco and then to the rough and tumble gold fields of the Idaho Territory. Born in 1853, Polly is one of Idaho’s most famous pioneers. In 1894 she married Charlie Bemis, and the two homesteaded on the River of No Return.

Archived diaries at the University of Idaho give accounts of Polly’s generosity and the bounty of her gardens which she shared with her river neighbors. The cabin and her headstone still stand at the Polly Bemis ranch on the Salmon.

The Polly and Charlie Bemis ranch on the River of No Return

The Polly and Charlie Bemis ranch on the River of No Return

Idaho history is rich with accounts of Chinese gardeners. After the white miners ravaged the gold fields, the Chinese came behind them and meticulously re-working the dredge fields and hillsides, reportedly took out more gold than all the white miners ever did. They prospered by providing fresh vegetables from their gardens to the miners and businesses of the camps and the cities of the territory.

Garden City, next to Boise, is named for the famous and lovely gardens of the Chinese vegetable peddlers (circa 1970-1920). In fact, Chinden Boulevard, the main drag of Garden City, is a combination of the words Chinese + Gardens, or Chin-den.

For more information on Polly and other Chinese pioneers in Idaho, visit the Museum at St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, ID. The sisters have the largest known collection of Polly Bemis artifacts. See also, the Ruthanne McCunn website at http://www.mccunn.com/TPOG.html. The Idaho State Historical Society has fine collection of papers and reference materials regarding the Chinese in Idaho.