Presto—Spotlight City

It’s Not Preston

By Rick Just

Photos courtesy of Rick Just

An argument can be made that Presto doesn’t qualify for IDAHO magazine’s Spotlight City feature, because it was never a town. Yet over the more than two decades that we’ve brought accounts of communities throughout the state to our readers, we’ve sometimes stretched the definition a bit. For example, the place doesn’t have to have been incorporated, and it can be a ghost town now. But we do look for a post office at one time in the community and Presto had one. That’s good enough for us.

There was great reverence on a day in 2014 when my brother Kent and my cousins Wallace, Wendy, Marlene, Charlotte, and Ginger joined me in taking the 1887 US map off the wall in the hallway of the “big house.” It had hung there for 127 years, ever since family patriarch Nels Just tacked it up with four narrow trim pieces.

Two years before he hung the map, Nels Anderson Just had become a citizen of the United States, although he had lived in the country since arriving in Utah in 1857. He had called this place along the Blackfoot River home since 1870.

I can picture him, tacks in his teeth, tapping those mini-nails into the wood and through the fabric of the map while stepson Fred and his teenage sons James and George held it to the wall. I can almost hear him cursing when he discovered he had cut the side pieces about an inch too short. We discovered Nels’s measuring error when we got the map down and laid it out on the long kitchen table. Not wishing to waste half a day riding into town and back to get more wood trim, he just cut off the bottom of the map with a knife—and none too expertly.

That map had always been the centerpiece of the home, built the year the map was printed in 1887. It was a talking point for visitors who pointed out where they were from and where they had been. Many neighbors came, starting in 1890 when Idaho became a state, and Presto became a place.

Nels’ wife and my great-grandmother, Emma, became the postmistress of the Presto Post Office, located in the Just home about thirteen miles from Blackfoot. It served a small community of ranches along the Blackfoot River in Southeastern Idaho for seventeen years.

Why Nels chose to name the post office Presto is a little mystery. He named it in honor of the first man who settled in the valley a few months before Nels and Emma built their initial dugout home. His name was Presto Burrell. The mystery is why Nels would choose to honor a man with whom he had butted heads so often. During one confrontation over a ditch, Burrell pulled a revolver on Nels. The family now has that old revolver.

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The 1887 map of the US at the Just family home in Presto on the Blackfoot River.
Fabric conservation expert Diana Hobart Dicus cleans the map.
Emma Just, age eighteen.
The Just home is on the left, circa 1963.
Lower Presto School, 1918.
Nels Just, age twenty.
Presto Burrell.
A picnic in Presto, 1925.
The office desk of the Presto Post Office.
School slide, 1933.
Teachers at the Presto school, 1933.
The 1887 Just home as it looks today.


The Blackfoot River Valley, where the river comes crashing out of the canyon, only to slow and then meander for a few miles between the Blackfoot Mountains and the Presto Bench, is about two thousand acres. It was settled by those escaping a religious dust-up in Utah, called the Morrisite War.

Nels Just and Emma Thompson Just were teenagers in 1862 when their families and other Morrisites holed up at Kington Fort in present-day South Weber, Utah. The Morrisites were a breakaway group from the Mormon Church who followed their own prophet, Joseph Morris. Two Morrisites, disenchanted with the upstart church, were being held in the fort for robbing a grain wagon.                At the behest of the prisoner’s wives, Brigham Young sent a militia to free them prisoners. After a three-day siege, the Morrisites surrendered to the Mormon Militia, but not before losing ten members in the struggle, including leader Joseph Morris.

A few months later, a new governor arrived in Utah and pardoned the Morrisites for a series of related crimes. About 150 of them were escorted out of Utah and into the new Idaho Territory for their own safety. They formed a little village called Morristown, the precursor to Soda Springs. For the most thoroughly documented account of the Morrisite movement and the resulting war, see Joseph Morris and the Saga of the Morrisites (revisited), by C. LeRoy Anderson (Utah State University Press, 2010).

Most of the Morrisites left Morristown after a few years, many of them migrating to Montana and a few taking up homesteads near Blackfoot. Charles and Jane Higham settled near the mouth of the Blackfoot River Valley. Fredrick and Finetta Stevens, who built the first house in what would become Blackfoot, were also connected to the war. Fredrick was one of the soldiers who escorted the Morrisites out of Utah and into the newly formed Idaho Territory in 1863. Presto Burrell was also one of those soldiers. Nels and Emma Just, former Morrisites who were to become my great-grandparents, settled in the Blackfoot River Valley in 1870, the year they were married. 

Presto, an area of farms and ranches with vague boundaries, was split in two by the Presto Bench. Upper Presto was on the north side of the bench, while Lower Presto was on the south side. The post office was in Lower Presto but was simply called the Presto Post Office. Lower Presto had a general store at the foot of the valley for a few years. The longest-lasting building connected to the community was the Lower Presto School, a two-room schoolhouse that operated from 1904 to 1948 as part of the Firth School District. The school building still stands, long since converted into a residence.

It is often assumed that Preston, the Napoleon Dynamite town on Idaho’s southern border, is what is meant when someone refers to Presto. Such was the error in the “Literary Map of Idaho” produced some years ago by Boise State University. Agnes Just Reid, the daughter of Nels and Emma Just, was listed as being from Preston. In fact, she spent all her years in the home that doubled as the Presto Post Office in the little valley along the Blackfoot. Agnes wrote newspaper columns for fifty years, along with several books of poetry and a book about her mother’s history called Letters of Long Ago. First published in 1923, it is still in print.

Presto had some literary elements in the water. Well-known author of popular westerns, B.M. Bower, wrote her book The Ranch at the Wolverine while staying at the post office house with Agnes. Alma J. Reid, a daughter-law-of Agnes, wrote Along the Rivers: A Western History at her home across the road from the Just house in 1994. I’m the grand-nephew of Agnes Just Reid, and I’ve written thirteen books, although none while in the valley.

For a community that didn’t have a single sidewalk, Presto generated more than its share of Idaho politicians. Allan Larson of Lower Presto was a member of the Idaho House of Representatives and an Idaho state senator from 1966 to 1992. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1978. His father, J. Berkeley Larsen, was Idaho’s lieutenant governor from 1955 to 1959. James Just, eldest son of Nels and Emma, was an Idaho state senator from 1934 to 1938. I’m his grandson, now serving my first term in the Idaho State Senate.

The military Fort Hall, on the edge of what became Presto, had a huge impact on the community of ranches. The location of Fort Hall has confused many people over the years. It began in 1834 as a fur trading post located on the Snake River in what is now Bannock County, about eleven miles west of the town of Fort Hall. It served trappers, then Oregon Trail emigrants, and finally stagecoaches and freighters until it was largely destroyed by a flood in 1863, the year Idaho became a territory.

In May 1870, the US began to build a military fort about eight miles east of Blackfoot where Lincoln Creek—a warm-water stream—flows into the Blackfoot River, and some forty miles east of the original fur trading site. Its purpose was to “maintain proper control” of about twelve hundred tribal people who then resided on the reservation.

The post, situated on 640 acres, was surrounded by grassy fields, providing ample grazing. There were few trees in the area, and none of them were really suited for construction, so the bulk of the timber was shipped in from Truckee River, California, with the remainder of the sawed lumber coming from Corinne, Utah.

It was there, nine miles from their homestead, where Nels and Emma met. She was baking bread for the soldiers and he was freighting supplies between Montana mines and Corinne, the nearest railroad depot.

After their marriage, Nels spent many summers raising hay for the stock at the fort. He had a government contract to supply beef. Emma sold milk and butter to the fort and did washing for the soldiers.

I grew up in the valley called Lower Presto, immersed in family history told by my Great Aunt Agnes, who, as I mentioned, lived in the house that had once been a post office. The proof was right there in the corner of the living room: an old desk with compartments for alphabetized mail.

By the time I came along, the Lower Presto School had closed. Both my brothers attended school there, as did generations of people in the valley and beyond.

The last Just left the valley in 1965, but the descendants of Agnes Just Reid are still farming and ranching there, so much an institution that it is now often called Reid Valley.

We all return every August to the 1887 brick home Nels and Emma built—their fourth home in the valley. We meet on the grounds of the home, now preserved by the Presto Preservation Association, a foundation dedicated to telling the history and the area. In 2020, the old post office home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With the help of the Idaho Heritage Trust, we have been restoring the home for the last several years, starting with that 1887 map.

Tours of the home can be arranged through the website  

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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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