If you ever find yourself driving U.S. Highway 95 through the dry basin lands of southeastern Oregon, don’t be too surprised when you round a corner and come face-to-face with a towering concrete wall.

It’s been there, in one form another, for more than 100 years, as a place where Basque sheepherders and their descendants play “pelota.”

The open-air handball court, properly called a fronton, has a long, stepped side wall and a tall back wall, both connected by a cement floor. It has been modernized since 1915, when it was built by boardinghouse owner Ambrose Elorriaga, but it remains a landmark in this remote community of fewer than 200 people. And it’s still in use.

Almost directly across a side street, in the house that Elorriaga and his wife, Maria, built in 1910, the town’s Heritage Museum operates. This was once one of eight boarding houses that operated in the small community, catering to migrants from the Basques’ European homeland. They tended sheep by summer but in winter lived quietly — except during the Christmas-New Year season, when it seemed every house had a dance party.

Indeed, Basque pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries lived a lonely life in the Great Basin region, particularly in the high desert of Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and eastern California, where most of them settled.

Few spoke English, and herding sheep didn’t require any particular experience other than the ability to work alone and in serious isolation. With a reputation for being hardworking, stubborn and frugal, the Basques fit right in.

Boardinghouses (“ostatuak”), such as those in Jordan Valley and elsewhere across the Great Basin, were more than places to eat and sleep. They were places where, for a few weeks or months, the Basque culture was reborn in language and friendships. Feast days, good wine and pelota filled the days far from their homeland on the Spanish-French shores of the Bay of Biscay, in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains.

Boardinghouse proprietors became surrogate parents for regular boarders. They assisted with translating, banking, mail, medical needs and other tasks, and often were confidants.

As snow began melting, the men were back in the hills. Lambing and branding took place in early spring. Out here in Malheur County’s Owyhee drainage, sheep were moved to higher pastures in summer, then to lower rangeland in winter, when bands were often combined and herders laid off. And the cycle began again.


About 3 million people live in Euskal Herria, the lush, temperate region known as Europe’s Basque Country. About the size of the state of Maryland, it extends along 115 miles of North Atlantic coast. The slightly larger, mineral-rich Spanish side of the province, with its largest city at Bilbao, has prospered with industry, while the French side, focused on Biarritz, relies on tourism and agriculture.

The Basques call themselves Euskaldunak. They are a people without a nation, even though they have lived here since long before the Spanish-French border was established in 1512. Ancient Greeks knew them as “fierce tribes speaking a very strange language.” Through history, they have been a coastal people of fishermen, merchants, shipbuilders and explorers. Basque sailors accompanied Christopher Columbus to America in 1492. Others sailed with Magellan a generation later.

Inland Basques raised subsistence crops and a few cattle, farming and milling grain into flour. They traditionally lived near a Catholic church in a family homestead, which was passed down to a single heir, not necessarily the oldest nor a male. Other children could choose to stay at home and work for the new master, or they could leave to pursue their own lives — perhaps working in a large industrial town, joining a religious order, or emigrating to a foreign country.

Nearly every Basque surname originated as a toponym from the location of the family home. Uberuaga, for instance, means “hot springs.” Zubiondo is translated as “near the bridge.” Indeed, the Euskara language is unique, with no known linguistic relatives to trace the tribe’s origin. Suppressed for more than 35 years in the mid-20th century, it has slowly recovered since the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Today the language is in recovery mode. There are Basque-language films and broadcast networks, as well as education programs not only in Europe, but in American Basque communities.

Boise’s museum

Most prominent of those communities today is Boise, a drive of less than an hour and a half northeast of Jordan Valley, and six hours from Bend. About 15,000 people of Basque heritage live in Idaho’s capital city. Its Basque Museum and Cultural Center is a trove of information for those who, like myself, want to learn about these fascinating people.

The museum, in the heart of downtown Boise’s “Basque Block” just steps from the state Capitol, teaches Basque culture and language in its classrooms; it has a library and archives and hosts numerous special events to celebrate heritage. A gift shop supports the museum’s mission, and several rooms of exhibits welcome curious visitors.

These displays explain the Basque experience both in Europe and in America. As early as the California Gold Rush of 1849, many young Basques began coming to the United States to escape Spanish military conscription. At the start of the 20th century, their numbers increased as word filtered back to Europe of the need for herders in the Great Basin area.

Idaho alone had 3 million sheep in 1910. (Today there are fewer than 250,000.) And scores of boardinghouses opened to support the new immigrants’ needs. There were more than 400 “ostatuak” across the West, especially in Idaho, Nevada and California. Oregon had about two dozen, the majority in Burns. Others were in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Washington.

A map in the museum locates 97 historic boarding houses in Boise. Seven of those original buildings still stand, including the Jacobs-Uberuaga House, which not coincidentally is next door to the museum. It is the oldest surviving brick residence in Boise. Guided tours depart the museum at least twice daily.

Built in 1864 by pioneers Cyrus and Mary Jacobs, the house was a private residence until the turn of the 20th century. José and Hermenegilda Uberuaga rented it in 1917, purchased the home 11 years later and raised three children. They ran it as an “ostatu” until 1969, by which time the sheep market had declined dramatically and their clientele had integrated into mainstream neighborhoods.

But the proud Basques didn’t want to sever all ties with their homeland. So in 1983, a Boise philanthropist, Adelia Simplot, bought the building, financed its restoration and in 1985 established the Basque Museum and Cultural Center here. It became a place where Idahoans could speak Euskara, eat familiar food, play music and dance.

Just down the block, on the other side of the museum from the Jacobs-Uberuaga House, was another “ostatu,” the ­Arduiza Hotel. Juan Cruz Arduiza built his boarding house in 1914 with an indoor pelota court at its heart. Beginning in 1948 the building was home to an engineering firm, but in 1993 the Fronton Building was purchased in 1993 by two local Basques. Now administered by the cultural center, the pelota court (122 feet long, 28 feet wide and two stories high) is in regular use by the Basque community today.

Tree of Gernika

Back in Europe, the Basque lands were challenged by war. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) took nearly 1 million lives as a vicious prelude to World War II.

The socialist-leaning Basque Nationalist Party, which favored autonomy for its own people, had lent support to Spain’s constitutional republican government in a failed 1936 coup d’état attempt by the Spanish army. In retaliation, the rebel army — led by General Francisco Franco and supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy — countered with a series of land and air attacks on key Basque cities.

No Basque will ever forget what happened at Gernika (Guernica) on April 26, 1937. Throngs of innocent people, most of them women and children, crowded the heart of the small lowland town on a Monday market day. Without warning, German and Italian aircraft unleashed a strike that continued unabated for 3½ hours. Hundreds were killed and three-quarters of the town’s homes were destroyed.

A few days later, Franco led a land assault and occupied what remained of Gernika. He told the world that the town had been deliberately burned by its own people. Disheartened, the entire Basque region fell to the Franco’s army by July. The regional government was forced into exile, along with more than 150,000 Basques — among them, 30,000 orphans.

Franco ruled Spain with an iron hand until his death in 1975, never compromising on his version of the facts. But much of the world relates more strongly to the image of terror presented by Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece mural, “Guernica.”

Though its military significance was minimal, Gernika was the cultural heart of the Basque people.

Its Tree of Gernika, “Gernikako Arbola,” originally planted in the 14th century, is a symbol of Basque freedom. Miraculously, the great oak survived the 1937 bombings. A direct descendant stands in its place today, as do several offspring in the United States. One of them is on the front lawn of the Jacobs-Uberuaga House beside the museum.

After Franco’s death, the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) was returned to a measure of autonomy. The region is a world leader in renewable energy; its Portland-based Iberdrola Renewables is the second largest provider of wind turbine power in the United States. And Bilbao, especially, has become a popular tourist destination, with its numerous museums including the Guggenheim, built in 1997. Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, this museum consistently draws more than 1 million visitors a year.

Basque dining

Boise has nothing to compete with the Guggenheim. But it does offer ethnic dining at several locations on the Basque Block, and even a successor to the boarding houses of old.

That was where I chose to stay on my most recent visit. Leku Ona was not a boarding house itself, but it carries that flavor. It was opened in 2005 by José Mari Artiach, who was born and raised in the Basque Country but came to Idaho as a sheepherder at the age of 23, in 1968. He started his own hay-trucking company in 1975, married and raised a family.

The hotel is nothing fancy. It’s not a “boutique” hotel in most senses of the word, regardless of how it may be advertised. But the price is right, at $65 to $85 a night. Rooms are carpeted, private bathrooms are large, beds are sufficiently large, and there’s TV and Wi-Fi, albeit spotty. I would only recommend, should you choose to stay here, that you request a room on the back side of the building, away from the street. It can get mighty noisy in the wee hours of weekends, when the nearby bars close.

The best thing about Leku Ona is its restaurant. I enjoyed a superb lamb stew (what else, from a sheepherder?) with tender diced meat, vegetables and potatoes. Lamb was also available as shank and chops. One of the servers recommended the prawns, sautéed in olive oil, garlic and red chilies. I was tempted by the stuffed squid, stewed with peppers and onions in its own ink.

I considered returning here for each of my meals, but there were too many other options on this block. The intimate Bar Gernika, founded by Dan Ansotegui in 1991, was the perfect place for a lunch of beef tongue. Served to me at the bar, it came in a tomato-rich Bizkaian sauce with a glass of tempranillo from the Rioja wine region.

More than 200 Basque wines are on the shelves at Tony and Tara Eiguren’s Basque Market — white txakolis and viuras, red garnachas and tempranillos, both crianza and reserve. Tastings are available on request. The shop also sells imported meats and seafood, olives and olive oils, Spanish pepper, sauces and a variety of gifts. And several evenings a week, chef Jake Arredondo prepares paella or pintxos (tapas) dinners. I loved every bite of my three-course Friday night meal, including cod-stuffed piquillo peppers, meatballs in a chorizo-pepper sauce, and rice pudding for dessert.

The only non-Basque business on the Basque block is Bardenay, which claims to be the nation’s first restaurant-distillery. I stopped in for a weekend brunch and didn’t try the vodka or rum, but I loved Phil’s Ranchero Omelet. If it’s not a Basque recipe, it should be adopted: an eggy crepe layered with chipotle chicken, artichoke hearts, green chilies, Roma tomatoes, sour cream, mozzarella, cheddar cheese and fresh pico de gallo.

Keeping the culture

The first Basque migrants known to have visited the Jordan Valley were a pair of herders who arrived in 1889, having disembarked a train in Winnemucca, Nevada, and headed north. Their trail was soon followed by other sheepmen, who traveled to Boise, Nampa, Gooding, Twin Falls and other Idaho communities. Boarding houses typically sprang up within a few years of the herders’ arrival, frequently within sight of the railroad station, making them easy to find.

Winnemucca was a major staging platform for migration to Oregon and Idaho. The town’s oldest building is an 1863 Basque hotel. Elsewhere in Nevada, Basque communities remain significant in Reno, Ely and Elko. The latter has a 1910 inn, the Star Hotel, that still has Basque borders who take their nightly meals in the dining room.

In California, Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield, all in the Central Valley, retain Basque communities — although there once were as many (or more) boarding houses in Los Angeles and San Francisco to orient new arrivals.

Burns and Jordan Valley were the main centers in Oregon. Burns once had 11 “ostatuak” and Jordan Valley eight. In addition to Alorriaga’s Heritage House, the Madariaga House still stands from that era.

Sun Valley, Idaho, continues to honor the sheep-ranching era with its annual Trailing of the Sheep festival in mid-October. At this time each year, flocks of sheep were moved from mountain meadows to more temperate winter grazing grounds, as herders returned to their seasonal Boardinghouse residences.

The festival includes a parade, of course, when shepherds and dogs move hundreds of sheep down Idaho State Highway 75 through the heart of Ketchum. There are sheepdog trials and a culinary festival, a town ball and storytelling event for herders, a shearing demonstration and display of woolen goods by weavers and textile artists.

But the annual highlight may be the appearance of Boise’s Oinkari Basque Dancers. Since its founding in 1960, the troupe has earned international acclaim. The dancers are accompanied by musicians playing traditional Basque music on instruments like the txistu (flute), pandareta (tambourine) and trikiti (button accordion).

It seems that you can take a Basque out of Euskadi, but you can’t take the Euskadi out of a Basque.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at .