By Jeff Sims
Above, the Charles & Lettie Oien family, manager and cook, at Bozanta Tavern. Photo courtesy of the Museum of North Idaho (Hay-2-39).
Dad had a few part-time jobs, in addition to his full-time job as a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office. For many years he did yard work for Tod Oien on South Ash Street in Spokane. It was fun for me to tag along occasionally, and help dad with whatever needed to be done.
Mr. Oien had a shingle and shake bungalow-style house, which he had built in 1941, and painted a dark brown, rustic-looking color under towering ponderosa pines. A narrow S-curve driveway led up to a garage under the house, lined by tall concrete retaining walls which were topped with a ground cover of kinnikinnick. A sweeping green lawn, dotted with a few pines, ended abruptly at a high basalt wall dropping off to the sidewalk below. The yard was liberally bordered with Oregon Grape and other native plants. The back patio was paved with slate squares, a soft cushion of scotch moss between each stone. It was here, especially on hot summer days, Mr. Oien would offer me an ice cold glass of ginger ale.
He had an office in the basement, just off the garage. The walls were lined with photos, outdoors-themed items and skiing memorabilia. He and his wife were early members of the Spokane Ski Club and active mountaineers. In a small frame, but prominently hung on a post, was a dinner menu dated 1909. It was inscribed with the signature of William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States.
Mr. Oien was nine years old when he received this autograph, probably around the age I was when he first showed it to me. The menu was for an Idaho wild game dinner given in President Taft’s honor at the Bozanta Tavern on Hayden Lake, September 28th, 1909. The dinner was prepared by Mr. Oien’s mother, Lettie. His father Charles was the manager of the Bozanta.
Charles M. Oien was born at Story City, Iowa, in 1871, son of Norwegian immigrants. He came to Spokane Falls around 1887. During the Great Fire of 1889, he served coffee and sandwiches to the firefighters. He later became manager of the Spokane Club when it was on the upper floors of the Lamona Building from 1890 to 1900. The building was on the south side of First Avenue east of Howard, and it was demolished in 1962.
The Bozanta Tavern began life in 1902 as the Avondale Cottage summer hotel on the west end of picturesque Hayden Lake. In 1906, the Hayden Lake Improvement Co., made up of local investors, purchased the Avondale Cottage and 145 acres of surrounding land. They secured the services of Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter, who designed a “Swiss chalet” style lodge. A site for the lodge on a bluff overlooking the lake was chosen by Cutter and Aubrey White (later to become President of the Spokane Parks Commission), after inspecting the grounds with famed landscape architect John C. Olmsted. It was opened in July 1906, and christened “Bozanta,” supposedly a native word meaning “meeting place by the lake.” In 1907, the lodge was sold to the Spokane & Inland Railway, and its popularity as a lakeside retreat boomed as visitors could be brought almost to its door by train from Spokane or Coeur d’Alene. A 9-hole golf course was added in 1909. In 1912, this was enlarged to 18 holes, the first in Idaho. The golf course and lodge live on today as the Hayden Lake Country Club.
The Oien family came to Hayden Lake around 1906, where Charles was assistant manager, and then manager, of Bozanta. His Irish-Canadian wife Lettie was in charge of the kitchen, where her skills were renowned throughout the area.
In late 1909, William Howard Taft, barely six months into his term as President of the United States, embarked on a rail tour of the West. The planned itinerary included Denver, Salt Lake City, Spokane, and Seattle. While in Seattle, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition would be one of the stops. He would then swing south through Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Returning to the east coast through Texas, he was to meet Mexican President Porfirio Díaz in El Paso.
After a luncheon at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane on September 28th, the President’s train arrived at Hayden Lake, where his party detrained and walked a block or so to the Bozanta Lodge. The lodge was surrounded by a cordon of soldiers, and sightseers outside this line craned their necks for a glimpse of the President, and cheered him on. President Taft immediately retired to a room set aside for him, for a much needed rest. An avid golfer, Taft declined to take to the links, but many in his party went to the golf course for a round. Young Allen G. Paine, son of Spokane & Inland Railway’s Waldo G. Paine, and future attorney (a Spokane firm still bears his name), had been chosen to be President Taft’s caddie.
At six o’clock, dinner was called. President Taft and around 300 other guests gathered in the dining hall, and were hosted by Spokane & Inland Railway’s Vice President, A.L. White. For the next hour and a half, the diners feasted on what was described as “…one of the choicest game banquets ever given in the State of Idaho.” The repast was prepared and cooked by Lettie Oien, and “…served in excellent shape.” A contemporary newspaper account mentioned that “Mrs. Oien is an adept in her art and the guests were outspoken in their praise.”
The meal consisted of Olympia Oysters, Celery Branches, Ripe Olives, Hunter’s Broth, Hayden Lake Bass, Meunière, Lemon Cucumber, Breast of Partridge, Burgundy, Heart of Artichoke, Oregon Grape Sherbet, Haunch Venison, Cub Bear, Elderberry Jelly and Sweet Potatoes, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Bozanta Cooler, Cottage Cheese and Idaho Fruits, Coffee and Cigars, Moët & Chandon with Apolinaris.
At 7:45, President Taft and his entourage left Bozanta to continue west on their trip. It was the first and last time a sitting U.S. President had visited the beautiful shores of Hayden Lake, although former President Theodore Roosevelt came there in 1914.
In popular culture, William Howard Taft was known more for his wide girth, than for his accomplishments as President of the United States. At 5’, 11” and 340 pounds, he is regarded as the heaviest U.S. President, and the dinners given in his honor during the Western trip of 1909 were widely reported on in the press. A protégé of Theodore Roosevelt, he was urged by him to seek the Republican Party nomination in 1908 after Roosevelt declined to run for another term. During Taft’s presidency, the two had drifted apart. When the 1912 election came around, Taft had control of the Republican Party and was nominated as that party’s candidate. However, Roosevelt decided to run as a third-party candidate under the Progressive Party (the “Bull Moose Party”). This action split the Republicans, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to gain the White House.
After his defeat in 1912, Taft returned to Yale, his alma mater, to teach law. In 1921, the former president was named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the only person to have held those two offices.
Jeff Sims is a member of the Westerners Spokane Corral. Learn more about The Westerners online here: