Starting in 1906, Sampson ran the Sampson Music Company in Boise. His specialty was pianos. One of the ads for his pianos was a testimonial that read in part, “I play third grade music already, and my daddy only bought me my piano a little over a year ago.”
One day, while making a delivery in the desert south of town, Charlie got lost. That annoyed him. He thought there should be signs along the roads so travelers could find their way. He took that suggestion to local officials. They ignored him. To their surprise, Sampson proved that he was not one to let a good idea die. He began to mark the roads around Boise himself.
Sampson carried a bucket of orange paint with him wherever he went, and painted signs on rocks, trees, barns, bridges, fences... just about anything that didn't move. The routes he marked became known locally as the Sampson Trails. Of course, many of the larger signs also included a few words about the Sampson Music Company. Oh, and you could stop by the store and pick up a free map. By the way, could we interest you in a piano?
It wasn’t uncommon in the early days of automobile roads in the U.S. for car clubs to take on the job of marking routes and adding mileage signs to various locations. Since state governments didn’t take on the responsibility at that time, the clubs were free to mark roads and install signs of their own invention. Things got confusing when two or more car clubs competed to be the markers of a road, since there wasn’t always agreement on which was the main road and which was just a muddy side road. Different colored markings denoted the work of different clubs. Nothing was standardized. It was a mess. For instance, the first stop sign didn’t pop up until 1915 in Detroit, according to an article by Ethen Trex in the December 2010 edition of Mental Floss. It was a simple white, square sign with black lettering that was more of a suggestion than a regulation.
Sampson got the jump on car clubs in Idaho, and he did such a good job that he owned the Sampson Trails. He even hired a three-man crew to keep the signs in shape, spending thousands of dollars on the project.
In the mid-1920s, the Bureau of Highways decided to put a stop to Sampson's signing. They would sometimes mark a parallel route and paint over Sampson’s markers. The highway men, pun intended, claimed Sampson defaced the landscape with his orange paint. He probably did, but the Idaho Legislature didn't buy that argument. They passed a resolution commending Sampson for his efforts and gave him the right to continue marking the Sampson Trails.
Sampson eventually extended his work to five states, marking an astonishing seven thousand miles of road. Early highway maps often used the Sampson identifiers rather than state road names.
Charlie Sampson died in 1935, leaving the task of guiding people along the roadways to others. One who perpetuated Sampson’s effort is Cort Conley. His book, Idaho for the Curious, was where I first learned about the Sampson Trails. It is probably the best guide available for travelers interested in Idaho history.