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Statehouse event highlights Polly Bemis, Idaho's most well-known Chinese American pioneer

"We remember Polly because her strength of character enabled her to rise above adversity," said a history professor who has written about Bemis.

BOISE, Idaho — Not outsiders, but people who helped build the Idaho we know today -- that's the message those who gathered Tuesday for Polly Bemis Day at the Idaho Capitol wanted to highlight about Bemis, the Gem State's best-known Chinese pioneer, and those who shared her heritage.

Polly Bemis was smuggled into Idaho from China some time after her parents sold her into a form of slavery.

Once she gained her freedom, she ran a boarding house in Warren, which was then known as "Warrens."

She and her husband, Charlie, were among the first pioneers to settle along the Salmon River in Central Idaho.

The Bemis ranch is located about 44 miles east of Riggins. Now a national historic site, it's accessible only by boat.

When the two met, Polly had been working in a dance house, and Charlie owned the saloon next door. They married in 1894.

A statue created by Irene Deely was unveiled Tuesday at the statehouse. It will be placed at the Bemis Ranch.

"Because she was a quintessential river person - the river dominated her life - I wanted to include references to the river," Deely said, talking about the details in her sculpture. "She had just come up from fishing, so her shoes would have been soiled by the sand; she would have had, you know, not clean, neat shoes. They're wet, they're full of sand. Then the fish that she would catch, she would put in her pockets. Cutthroat (trout) was the main catch back then... She would safety-pin the bib of her apron to her dress instead of tying it around her neck. I can only assume as a woman that that was less cumbersome for her. She was very practical."

Deely also said in depicting Bemis's face, she wanted to show her sense of humor, as Bemis loved people and loved joking around.

The Idaho Chinese Organization helped organize Polly Bemis Day.

"Polly and her husband Charlie's story is the perfect example of people from different cultures that can still live together and love each other," said Yong Gao, ICO president. "Polly Bemis, her story, could actually have an impact on our students understanding of Idaho's history and overcoming adversity and hopefully, I believe already inspiring others in the process."

The winners of the ICO statewide Polly Bemis essay contest read their essays at the event.

"In that era many Chinese chose to go back to China or move to places with a bigger Chinese population. Polly chose to stay because she fell in love with this place. It gave her courage, hope and happiness even though she was not born here," said Pengjia Zha-fang, one of the contest winners. "More than a century later, more Chinese women came here to get an education, take on all kinds of jobs, and contribute their talents to America."

Another essay contest winner, Callum McLeod, noted that Bemis's "work ethic, industry, bravery, compassion and amiability encouraged Idahoans today to carry on her legacy."

State Representative Sue Chew (D-Boise/District 17) called Bemis and other Chinese American pioneers "integral" to Idaho's history.

"They belonged, and so do we," Chew said. "People from different cultures living in the same community to work together, like Polly and her husband, is the way to solve problems and continue to contribute to society. Her legacy must not be forgotten, and this is a way to not only further her story, but encourage others to learn about her contributions to Idaho."

Dr. Priscilla Wegars wrote about Bemis in her book, The Life and Times of a Chinese American Pioneer, and provided information for a short online biography of Bemis for the national education program, Americans All.

"People often ask me what makes Polly Bemis so famous. I think it's because she represents all the forgotten Chinese women who came to the U.S. during the 19th century," Wegars said. "We remember Polly because her strength of character enabled her to rise above adversity, winning respect from everyone who knew her. They have all said Polly was a wonderful woman and everybody loved her. Perhaps some day you, too, can recapture of this remarkable pioneer woman by going up the River of No Return, back into the past."

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