FIRTH — When his oxen team escaped in the late 1800s as Nels Just traveled through East Idaho, he found them grazing on what he thought was an idyllic patch of ground east of what is now the town of Firth.
He never forgot the area — located between the Blackfoot River and the Snake River Plain — and eventually returned to homestead there in 1870 with wife Emma Thompson Bennett, and her young son from a previous marriage, Fred Bennett.
As children, Nels immigrated to Southeast Idaho with his family from Denmark, and Emma Thompson came with her family from England. Their families settled in Soda Springs and were acquainted with one another, but eventually the families went their separate ways. Upon meeting again several years later when Idaho was still a territory, Nels and Emma married and carved out a living farming and ranching in what is now known as the Presto Bench area.
The couple left a mark on East Idaho, Nels and neighbors built the 35-mile Idaho Canal, turning a parched desert into productive farm ground. The canal is still in use today.
He also built a 2-mile-long canal from Willow Creek to Eagle Rock, where there was the Anderson General Store and a toll bridge across the Snake River.
Emma did laundry for the Anderson family, milked cows and sold them the butter she churned and the bread she baked. Emma cooked for the New Fort Hall on Lincoln Creek before they were married and sewed buckskin gloves from skins the Andersons provided, earning 75 cents a pair. Just started a bank and flour mill in Shelley and from 1890 to 1904, Emma ran the Presto Post Office from their brick home.
Their first temporary home was simply a hole in the ground, with a heavy buffalo skin for a door, according to a book titled “Letters of Long Ago,” written by the couple’s youngest of nine children, Agnes Just Reid. Reid was a year old, when her parents started building the brick home in what is now Bingham County, Reid wrote in the book, first published in 1923.
The family moved out of the dugout after a short time and into a little wood cabin they’d built and added onto. By 1887 and with handmade hand-fired bricks made from the silty-clay taken from the nearby Blackfoot River, they built a two-story comfortable and roomy home.
In a span of five years, they experienced heartbreak when they buried a stillborn and three infant daughters in the cemetery on their property. But they added four boys and a girl to their family. Over the years, they weathered fevers, Indian uprisings, winter blizzards, and loneliness, along with other English, Danish and Europeans who settled here before Idaho became a state, Reid wrote.
In spite of the hardships, the couple enjoyed the company of surveyors on their way to chart out the nation’s first national park in Yellowstone, they witnessed the first railroad being built in the area and observed the towns of Blackfoot and Idaho Falls, originally known as Eagle Rock, spring up. They even enjoyed a day in Eagle Rock when a circus came to town for the very first time in 1884, Reid wrote.