Thursday, January 26, 2017

Rancher, Canal Manager, and Ada County Sheriff James Bennett [otd 01/26]

Sheriff Bennett.
Ada County Sheriff’s Office.
Ada County Sheriff James A. Bennett was born January 26, 1865 in Leavenworth, Kansas. The family moved to farm country 40-50 southwest of St. Louis, Missouri when James was a few years old. He grew up in that area and garnered what education he could from the common schools there.

James came to Idaho in 1886. This was a period of high optimism for stock-raising in Idaho. For example, the Idaho Statesman gushed (October 9, 1886) that the cattle business “has grown to wonderful proportions of late years.” As proof, it went on, readers should consider that “Millions of dollars are invested in stock in Idaho, and the returns from this source excel all others combined.”

A couple years earlier, the Oregon Short Line completed its tracks across Idaho, which further boosted stock raising. Sheep holdings particularly benefited, since sheep raisers rarely drove large flocks to distant markets. Now they didn’t have to.

Bennett easily found work and, in 1888, he claimed a homestead in Ada County, some of which he still owned thirty years later. Along with his stock raising and farming, he worked for some of the regional irrigation companies. Hawley’s History noted that “For eleven years he was headgate keeper and ditch walker for the Ridenbaugh ditch.”

The Ridenbaugh Canal runs along the Boise Bench, today passing through the residential and business districts of southwest Boise. The Bennett Lateral is a feeder canal in that area.

That feeder was first identified publicly in 1902. The Idaho Statesman reported (June 27, 1902) on Ada County government business concerning “what is known as the Bennett Lateral.” The item said, “It is therefore ordered by the County Board of Commissioners that measuring devices and weirs be placed in said canal.”

Bennett’s first wife, Maggie, died from tuberculosis (Idaho Statesman, October 21, 1898) and he remarried two years later. Maggie had come from an old pioneer family, with property in the Wood River area. In 1903, James was appointed executor so he could settle the estate, including payment of back taxes.
Ridenbaugh Canal. Nampa and Meridian Irrigation District.

He then purchased a lot about five miles southeast of Boise. Later, James built a home of “generous proportions … well back from the highway in a cluster of large maples and with a terraced lawn and flower gardens in front.”

He was elected Ada County sheriff in 1908. Bennett had a busy two-year term, during which the office gained a third deputy and the county jail got a new floor. Besides dealing with a rumored Tong war in the Oriental community, the sheriff also had to appear as a witness in a case before the Idaho Supreme Court. At the end of his term, Bennett returned to irrigation work and farming.  (Election laws then precluded a second consecutive term.)

In the late 1910s, he served as superintendent of the Nampa and Meridian Irrigation District, a unit that served over 4,000 water users. Today, that District owns the century-old water rights of the original Ridenbaugh Canal.

In 1942, Bennett moved to Meridian, where he was elected a Justice of the Peace. Ill health eventually forced him to resign, and he died in 1947.                                               
References: [Hawley]
“Brooks v. Orchard Land Co.,” The Pacific Reporter, Vol. 121, West Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota (1912).
“History,” Ada County Sheriff’s Office, online.
J. Orin Oliphant, On the Cattle Ranges of the Oregon Country, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1968).


  1. Thanks for this, Evan!!! I have often wondered about the Bennett Lateral (but never got around to researching it) because when I was a youngster we lived very close to where the Bennett Lateral comes out of the New York Canal. On hot days (my mother said it had to be over 95° - she knew how cold the water was!) we could go swimming in the settling pool at the head of the ditch. I was also curious about it because my father was Watermaster for the irrigation district and his middle name was Bennett. No connection, but interesting. The Bennett lateral is above the Ridenbaugh and irrigates a fairly small area to the west of Federal Way (the old main highway through Boise).

  2. Glad I could bring back memories. You will, however, note that I do NOT actually say the Bennett Lateral was named for the sheriff (although it probably was). The Bennett Lateral is not specifically mentioned in his bio ... I found it on my topo map (Natl Geographic/USGS) when I was trying to follow the path of the Ridenbaugh. One of these days (hopefully soon), I need to write about the use of maps in historical research -- topo maps in particular, since others have discussed the use of regular maps.

  3. James A Bennett was my great grandfather. His given name was actually James F Bennett Jr., but due to confusion with his father, he started going by James A. Bennett.
    Couple of things you don't have listed:
    In 1902 he was the Clerk for School Dist. #9 in Boise and in 1903 he was a Police Officer under Andy Robinson.
    The photo you have posted is under glass at the Ada County Sheriff's office. A fine picture of him!
    His first wife was Maggie Obenchain. He married his second wife in 1910. Her name was Sarah Cassie Elizabeth Kelley. She was actually related to James. Her grandmother, Mary (Bennett) Kelly was the sister of James's great grandfather, James H. Bennett. Small world! I think this happened quite frequently back then.
    Thanks for posting this.

  4. Penny ... Thanks for your input. From odd mentions in the newspaper, I knew he might have been a policeman before becoming sheriff, but could find no confirmation. His bio (in Hawley) did not record his School district Clerk position, so I had no information about that.
    I did have the names of both of his wives, but I try to avoid throwing too many names at readers in these fairly short articles. From various newspaper items I get the feeling that there was an interesting story involved With James acting as executor for Maggie's estate. However, that was just hints and I could not learn a lot more.