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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Lewisville

Thursday, August 3, 2017  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Lewisville Post Office

Lewisville lies on the Upper Snake River Plain five miles south of the apex of an over 100,000-acre peninsula created by the Snake River. The river flows northwest from Palisades Reservoir to the mouth of Henrys Fork at Menan Buttes, makes an irregular 90-degree turn west for about seven miles, before making another 90-degree turn south to Idaho Falls. Early settlers called this fertile range with its vast tracts of grass and sagebrush-covered land, meandering creeks and marshes the "Island."

Today, fields of potatoes, alfalfa hay, wheat, corn and barley form a checkerboard of color and texture around the city.

Rexburg, home of Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-Idaho), is 13 miles northeast. Idaho Falls, headquarters of Idaho National Laboratories (INL), is 16 miles south.

Historic Tidbits

In 1810 the first white men—European and American explorers/trappers—came into the Upper Snake River Plain. Before that, American Indians—principally of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes—were the exclusive inhabitants of the area.

Osborne Russell was one of the first European and American explorers/trappers to pass through the Market Lake area located about six miles northwest of what is now Lewisville.

In his journal, Journal of a Trapper—Nine Years in the Rocky Mountains, 1834-1843, Russell referenced the lake and surrounding marshland. He said he saw American Indians, buffalo, antelope, beaver, elk, moose, deer, mink, muskrat, weasel, waterfowl and grouse. Early trappers named the area "Market Place" because of the wide variety of game available for harvest.

In August 1841 the first overland migration of settlers to Oregon Country began. They passed 50 miles south at Fort Hall. During the next three decades, tens of thousands more settlers would follow on the Oregon Trail.

In 1863 prospectors found placer gold at Virginia City, in what is now southwestern Montana. Horse and mule-drawn stagecoaches and freight wagons carried people and supplies from Utah to the Montana gold fields over a wagon road called the "Gold Road." One of the stage stops, Market Lake Stage Station, was near what is now Roberts, seven miles west of Lewisville.

In 1878 the Utah and Northern Railroad began construction of a rail line that generally followed the path of the Gold Road. It went north from Idaho Falls through what are now Roberts and Dubois, across the Continental Divide at Monida Pass and into Montana. The railroad construction crews included many men recruited from the rapidly growing settlements in northern Utah—converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church) from Europe and the Eastern United States.

In February 1879 one of the construction workers returning home—John R. Poole of Ogden, Utah—went hunting on the Island and met Israel Heal. Heal was one of several pioneers who in 1867 had begun settling around the Snake River near what are now Menan and Lewisville. Heal ran a large herd of cattle on the Island. Poole asked Heal what he thought about homesteaders settling the Island. Heal said, "I don’t believe God intended that a few men should have all this great country to raise horses and cows in." President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862.

Poole returned to Utah where increasing numbers of Church convert emigrants from Europe and the Eastern United States were coming. He extolled the farming potential of the Island and urged those looking for a place to settle to visit. Uniformly impressed, these pioneers came, staked their 160-acre homestead claims and brought their families to settle the new land.

Initially these homesteaders settled in locations most favorable for irrigated farming. Their communities tended to be spread out. Some of these settlements did not have a community core until they built a multi-purpose public hall, which they used for school, church and community gatherings.

The first community in the area was Menan, an Indian word meaning "island." It had been variously known as "Heal’s Island," "Poole’s Island" and "Cedar Buttes." Lewisville, located two miles south of Menan, was arguably the second community established on the Island.

As more Church members moved from Utah to Eastern Idaho, Church leaders asked 54-year-old Thomas E. Ricks to be the Bishop of the immigrant settlers going to the Upper Snake River Plain. Ricks, a Kentuckian, joined the Church in 1844 and in 1848 was part of the Mormon exodus from Illinois to Salt Lake City.

Ricks’ ecclesiastical jurisdiction soon expanded to include several new communities, including Menan and Lewisville. Then called the Bannock Ward, Ricks’ ecclesiastical jurisdiction later became the Bannock Stake (diocese), comprising several geographical designations called "wards."

The railroad played an important role in transporting these settlers to the Upper Snake River Plain. In one year—1882 to 1884—Bannock Ward membership—children under eight years of age are not included in the membership count—increased from 815 to 1,420. Within a decade, several thousand Church members had settled in the Upper Snake River Plain.

After establishing their homestead claims, settlers immediately began building shelters and clearing and leveling the land, banding together to build irrigation canals and ditches and diverting water from the Snake River and creeks into the canals and ditches they used to irrigate their farms. Over the succeeding few years, their complex system of irrigation canals and ditches turned the dry sagebrush-covered land into a fertile agricultural oasis.

On January 11, 1904, Lewisville became an incorporated village.

Blessings of the Railroad

Even though seven miles distant, construction of the Utah and Northern Railroad line to the Montana gold fields had a profound effect in the founding and future prosperity of Lewisville and the entire area.

The railroad was what brought former railroad employee John R. Poole to discover the fertile land for himself and, in turn, influence many other families to settle on the Island.

The railroad later provided transportation critical to the success of the city. It not only allowed convenient transportation of passengers and rapid movement of mail and freight within seven miles of the city, but area farmers and ranchers could efficiently ship their commodities to market.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city is close to beautiful scenery and outdoor activities. The Caribou-Targhee National Forest is within an hour’s drive to the north, east and southeast of the city. Vast tracts of public lands managed by the BLM begin five miles northwest. In addition to camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and ATV riding, downhill skiing is available 28 miles east at Kelly Canyon Ski Area. The ski resort is 6,600 feet at the summit and has 26 runs.

State and federal agencies have established several wildlife management areas (WMA). The 5,071-acre Market Lake WMA is located about nine miles northwest. The 10,578-acre Camas National Wildlife Refuge and the 8,853-acre Mud Lake WMA are a few miles west of Hamer, 23 miles northwest of Lewisville. The small, but important, 71-acre Gem State WMA is near Lewisville. The 5,619-foot-high Menan Buttes are located about five miles north of the city.

The city’s close proximity to the much larger cities of Idaho Falls and Rexburg is an important amenity. Lewisville residents are able to live in a smaller town yet within a short drive of the educational, cultural, shopping and entertainment opportunities available in those cities.

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