A brief history of Rexburg from its beginning in 1883 to the present, 2011, including major events that effected the growth of the town.
The Upper Snake River Valley remained relatively empty of civilization until 1883. There were mountain men and trappers in the area and it was very popular among the Indians for hunting. Even when the few pioneers began a fishing industry on Henry’s Lake to supply fish for the mines of Butte there was no regular settlement. A couple of settlers on Moody Creek just east of Rexburg eked out an existence.
The mines of Montana cause the need for a railroad to be built from the Transcontinental road in Utah north to the miners. When a railroad is built local labor is used whenever possible. The Mormons of northern Utah supplied horses and teams to build up and level the roadbed. John Rawlston Poole was one of these workers. On his down time, while the roadbed was being built by the Utah Northern Railroad from Eagle Rock (Idaho Falls) north to the Montana border, he would go hunting and fishing in the area.
At this time the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was receiving many immigrants from Europe and other areas of the world. They were always on the look for new areas to colonize. Poole went to Ogden and reported his findings to Apostle Franklin D. Richards and other leaders of the Church. He gave a report also to a gathering of Saints of the Ogden area. Several of these people brought their families into the eastern Idaho area to settle along the Snake River in the Menan area and called their settlement, Poole’s Island.
William B. Preston, President of the Cache Valley Stake of Zion, decided that a visit to the area was needed. He and several others visited the area in October, 1882, and returned to Utah to present a favorable report to the President of the Church, John Taylor. The report was very positive citing abundant water, wildlife, and sagebrush up to the stirrups of a horse suggesting very fertile land.
President Taylor called Thomas E. Ricks to be the Bishop of all the Saints north or Cache Valley. He took a group, in January, 1883, including President Preston, to go to the area of the Upper Snake and to check the land to decide where to build a community. They did some hunting and shipped fifteen deer to Utah to show the area could supply some food for pioneer settlers.
Upon their return, meetings were held to present their findings and encourage families to sign up to go to the new settlement. By the 25th of January, there was a small group assigned to lead out and get things started in anticipation of a much larger group in the spring. This first group went to the area and began to fall trees for building of fences and homes. On March 11, 1883, surveyor, Andrew S. Anderson came and surveyed the townsite. At this time the town was called Ricksburg. Bishop Ricks asked for the name to be changed to Rexburg before the name was registered at the Territorial Office in Blackfoot.
The first house was built just north of where the courthouse now stands and was erected to be one of Bishop Ricks’ homes. With many hands a log house could be erected in a day and soon there were many structures in the blooming town.
Unique to Rexburg and the area was that where in other areas the people were called by Church leaders to go to a site to colonize it, here they had volunteers that came as fast as the community could accept them. During the summer of 1883 the road from Utah was filled with wagons and people seeking new homes in this promising area. Several townsites sprang up all over the valley and by the end of the year there were eight hundred fifteen members on the records of the Bannock Ward. By the end of the second year the number had almost doubled to fourteen hundred twenty residents. When Idaho was ready for statehood in 1890 the area had thirty-eight hundred sixty-one Mormons and was still growing.
An Idaho Pioneer in his own right, Samuel Swanner, paid tribute to the leadership of the early Rexburg leaders, “Thomas E. Ricks and his associates accomplished more in two years in building canals, fences, bridges, and making general improvement, than I have ever known of in the course of five years. They worked the scrapers night and day because there were only a few of them. Thomas E. Ricks was an excellent manager. He placed men in jobs they were best fitted to perform. The Rexburg Pioneers had scarcely enough to live on during the first two years.”
Rexburg, as it was originally surveyed by Anderson, included parts of sections 19,29, and 30 of township 6 north, Range 40, east of the Boise Meridian. The large blocks contained ten acres and were divided into four lots each. The streets were laid out six rods (ninety-nine feet) wide with Main Street being eight rods (one hundred thirty-two feet) wide.
A momentous event occurred on April 1, 1884, when a post office was established at Rexburg. Thomas E. Bassett was the postmaster. Prior to this time the mail was delivered to Egin, Idaho, way out northwest of Rexburg and anyone passing there brought the mail to town.
In 1889, at the height of the polygamy persecution in Idaho and Utah, H. N. “Kentucky” Smith was associated with anti-Mormon political issues. Using his political influence the post office in Rexburg was renamed “Kaintuck”. The post office was officially Kaintuck from August 8, 1889 to February 27, 1893. The town retained its name with only the post office being changed. Because mail addressed to Rexburg continued to be delivered to the Kaintuck post office and because of community pressure the name of Rexburg was restored.
The Village of Rexburg was incorporated by the County Commissioners of Fremont County on July 11, 1893. In 1903 the Village status was changed to a city with Henry Flamm elected as mayor.
Slow but steady growth came over the next few years. The availability of land was a major asset along with the established church drawing people from Utah. The members of the community were largely Mormon and this their lives were closely connected to Church activities. Public works projects were organized and executed under the direction of Church leaders and much was accomplished by the citizens working together.
The first public schools were held in private homes and were controlled by people unfriendly to Mormons. The Church responded by organizing their own schools which led to the establishment of Ricks Academy. This school was the fore-runner of the Ricks College and eventually led to Brigham Young University-Idaho.
Agriculture was the main stay of the community. Potatoes became the cash crop of the valley. With the growth of Ricks College, it became a major economic factor in the community.
But a threat to the community occurred in 1958 when an announcement was made that Ricks College would be moved to Idaho Falls. A committee of 1000 was organized to protest the move. The local Church leaders were opposed to the move. For a couple of years there was a lot of discussion. On April 26, 1961, President David O. McKay issued the following Associated Press release: “The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced today it intends to construct three new buildings at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho.” Then began a steady growth which affected the economy of the community. By 1971 there were 5246 students.
In June, 1976, the Teton Dam burst bringing a flood to the town of Rexburg. There was upwards of five feet of water on Main Street and massive damage to the town north of there. Recovery was rapid with tens of thousands of volunteers coming into the town to assist the citizens in clean up. Today (2011), unless you know where to look, there is no remaining sign of the devastation.
The last event in Rexburg history of great impact was the change in name from Ricks College to Brigham Young University-Idaho. In the ten years since that change from a two year college to a four year university the population of the town has doubled. Each year the semester enrollment at the school sets new records. The building boom accompanying this growth has expanded the cities size by 48% according to the 2010 census.
With steady growth predicted at the university, Rexburg will continue to grow in a steady and healthy manner.