Boise Places Worth Seeing

O'Farrell Cabin - A Little Bit of Irish in Boise

The O'Farrell Cabin's claim to fame is that it was the first permanent family dwelling built by a pale face in the area that would soon become Boise. It was built in 1863 by Irishman John A. O'Farrell, about two hundred feet across the street from its current location. That it still stands today, thus making it the oldest domicile in Boise, is perhaps a testament to the luck of the Irish.

Although O'Farrell built the cabin for his new blushing bride and their future Irish family, I wouldn't exactly use the term 'oldest home' to describe it; that might give the impression that it had modern conveniences like 2x4s, insulation, and tile floors, which couldn't be farther from the truth. I'm sure it was the finest log cabin an Irishman could make at the time with cottonwood logs, an axe, and a team of horses, but I've seen a lot of old log cabins in my day and the O'Farrell Cabin is about as typically frontier as they get. It had four walls and a stove, but that's about it. According to various sources, the floor was originally dirt and the walls were chinked with willow branches and other handy materials and then daubed with clay mortar. That might've kept the rain and the wind out, but my guess is that the O'Farrell kids probably didn't have to leave their bed rolls to play Whac-A-Mole.

When civilization finally came to Boise in 1864 in the form of bricks, sawn lumber, and glass, Mrs. O'Farrell nagged her husband about home improvements until he hired an ancestor of Bob Vila* to come over and help him add a brick stove, cover the interior walls with planks and wallpaper, and install windows and a hinged door. O'Farrell considered hiring a team of union roofers to replace the original pole roof with shingles, but in the end he ended up doing it himself because the project was over budget already due to an ancestor of Norm Abrams* using oak planking instead of pine. After these renovations the cabin looked so spiffy that Catholic masses were held there, the O'Farrells being good Irish Catholics and all.

The O'Farrell family lived in the cabin from 1863 until 1871, when O'Farrell built the first of two houses on the same lot. Sources indicate that O'Farrell spent a goodly amount of time in Utah from 1871 until 1878, but Hiram French's History of Idaho, published in 1914, affirms that "his home, from the time he built his log cabin until his death, was always at Boise, though he was still an extensive traveler, and often was called away to supervise his mining interests located in different parts of the country." The second O'Farrell House, a fine two-storey brick house built in 1892 and currently painted white, stands at 5th and Franklin. Property listings indicate that you can see the old O'Farrell Cabin from the stairs leading to attic suite.

Of the seven children born to the O'Farrells, four daughters survived to adulthood. These daughters donated the cabin to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1910 on the condition that it be moved and preserved. It was then moved across the street to land donated by the Army, and it was restored and protected to various degrees in 1912, 1957, and 2002. The 2002 work restored the cabin to its 1912 condition.

The story of how John O'Farrell came to Boise is perhaps more interesting than the cabin he built. Born in Ireland, O'Farrell took to the water at 15 and saw more of the ocean than Blackbeard and Charles Darwin, and he also had better facial hair. During various stints on English naval ships, merchant marine vessels, and Carnival Cruise Lines, O'Farrell saw the seven seas and many far-flung places like India, Africa, Australia, China, Japan, Hawaii, and the Carribbean. It was after sailing to California in 1847 that he developed a predilection for gold nuggets, leading to mining adventures in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Idaho. In the middle of all this gold fever he took the time to go back east in 1859 and marry a Kentucky-raised Irishwoman named Mary Ann Chapman Lambert, who would later become famous for winning many Grover Cleveland look-alike contests.

O'Farrell, his new 19-year-old bride, and her daughter from her first marriage then made their way back to Colorado and thence to Boise in 1863, when O'Farrell got to work clearing the land for his cabin. As one of the perks of being one of the first permanent settlers in a wild, uncivilized place, he made sure to claim a sizeable chunk of ground for himself. Historical records indicate that he initially owned almost all of the land around the North End street that now bears his name. Go figure. In addition, when Boise's Catholic flock outgrew the cabin, O'Farrell donated some land near today's St. Luke's Hospital so that Boise's first proper Catholic church could be built. When that church burned to the ground shortly thereafter, a new church was built at 9th and Bannock in the spot now occupied by the Yen Ching restaurant. Next time you eat there, remember that the Kung Pao chicken is holy and the tap water is blessed.

* Any references to This Old House are completely fabricated.

Place worth seeing: O'Farrell Cabin
Where: Fort Street, in between 4th and 5th

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Hours: Dawn to dusk, 365 days a year
Cost: Free
Website: City of Boise
Fun fact: There is no truth to the rumor that John O'Farrell hosted Boise's first rave in this cabin.