The Making of a Basque Community in Ontario:
From the Boarding House to a Global VillageEscuchar artículo - Artikulua entzun

Lisa Corcostegui & María Barinaga
Ontario Basque Club Web Site

Upon arrival in the United States, Basque immigrants did not count Ontario, Oregon as one of their final destinations; today, however, it is home to a thriving Basque community. The Echanis Boarding House initially attracted Basques to Ontario and provided fertile soil in which they established roots and nurtured traditions of Euskal Herria in Eastern Oregon. In the beginning these traditions were largely confined within the boarding house walls. Over the years, however, Ontario Basques have taken their heritage with them as they have integrated into the greater community, enriching local culture and making important contributions to their neighbors. This is the Basque history of Ontario.

Brief History of the Ontario Area

Ontario is located in Eastern Oregon at the Idaho border where the Malheur River flows into the Snake River. The town’s population was 11,140 as of 2001.1 The principle industries are agriculture, livestock, and food processing; the main crops raised are onions, potatoes, sugar beets, and alfalfa. Ontario was founded in 1883 by four individuals staking their claim to desert land. They were motivated by the news that the Oregon Short Line Railroad would be passing through that area, as indeed it did. In 1898 a newspaper editor from Baker City referred to Ontario as the “metropolis” of Malheur County.2 Ontario became an important shipping point for cattle and a center for business.

Remnant of an ancient lava flow, Malheur Butte is a distinctive Ontario landmark. Photo: Willis M. Tipton

Long before iron rails traversed the area, however, Malheur County was the site of many other types of activity. Native Americans of the Northern Paiute Snake bands already occupied the region when in 1811 Pacific Fur Company trappers camped in the area that would later become Ontario.3 Hudson Bay Company Traders made an expedition into Snake River Country in 1825-26. It was one of these traders, Peter Skene Ogden, accompanied by French-Canadian hunters, who explained in his journal in 1826 that the Malheur River was so named because property and furs that had been hidden there previously had later been stolen by natives. (Malheur is a French idiom that expresses the idea of bad fortune.) Malheur County takes its name for this river.4 Between 1843 and 1869 floods of pioneers poured through the Oregon Trail on their way to claim farming lands in the Willamette Valley. These pioneers just passed through, however, and it was miners who first settled Malheur County in the early 1860’s. These miners and those in western Idaho created a demand for meat that was answered by entrepreneurs who created a new livestock industry in Malheur County. With establishment of Oregon Short Line Railroad in 1883, Ontario became the hub of the livestock industry in Eastern Oregon. 5

Between 1890 and 1900 numbers of sheep in Malheur County rose 622% reaching a total of 360,477.6 Owning sheep was particularly profitable at the time because owners could graze their bands on free public range. Grazing laws, including the Taylor Grazing Act passed in 1934, later negatively affected the sheep industry, however at the turn of the twentieth century many were attracted its opportunities, including many Basques who began as herders and sometimes later acquired their own bands.

Establishing the Roots of Ontario’s Basque Community

The Echanis Boarding House

Ygnacio “Jack” Echanis left his home in Mutriku, Gipuzkoa in 1914 at the age of twenty-nine. His destination was a ranch on Stinking Water near Crane, Oregon in the Steens Mountains where he entered the sheep business with his brothers Joe and Benito. A few years later Jack sent for his fiancé María Pagoaga, then nineteen years old, who had been his neighbor in Mutriku. She made the transatlantic trip with her half-brother Andy Urquiri and his wife Catherine, and married Jack in Boise in 1917.7 Soon Maria found herself in Oregon’s high desert serving up hearty meals to her new husband, his brothers, Andy, John Egurrola and hired hands. According to Maria’s daughter, Josephine, her cooking was highly esteemed among these men and it was their encouragement that led the Echanis’ to open a boarding house in Ontario. In 1922 the Echanis’ bought a home at 115 North Oregon Street where they would raise their five children. In 1930, however, this house burned down. The next year the boarding house reopened at the same location with twelve double sleeping rooms.

Echanis Boarding House built in 1930. Photo: Echanis Family Collection
Maria and Jack Echanis on their 50th Wedding Anniversary at Blessed Sacrament Church. Back row L to R: Father Cletus Kirkpatrick, Father John Baumgardner and Father Ricaldo. Photo: Echanis Family Collection

The Echanis Boarding House became home to many Basques who were traveling or who herded sheep in areas such as Homedale, Marsing, Jordan Valley, McDermitt and the Steens Mountains. Herders stayed at the boarding house during lambing or when they visited town for appointments. It was a convenient location for individuals who had business to take care of in Ontario or the County Seat. Over the years the Echanis boarding house provided delicious Old World-style meals and a home away from home for Basque herders where they could enjoy the companionship of their countrymen. It was not unusual for Maria to serve meals to thirty-four people at a time. The Epiphany or Three Kings Day celebrated on January 6 was an especially festive occasion for the Echanis family and their boarders. In addition to providing a comfortable home to herders and traveling visitors, the boarding house served an important social function on an everyday basis for local Basques. Many couples met there over the years. The Echanis boarding house was the venue for the first Basque dance in the Treasure Valley before there were any organized Basque activities in the area.8

The boarding house was like an island in the desert of the American West. One knew that he could take comfort in its nurturing environment; speak and be understood in Euskara, smell and savor old-world cuisine, hear familiar melodies pumping from the bellows of an accordion, find companionship with like-minded individuals, and have a good game of mus.

Being far from one’s native country is always challenging, but the Echanis’s did their best to ease the difficult times. One of these was an outbreak of Spotted Fever in the 1930’s. Antonio Alberdi, an Echanis boarder, died from the illness in 1938, despite the all efforts to save him. Maria’s daughter Josephine remembers that Babe Zeller, a local nurse, spent many hours attending to their boarders who contracted the illness from tick bites received while herding. Antonio was laid to rest at Sunset Catholic Cemetery in Ontario. Over the years seventeen of his fellow herders would share this final resting place.9

An important function of the boarding house was to foster Basque culture and provide an outlet for Basque activities; in this way the roots of a Basque community in Ontario were established. The boarding house also functioned, however, to help boarders become integrated into the American way of life. Herders received assistance with banking, legal, and health matters. The photo below recalls the celebration dinner on the occasion of the naturalization of several Basques as U.S. citizens.

Dinner at the Echanis Boarding House in Ontario celebrating newly acquired U.S. citizenship in 1941. Standing left to right: Juan Plaza, Jack Echanis, Frank Jayo. Seated left to right: Anthony Yturri (teacher), Sam Gandarias, Joe Echanis, Juan Ybarzabal, Oscar Rosen, Genaro Plaza. The man in the picture on the wall was boarder Domingo Corta. Photo: Echanis Family Collection

The citizenship classes were held at the boarding house and were taught by Anthony (Tony) Yturri. Tony was born in Jordan Valley to Basque immigrants and lived his adult life in Ontario. He was an attorney, served sixteen years in the Oregon State Senate, and chaired the Oregon Transportation Commission.10

New Club fosters public awareness of Basque Heritage

As more Basques became fully integrated into American society, several individuals recognized the need to preserve their unique heritage for future generations. Serafina Uberuaga Mendiguren thought of organizing a club in 1947. She communicated her idea to Timotea “Timmie” Yraguen Echanis and together they called the first meeting of what would become the Ontario Basque Ladies Club. The charter members were: Timmie Yraguen Echanis, Juanita Yraguen, Ybarzabal Hoff, Martina Yraguen Echanis, Georgia Yturri, Elsie Rivard Yturri, Marie Marquina Bilbao, Helen Marquina Smith, Marie Anchustegui Cortabitarte, Josephine Echanis Keim, Margaret Taylor Barruetabena, Lourana Priston Echanis, Marie Mendive Uriarte, Carmen Mendiola Esterly Chertudi, Marge Jones Plaza, Alice Plaza Vanderwall, and Serafina Uberuaga Mendiguren. The mission of these original members was to preserve the Basque culture, teach their children to sing Basque songs and dance the Jota and Porrusalda, and raise money for charity.

In 1948 the ladies began hosting an annual benefit dance that is open to the public. A main feature of the event is to auction off a lamb to raise funds. The first dance, then called the “Basque Apron and Overall Dance” raised $2,124.36. Of this amount $2,000.00 was donated to Blessed Sacrament Church for the construction of a new parish hall.11 The club still maintains a strong relationship with the church and has used parish facilities for dance practices. Over the years the Ontario Basque Club has donated significant amounts of money to many other local charities including but not limited to the Catholic Cemetery, Holy Rosary Hospital, the fire department, local youth programs, Saint Peter Catholic School, the needy, and senior citizens.

Left: Individuals who participated in lamb auction in 1949. Standing left to right are Louis Yturri, Charlie Redsull, George Beemus, Mable Riggs, Clayt Tschirgi, Joe Echanis, Ellis White, and George Yturri. Leaning in front is George Warrington. Right: 1953 Basque Apron and Overall Dance. Photos: Ontario Basque Club

The Ontario Basque Dance continues to be a very popular local event and is viewed by the attendees as a fund-raising event as well as a very enjoyable evening. In May of 1966 a motion was passed to set up a scholarship for persons of Basque descent with good grades. This scholarship is for a student attending Treasure Valley Community College. In 1973 the Scholarship was named the Marge Plaza Memorial Scholarship. For many years, the Basque Ladies Club remained just that, however, since 1994 men have been welcome to join. Membership is now composed of Old World and American born Basques and their families. The Ontario Basque Club became a member of North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO) in 1974.

To fulfill part of the Basque club’s mission, an organized dance group was formed in 1960. Along with dancing the children learned Basque songs. This early group was instructed by Becky Platt and Timmie Echanis in dancing and Lucia Egurrola in song. Over the years many dedicated individuals have made sure that Ontario Basque club children don’t miss the opportunity to express their heritage through dance.

Beti Alai Dantzariak in front of the Basque Village at America’s Global Village 2003. Photo: Lisa Corcostegui

The group adopted the name Beti Alai a few years ago and is composed of the children of Ontario Basque Club members. The group performs at the club's Annual Dinner Dance and other events such as America's Global Village, the Malheur County Fair, Jaialdi, local conferences, and most recently at the centennial celebration of the Baker Diocese held in Redmond, Oregon.

The End of an Era and the Implementation of “Eman eta Zabalzazu”

The death of the Echanis’ last Basque boarder, Juan Echeverria in 1987 and the death of Maria (Pagoaga) Echanis in 1988 marked the end of an era. The Basque club began inside the Echanis boarding house, but over the years it has been the vehicle that has facilitated awareness of the Basque Culture in the Ontario area in the spirit of the lyrics of Iparraguirre’s Gernikako Arbola: “eman eta zabalzazu munduan frutua” (give forth and spread your fruit throughout the world). The Basque club has monthly meetings and occasional get-togethers just for members. Club members also support each other in times of crisis which includes preparing funeral luncheons for fellow members. Other Basque club activites, however, are geared to sharing Basque heritage with the greater community.

Four Rivers Cultural Center and the Basque Contribution to the area’s Cultural Tapestry

The Four Rivers Cultural Center opened its doors in Ontario in 1997. Its museum pays tribute to the ethnic groups that settled and contributed to the culture of the area.

Sheep Camp Display at Four Rivers Cultural Center Museum. Photo: Lisa Corcostegui

Along with exhibits depicting the Japanese, Mexican, and Native American experiences, are displays illustrating various aspects of the Basque experience including immigration, language acquisition, the sheep industry, cuisine, and the Basque boarding house. The museum also offers a video exhibit that features the Ontario Basque club. All of these exhibits and displays are testament to the impact that Basques have had in the Ontario area.

Language Maintenance and Recuperation

In their quest to integrate into the American lifestyle, few immigrants taught their children the Basque language. The importance of Euskara in the maintenance of the heritage, however has not been forgotten. Since the early days of the dance group, the children at least became familiar with the language through songs with Basque lyrics. In the 1970’s, Euskara became accessible to everyone Basque and non-Basque alike, when it was offered at Ontario’s Treasure Valley Community College. Frank “Patxi” Etxaniz who had participated in the American Study Abroad Program in Oñati, Gipuzkoa came back to Ontario with the enthusiasm to pass on what he had learned from Oñatibia. When Frank left the area, however, the classes were discontinued. Ontario Basque Club is currently embarking on a new program for teaching Basque language. Beginning sometime in November of 2003 individuals will be able to study Euskara on a computer network installed at the Malheur County Library. The Program, Hezinet, is a product of Aurten Bai and is offered to Basque clubs by the Basque Government. Students are expected from all age groups and the club is excited about the prospect of reincorporating this important element of Basque culture into their everyday practices and preserving it for future generations.

A Taste of the Basque Country – Sharing Culture Through Food

Cuisine is another means through which Basques have shared their heritage with the general population. The first motion to publish a Basque cookbook was made in October of 1960. Six years later the cookbooks were ready for sale at the annual dinner dance. Since then the Ontario Basque Club has continued to publish the book featuring the cuisine its members have enjoyed for generations. To their knowledge it was the first Basque cookbook ever published in English; it features 137 Recipes including traditional Basque dishes and other family favorites.

The club also holds cooking classes for members periodically in order to pass on traditional recipes and preparation techniques as well as to enjoy the food and friendship. In addition to this, a Basque dinner series has been offered by a local Japanese restaurant for several years. Chefs for the popular series are members of the Ontario Basque Club including Luci Gastanaga, Elena Calzacorta, and Jeanne Sagasta, but the patrons include community members from many ethnic backgrounds.

In 1998 the Annual Basque Benefit dance was held at the Four Rivers Cultural Center and was combined with a Basque dinner. Due to its success, that format continues to be used. The response from the local community has been extremely positive. While Basque Club members number around 100 individuals, the last few dinner dances have attracted over 500 people.

Clockwise from top left: Table setting at 56th annual Ontario Basque Dance, Club members Karen and Joe Yraguen serve dinner, Dr. John Barinaga and nieces Elena and Angela Tipton at lamb auction, Beti Alai executing a biribilketa during their performance. Photos: Lisa Corcostegui

The event begins with dinner served by club members and is followed by a performance by Beti Alai Dantzariak, the lamb auction, and dancing for everyone. The generosity of bidders at the lamb auction enables the club to fund various charity projects and local business people see it as an opportunity to contribute to their community. Tradition dictates that each winning bidder donate the lamb back to the club, and the auction continues in this manner until the bids cease. The dinner dance continues to be Ontario Basque Club’s main event, but not their only one.

Basque Contribution to Ontario’s Global Village

Along with other Treasure Valley groups. Ontario Basque Club participates in America’s Global Village held in Lion’s Park each June, in which each local ethnic group constitutes a village. This multicultural event opens with a procession in which all villages take part.

Left: Beti Alai is joined in Txulalai by audience members and Ontario’s Japanese Dancers at the 2003 Global Village. Right: Luci Gastanaga and Jeanne Sagasta sell chorizo sandwiches at the Basque Village’s Jatetxea. Photos: Lisa Corcostegui

Beti Alai Dantzariak perform inviting spectators to join them in their last dance, and the Basque club sells chorizo sandwiches and Basque items such as T-shirts, music, books, jewelry and souvenirs. In addition the club provides an activity table for children so that they can have a hands-on encounter with Basque culture. Children of Basque club members also enjoy visiting the other villages and trying out different foods and activities. Ontario residents have another chance each summer to experience an aspect of Basque culture at the Malheur County Fair by watching a performance of Beti Alai Dantzariak.

Ontario Basque Club Reaches Beyond the Local Level

Through its participation in N.A.B.O. the club has stayed in touch with other Basque Clubs throughout the United States and has sent its children to Udaleku to learn more about their culture and to develop friendships with Basque children from other areas. The friendships formed at Udaleku have proven invaluable in strengthening the North American Basque network.

On the international level, Ontario Basque Club members Nicole Yraguen, Maria (Barinaga) Tipton, Lisa (Tipton Gabica) Corcostegui, and Juli (Plaza) Gundle, have participated in the Basque Government’s youth program, Gaztemundu. In 2003, long-time club member, Grace Mainvil was chosen to represent N.A.B.O. at the Third World Congress on Basque Communities held in Gasteiz, Araba. Their experiences have been personally enriching, and have had a positive impact on the Basque club and its relationship to other institutions as well.

In 2001 Ontario Basque Club made the jump to cyberspace when it published its web site. The site contains information about the history and current activities of the club, a photo gallery, and other information. The site may be accessed through the N.A.B.O. web site: or

Remembering the Past; Envisioning the Future

Due to greater mobility in the last decades, Ontario Basque Club has recruited members not only from Ontario, itself, but from other surrounding towns like Jordan Valley, Vale, and Nyssa in Oregon; and Payette, Fruitland, Weiser, and Boise in Idaho. Most of the ancestors of these members did not come directly to Ontario when they immigrated, but over the years many families have settled in the Ontario area and with their Basque neighbors have forged a lasting Basque community. The first Basques to settle in Malheur County and in Ontario would probably be surprised and pleased to see that their descendants have kept the Basque spirit alive in their adopted home. Because of the work ethic and values they instilled in their children, however, they would probably not be surprised that they have found success in a wide range of professions and that Basques as a group are held in high esteem by the greater community. More and more of these descendants have had the opportunity to visit Euskal Herria to explore their roots and experience the current reality of their fellow Basques in the homeland. The experience most often heightens their interest in their heritage and leads to a greater commitment to preserve and promote Basque culture. The individuals who still remember the days of the Echanis Boarding House and the children who form Beti Alai live different Basque realities yet they are brought together by Ontario Basque Club in celebration of their past, working together to make sure the legacy lives on in future generations.

1Oregon Department, O. E. C. D. (2001). Ontario Community Profile. 2001.

2Malheur County Historical Society (1988). Malheur Country History. Vol. 2. Malheur County, Oregon. p. 108.

3Ibid. p.104

4McArthur, Lewis L. (1992). Oregon Geographic Names. Portland, Oregon Historical society Press. p. 533

5Malheur County Historical Society (1988). Malheur Country History. Vol. 1. Malheur County, Oregon. p. 11

6Ibid. p. 12

7Ibid. p. 159

8Zubizareta, Fermin (2001). Interview Tape Index. Boise, Basque Museum Oral History Project. 2003.

9 Keim, Josephine Echanis (2003). Conversation. L. Corcostegui. Ontario.

10Oregon Legislative Assembly (1999). In memoriam: Former State Senator Anthony Yturri, 1914-1999. 2003.

11Ontario Basque Club (1997). Summary of Minutes from Secretary Books. Ontario.

Zure iritzia / Su opinión

Al alcance de la mano
Comunicación Básica en euskara-castellano

À portée de main
Communication basique en euskara-français

Within hand's reach
Basic communication in Euskara-English

Zum greifen nahe
Basiskommunikation Basquen zu Deutschen

 Aurreko Aleetan
Bilatu Euskonewsen