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We are East Idaho: Rexburg

We Are East Idaho is spending the year introducing you to places and people that make east Idaho special. In our We Are East Idaho series, we're going on a road trip and sharing things you may not know about this beautiful place we call home.

REXBURG — At the heart of Rexburg is Brigham Young University-Idaho, a seemingly ever-growing university that has defined and pushed the boundaries of growth in the Upper Valley since it was found in 1888 as the Bannock Stake Academy.

Similar to many communities in eastern Idaho, Rexburg was settled by Latter-day Saint pioneers, and higher education was a priority for community founder Thomas E. Ricks. The academy, later renamed Ricks Academy, eventually became Ricks College in 1903, and the institution with its surrounding community just kept growing.

Eldred Stephenson, one of Rexburg’s oldest residents, joined the faculty of Rick College in 1937, when “Ricks” was only three buildings a power plant, a gymnasium building, and the original Jacob Spori Building.

In 2010, Stephenson spoke with the Post Register during the dedication of the 435,000 square-foot BYU-Idaho Center, a massive auditorium in the center of the university, which holds 15,000 people. He said it was hard to imagine, but the entire campus 1937 campus could have fit inside that auditorium several times over.

“You wouldn’t believe what it was,” Stephenson told the newspaper. “Our assembly hall was in the gym building and it would only seat about 250.”

The community at the time has grown alongside the college. One of the more prominent families in Rexburg at the time were the Porters.

Margaret Porter Arnold was born and raised in Rexburg and has been in the community for 90 years. Her family, the Porters, immigrated from New Zealand and landed in Rexburg in the early 1900s, shortly after the town was founded in 1883.

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Margaret Arnold was born and raised in Rexburg, and has been there for 90 years. | Natalia Hepworth,

Arnold says her father, Arthur Porter Jr. was an integral part of Rexburg’s development. He wore many hats in town and served at Ricks Academy (BYU-Idaho) as a language and botany professor.

Porter was also the founder of one of the town’s first newspapers The Rexburg Journal. The paper was a friendly competitor to the already existing Rexburg Standard but was eventually bought out by Arthur, and his brother John Porter. John would eventually go on to become a mayor of Rexburg.

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Arthur Porter Jr. | Southfork Companion, Porter Family Records

“Daddy owned the newspaper which was just a block from where it is now,” Arnold says. “One brother took the Standard and one brother took the Journal.” Eventually, the two papers were combined into what is currently the Rexburg Standard Journal.

The Porters also owned one of the town’s first popular shops– Porter’s, which started as a book store and then shifted to a variety story. Porter Park was also named after the family as her father helped plant the trees there. Arnold says the trees were planted the same year she was born in 1929.

“Those trees are 90 years old,” Margaret says. “My brother Warren told me he had to hold trees while Daddy planned, which is a terrible job I have held trees for my dad.”

Steady growth continued in Rexburg for decades, although there weren’t a ton of major events. At least not until 1976, when the Teton Dam burst and Rexburg was directly in its path.

The Teton Dam

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Teton Dam Flood in June 1976. | Upper Snake River Valley Historical Society

There were major structural problems with the Teton Dam, which was located northeast of Rexburg on the Teton River, and despite the valiant efforts of dam workers, it sprung a leak on June 5, 1976.

In a matter of hours, a small hole became a large breach leading to almost a complete disintegration of the dam.

RELATED: Sitting on the Teton Dam as catastrophe struck

A wall of water – more than 20 feet high – thundered down the Teton River canyon, picking up mud and debris and smashing through nearby communities like Wilford, Newdale, Teton and Sugar City. The water then went right into downtown Rexburg.

“It was a mess,” Arnold says. “When I think back on it and I don’t know where all the water came from really,” Arnold says. “The water was up past my window seals.”

Eleven people were killed in the disaster along with some 13,000 cattle. A great deal of city infrastructure was destroyed and it made the phrase “flood mud” a household term as the community tried to rebuild.

One of the benefits of the disaster though was that it brought the community together. Ricks College became an instrumental staging area in the recovery efforts.

“Certainly the Teton Dam Flood was a huge disaster through which you saw the community members and the campus members coming together to help anybody who was in distress,” University Public Affairs Director Brett Sampson says.

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Aftermath of the Teton Dam Flood in June 1976. | Upper Snake River Valley Historical Society

City and university officials say that spirit of working together has only grown in the years since.

Brigham Young University-Idaho

Ricks College transitioned to BYU-Idaho in 2001 and began offering 4-year Bachelor’s degrees. Growth greatly sped up as thousands more students were able to attend the university. The size of the university also grew greatly, which brought significant economic growth to the area.

“The college town of Rexburg, Idaho impacts our students at BYU-Idaho. What I love to see is that BYU-Idaho also impacts the city of Rexburg. They’re doing service they’re patronizing the businesses, they’re interacting in different ways,” Sampson says.

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Across the street from the Brigham Young University Idaho Center. | Natalia Hepworth,

As time has gone on civic leaders and campus administration have made an effort to keep their ties strong. Rexburg Mayor Jerry Merrill has worked to do this by spearheading Experience Rexburg. This annual event, held in September, allows the citizens and university students to mix, mingle and learn more about each other.

“Events like Experience Rexburg, and the Center Stage series here on campus, where we have entertainers come … are opportunities for everybody to come together to associate with each other,” Sampson says.

More students continue to arrive at BYU-Idaho every year, but the growth has mainly been through its online programs. University officials say there aren’t any immediate plans to continue physically growing the campus.

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The Spori building at Ricks Academy with fifteen-foot high letters on the roof. Photo donated on June 25, 1975 to the BYU-Idaho Library. | BYUI Library Flickr

“There are no significant plans to build anything else on campus of note, and that’s by design. President Henry J. Eyring has made it very clear that part of the innovation of BYU-Idaho is to work with what we have as we continue to grow in student body,” Sampson says.

But regardless, of the university’s plans, it’s clear that the town wouldn’t be what it is without the opportunity for higher education.

“I’m sure Rexburg would be a lot smaller town if BYU-Idaho wasn’t here. We’re just grateful that Rexburg has always been such an integral part of who we are and has defended us and supported us in so many ways throughout the history,” Sampson says.

Life in Rexburg

Merrill says one of the reasons Rexburg stands apart from other small towns is its strong sense of family values, and the care and concern the community has for each other.

“The thing that I love about Rexburg is that it’s a great place to live and raise a family,” Merrill says.

One of the best things about the community is a large number of things to do. The area offers many outdoor pastimes like hiking the “R” mountain, campfires at Eagle Park or Warm Slough, exploring the Civil Defense caves, or off-roading at the St. Anthony sand dunes just north of town.

Merrill says if visiting for the first time the local museums like the Legacy Flight Museum or the Museum of Rexburg located inside the Rexburg Tabernacle are must-sees.

The Rexburg Tabernacle is used for many arts and entertainment functions in town and is home to the Rexburg Tabernacle Orchestra which started 17 years ago. The group is made up of volunteers in the community ranging from high school seniors to college graduates, and retired musicians.

“There’s a lot of people in the area that had excellent musical skills (with) orchestral instruments that when they left school … didn’t really have a place to perform anymore. There are not too many people who call for a Timpani solo,” The orchestra’s manager Gwyn Harris says. “I just thought it would be a good idea to get some of these people together so that we could start a community orchestra.”

Over the years the orchestra has attracted a total of 300 musical volunteers to perform, with a current total of 70. It delights the town with three concerts during its season per year.

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Rexburg Tabernacle Orchestra | Courtesy photo

Typically, the local orchestra performs a November concert, but this year they’ll be performing a Halloween show. Dr. Kevin Call, the orchestra’s conductor who worked previously as a conductor with the Brigham Young University-Idaho Symphony Orchestra is working to bring back the favored town tradition of Halloween performances.

Much preparation and performance went into Halloween concerts at the university during his 24 years. He says he stopped doing the concerts about 12 years ago.

“We’re kind of doing a revival concert this year,” Call says. “We invite people to come in costume especially the kids. We’ll have a costume parade.”

Call, who’s been known on campus as Count Dracula is excited for the local orchestra to bring back a long-loved Rexburg, and BYU-Idaho tradition on October 29 and 30.

Harris says the work they do with the orchestra is very gratifying.

“There is a high with putting something together like this and seeing it all come together,” Harris says.

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Mayor Jerry Merrill has worked to revitalize and beautify Center Street. | Natalia Hepworth,

Merrill says groups like the Rexburg Tabernacle Orchestra help give locals a sense of community and reemphasizes the small-town feel, which he feels is so important to the community.

“We don’t necessarily want to grow to be a huge town, but we do recognize that growth is important to support the services that we need,” Merrill says. “We do encourage growth but we’re not necessarily trying to be the biggest we just want to be the best.”

With all that the town has to offer, and the growth that has complemented the city throughout generations the main thing that Rexburg comes back to, Merrill says is families.

“The thing that I love about Rexburg is that it’s a great place to live and raise a family– We have strong family values,” Merrill says. “That’s where we try to put our focus so that people can keep their kids and their grandkids here and be able to have their families here with them.”

Mayor Jerry Merrill drives the Spirit Bus during the Madison High Schoool Homecoming Parade annually. (Sept. 2019) | Natalia Hepworth,
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