Monday, January 21, 2019

Visionary Developer Benjamin Shawhan and New Plymouth [otd 01/21]

Benjamin P. Shawhan, cofounder of the town of New Plymouth, Idaho, was born January 21, 1862, in Keokuk County, Iowa, about thirty miles southwest of Iowa City.
East Hall, Morgan Park Military Academy. Chicago in Postcards.

He graduated from the Morgan Park Military Academy (a prep school) in Chicago, read law for a year, and then attended Beloit College in Wisconsin.

He then went to Kansas and became a partner with his father in an implement business. After a year of that, he helped found a new bank in Clay County, Kansas, 50-60 miles west of Topeka. He continued in the banking business until about 1889, when he and his new wife moved to New York City.

After three years at a big mortgage bank, Benjamin’s health deteriorated, so they relocated to the Payette, Idaho area. There, he became interested in the prospects for irrigated agriculture. Right away, Shawhan promoted and managed a major irrigation project for the Payette Valley Irrigation Company.

The canal diverted flow from the Payette River at a point above Emmett. Following first along the base of the ridge to the south, the canal eventually clung to the bench, with a height above the river valley increasing from 25-30 feet to over fifty. All told, the main canal twisted through around forty miles of cuts and fills.

The Company then needed to induce settlers to take up land to furnish customers for the water system. To accomplish this, Shawhan teamed up with irrigation advocate William E. Smythe. Smythe had become an exponent of irrigated agriculture after observing, first hand, the devastation caused by a Nebraska drought. He spearheaded the design of a planned town, to be called New Plymouth.
New Plymouth, today. Google Map satellite view.

The town was founded on cooperative principles, with an absolute prohibition of alcohol sales. The layout consisted of a huge horseshoe, with individual farm and home plots as well as commonly-held ground for parks and public buildings.

Colonists completed much of the early construction work during the winter of 1895-96. Besides grading nearly ten miles of streets, they also planted thousands of shade trees. Shawhan provided irrigation water for the plots, and the firm was soon renamed the Co-operative Irrigation Company.

In 1898, Shawhan was selected as the “Idaho Vice President” by the Board of Directors of the “Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition” to be held in Omaha that summer. He was then made an ex-officio member of the Commission appointed by the Idaho Governor (Idaho Statesman, January 28, 1898) to plan an exhibit for the fair.

The History of the fair praised the Idaho contributions: “The fruit display in the Horticultural building was one of the best, while the exhibit of grain, wool and grasses in the Agricultural building attracted much attention.”

In 1909, voters elected Shawhan to the first of two consecutive terms in the Idaho state Senate. During his time there, the state authorized a commission to plan Idaho’s participation in the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle [blog, Mar 29], and provided funds for a school for the deaf, dumb and blind in Gooding. It also passed a direct-primary election law to replace party selection conventions.

After retiring from the legislature, Shawhan moved on to other irrigation projects. He also retained much land under cultivation in the Payette River valley. During the 1920s, he took part in several agricultural extension service field trials. Shawhan passed way in September 1937.
References: [B&W], [French], [Hawley], [Illust-State]
James B. Haynes, History of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898, The Committee on History, Exposition Board, Omaha, Nebraska (1910).
Ronald T. Shawhan, “The Descendants of Daniel Shawhan III,” The History and Genealogy of the Shawhan and Related Families, Volume I, (2000).

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