John William Cunningham
Photo 006, Moore-Cunningham-Bettis Collection
A five-way portrait
J. W. Cunningham, son-in-law of C. W. Moore, was a prominent banker, businessman, and outstanding citizen of Boise. He was instrumental in the development of the electric power industry in southwestern Idaho and was associated with Boise’s electric power companies in a managerial capacity for two decades. Then, at an age when many retire, he became a banker, serving as vice president of the Idaho First National Bank for more than thirty years.
J. W. Cunningham was born in Harrisburg, Oregon, on June 30, 1857. The area was mainly a farming country. Cunningham saw a better future as a merchant in Boise, so he asked David Falk, one of the city’s leading merchants, for a job with Falk’s mercantile firm. Cunningham moved to Boise to work at D. Falk & Bros. in about 1880. He was one of six young men who came from Oregon around the same time. They were called the “Webfoot Six” and included Will Northrop, his brother, Cunningham, and others. After working at Falk’s for several years, Will went in to get his annual pay and the bookkeeper gave him $1200.00. He was supposed to get $900.00, so he said that was a mistake. He went to see Mr. Falk, who said he had told the bookkeeper to give Cunningham a $25.00 a month raise retroactively for the excellence of his work. A 25% raise was fine testimony to management’s satisfaction.
After leaving Falk’s, J. W. Cunningham worked as a telegrapher. While on duty at Kuna on July 3, 1890, he received the message from Washington D.C., that Idaho had been admitted to the Union. An undated newspaper clipping, probably from the 1880s, noted his appointment as superintendent of Boise’s telephone and telegraph lines.
In 1887 Cunningham joined with William Ridenbaugh and others to form the Capital Electric Light, Power, and Gas Company, the first company to provide Boise with electricity. Cunningham was one of the twenty original stockholders and was elected secretary of the corporation. He was responsible for the construction of the power plant and installation of the dynamo in the Spring of 1887. Located below the Bench, that first electric plant was powered by water falling from a reservoir fed by the Ridenbaugh canal. Cunningham served as secretary and manager of the company and its successor, Boise-Payette River Electric Power Company, until about 1908. During that time, additional power plants were built at Horseshoe Bend and at Barber, east of Boise. The plant at Horseshoe Bend was powered by water from a canal coming from the Payette River, while the plant at Barber was powered by water from the lumber company dam on the Boise River.
In 1891, J. W. Cunningham married Helen Nelson of Boise. Helen Nelson Cunningham died in childbirth in 1893; her stone is in the Pioneer Cemetery on Warm Springs Avenue.
On October 26, 1898, Cunningham married Laura Belle Moore, second daughter of C. W. Moore, at her parents’ home. After the death of his first wife, Cunningham had a deathly fear of childbirth and did not want to have children. He was well matched with Laura, who had many other sociable, artistic, and philanthropic interests.
During the 1890s and the first few years of the 1900s, J. W. Cunningham was appointed superintendent and assayer in charge of the U.S. Assay Office in Boise. He held these offices concurrently with his position at the power company. The Assay Office on Main Street, where he worked after he and Laura were married, was near the Cobb family house on Idaho Street. A long friendship with the Cobb family began during this period. Laura used to make ice cream and take it to Mr. Cobb, owner of The Statesman, who had a stomach that was half silver, limiting his diet.
J. W. Cunningham was named a director of the First National Bank of Idaho in 1906. He continued to work in the position of manager of the power company until about 1908, when the company was acquired by the Idaho-Oregon Light and Power Company, a predecessor of Idaho Power. After leaving the power company, the Cunninghams moved to New York about 1910. Their friends Lyman and Nelda Ballentine Kendall had been doing very well trading in stocks in New York. The two couples had enjoyed a three month tour of Europe in Kendall’s new roadster in 1907.
The Cunninghams spent one or two years in New York where J. W. made quite a bit of money in the market (about $300,000). After Catherine Minear Moore died in 1911, Laura wanted to move back to Boise to take care of her father, C. W. Moore. Mr. Cunningham graciously conceded, and the couple moved to 1109 Warm Springs. Mr. Moore died in 1916, and the Cunninghams stayed at the family home the rest of their lives. When they returned to Idaho, Cunningham became active as an officer in the First National Bank and invested his fortune in the family holding the company, the Western Loan and Investment Company. He was named vice president of the bank in 1915. In 1928, he and Laura took another extended tour of Europe, meeting Dr. Harry S. Bettis and his son Laurence in Italy for part of the itinerary.
“Uncle Will was the smartest fellow I ever knew,” stated his nephew Laurence Moore Bettis, who added that Cunningham was “the bank’s economist.” J. W.’s modesty, self control, and analytical mind—combined with a faith in the bank—led him to leave all his money in the bank when it was closed in 1932. This act solidified the faith of many others, so that the bank could emerge again as a viable institution. The frenzy of those times was mitigated by his steadfastness. He served as vice president of the bank until his death on March 30, 1946. Eulogies offered by Harry Morrison, C.C. Anderson, Karl Paine, and Edwin Snow noted that Cunningham’s sense of dignity and obligation at this time of instability served as a rudder for the community.
Cunningham was appointed president of the Western Loan and Investment Company in the 1930s and also served in that capacity until his death. Notations in books read by him in his family home indicate he was blessed with intellectual curiosity and a wry sense of humor.
--by Carol L. MacGregor and Alan Virta (1991)
Anderson, Eloise H. Frontier Bankers: A History of the Idaho First National Bank. Boise: The Idaho First National Bank, 1981.
Bettis, Laurence Moore. Tape-recorded interview and conversations with Carol L. MacGregor.
Boise City directories, 1891-1917.
A History of the Development of the Electric Industry in Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon, 1887-1943, With Reference to Idaho Power Company and its Predecessors. Boise: Idaho Power Company,1943.
Idaho Statesman. March 17, 1887; April 28, 1887; and March 31, 1946.
J.W. Cunningham’s papers are of a scattered and miscellaneous nature. They include a number of personal letters he wrote to his wife, Laura Moore Cunningham, while she was in San Francisco for medical treatment (Spring 1937), and letters (1908-1917) he received from his friend Lyman B. Kendall, discussing the stock market, particular stocks, and the impact of World War I on investments. Also contained in these papers is a typewritten document dated 1937 (3 pages) summarizing the conditions that led to the closure of Idaho First National Bank in 1932, describing the plan that allowed its reopening, outlining its progress in the intervening years, and requesting permission (apparently from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation) to release its stock.
Box 1, Folder 16 Biographical Material
17 Letters to Laurence Moore Bettis: 1933-1945
18 Letters to Laura Moore Cunningham: 1936-1939
19 Letters from Fanny Cobb: 1909
20 Letters from Lyman B. Kendall: 1908-1917
21 Medical Papers
22 Financial Notes
23 First National Bank of Idaho