Thomas Moran Couldn’t Make It

By Rick Just

Photos Courtesy of Rick Just

My family came into Idaho a few weeks after it became a territory. My Great-Grandfather Nels Just was a freighter, a rancher, and Bingham County Commissioner. He started a bank and a mill in Shelley and, with his eldest son, built the Idaho Canal, one of the first major irrigation projects in the state.

Given his accomplishments it’s no wonder the family is proud of Nels. But it’s not the entrepreneur and family patriarch we remember best. It is the woman he married in 1870, Emma Thompson Just.

Emma is a part of our lives every day because her only daughter, Agnes Just Reid, memorialized her heroic story in a book called Letters of Long Ago. The book tells Emma’s story in the form of letters written to her father in England. The actual letters are long gone, but with her daughter’s help Emma recreated their essence for the book.

Letters of Long Ago was published by Caxton Press in Caldwell in 1923. Sadly, it came out just a few weeks after Emma passed away. It was reprinted by Caxton in 1936, and Utah University Press published the book in 1973, with extensive historical notes by Brigham Madsen, PhD. A paperback edition published by the family in 1997 is still available.

The book contains more than its share of tragedy, but I want to share one of Emma’s special moments of triumph. This is from the chapter “Unexpected Visitors.” The incident took place in 1871.

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The house of Nels and Emma, built in 1897, is being restored.
The author's great-grandmother, Emma Thompson Just.
Emma at about age eighteen.
Nels Just at seventeen.
Nels at about age twenty.
The buckskin trousers these explorers wore in 1871 were made by Emma Just.
Thomas Moran, circa 1890.
Emma at age sixteen.
This group photo taken in about 1924 could be the last one of Emma, back row far left.


The winter was uneventful, but the spring, the spring has been wonderful! We have had guests, distinguished guests from the big world itself. You see there is a land to the northeast of us, perhaps a hundred miles, that is considered marvelous for its scenic possibilities and the government is sending a party of surveyors, chemists, etc., to pass judgment with a view to setting it aside for a national park. Well, this party happened to stop at our little cabin. There were representatives from all of the big eastern colleges, and then besides, there were the Moran brothers. I think you must have heard of Thomas Moran even as far away as England, for he is a wonderful nature artist. And his brother John is what I have heard you speak of as a “book maker.” He writes magazine articles.

And these two remarkable men were interested in us and in our way of living. Think of it, Father! I took them into the cellar where I had been churning to give them a drink of fresh buttermilk and while they drank and enjoyed it, I was smoothing the rolls of butter with my cedar paddle that Nels had whittled out for me with his pocket knife. I noticed the artist man paying special attention to the process and finally he ventured rather apologetically: “Mrs. Just, would you mind telling me what you varnish your rolls of butter with that gives them such a glossy appearance?” I thought the man was making fun of me, or sport of me as you would express it, but I looked into his face and saw that it was all candor. That is one of the happiest experiences of my life for that man who knows everything to be ignorant in the lines that I know so well. I tried to make him understand that the smooth paddle and the fresh butter were all sufficient but I think he is still rather bewildered. And do you know, since that day, the art of butter making has taken on a new dignity. I always did like to do it, but now my cedar paddle keeps singing to me with every stroke, “Even Thomas Moran cannot do this, Thomas Moran cannot do this,” and before I know it the butter is all finished and I am ready to sing a different song to the washboard.

Thomas Moran, of course, was a member of the Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone in 1871. The expedition was camped at the military Fort Hall along the Blackfoot River just a few miles from the Just home, which was in an area they called Lower Presto. Several members of the expedition stopped at their place. Emma and Nels sold them some of their handiwork, leather gloves and britches.

In 2020, our family was planning to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Nels and Emma settling in the little valley along the Blackfoot. The pandemic put that on hold. This summer we will celebrate the sesquicentennial plus one on August 15 with an open house at the Nels and Emma Just home, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places last year.

For details of the free event visit prestopreservation.com.

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Rick Just

About Rick Just

Rick Just is a writer whose latest books are: A Kid's Guide to Boise, Fearless: Farris Lind, the Man Behind the Skunk, and The Idaho Conversion Kit. He writes a daily Facebook blog called "Speaking of Idaho," and a column for Boise Weekly. He was elected to the Idaho Senate representing District 15 in 2023.

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