|Inside Idaho's Attics
From Fairfield to Clayton, Van Gordon Sauter
tours the conservators of central Idaho’s heritage.
Photos by David N. Seelig
The old cemetery is north of Fairfield and some distance off a road that leads up from the Camas Prairie into the Soldier Mountains. On a cold winter morning, with a few inches of snow tenaciously gripping the gravestones, the cemetery seems bleak if not foreboding. But the burying ground is well tended and one senses a place where, in warmer weather, people come with regularity to place flowers and remember ancestors—some who died so long ago they’re not known personally to any living descendent.
The small towns of Idaho are places where people venerate history and those who labored at it and then moved on. Some locals are flummoxed when asked for directions to a cemetery. Their visits began at such an early age they never once thought about how to get there. It’s instinctive. A Fairfield woman, directing visitors to the cemetery, said you could find it by turning left at the crossing where “that windmill stood before it fell down.”
Many towns around here, birthed with fevered optimism, also fell down, decomposed and vanished when the ore was exhausted or the railroad grew arthritic or winters became insufferable.
Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue beat the odds and survived; however, try to find defining evidence of Vienna or Sawtooth City.
Residents who cherish the past have stood up to sustain local history through museums, drawing on the same spirit that for decades has celebrated their ancestors and cemeteries and landmarks. The little museums are Smithsonians writ small, which is not derogatory. They are the attics of their communities, where conscientious oldsters and baffled children breaking down their late parents’ households send memorabilia. Devoid of meaningful budgets, or the technology of contemporary museum presentation, the good souls dust off, prop up, exhibit and explain whatever they can as best they can.
There are tools and clothes and cash registers and furniture. And always there are the photographs, some of now unidentifiable people, stern looking elders in layers of suffocating clothes, staring into the lens with grim determination that no doubt characterized their struggles with mountains or drought or eroded faith.
Ultimately, it is all fascinating. The visitor becomes a detective, an amateur anthropologist, a novelist, trying to figure out why and how people once lived here. And what happened to them? Why did a once flourishing town become a crossroads of haggard structures and rusted pickups and scruffy saloons? Or, how did a tenuous community morph through a series of identities to become a stable and firmly rooted presence in for the long haul?
As always, the hosts in these museums are polite, energized by curiosity about what they consider so precious—their very lifeblood, their history, and their ancestors.
One Ford Street, Clayton
This is an Idaho jewel. First of all, the trip up here is sensational. The 92 miles or so from Ketchum over Galena Summit and then north along the Salmon River is one of the most stunning motor routes in America. Clayton was a productive silver town, with bountiful mines (Climax, Faithful Boy, Rob Roy and the Bayhorse area), strung out along narrow Kinnikinic Creek.
A smelter went into operation in 1880 at the point where Kinnikinic flows into the Salmon River. The smelting company, based in Omaha, created a company store that was operated by contractors into the 1950s. The old store, with many of its original features and fixtures, is the local museum.
The exhibits are varied, logically presented and great fun to mosey around. The local guides are well informed and some are fine raconteurs. They are full of pride for a town (population 27) that created great wealth, personal dramas and intriguing artifacts. It is a comfortable day trip. A short drive north is Challis, which has a state-operated mining museum, a local history museum, nifty home cooking, some bracing Old West bars and clean motel rooms. Go.
State Highway 75, Stanley
Open daily Memorial Day—Labor Day,
11 a.m. to 5 p.m., 208.774.3517
Virtually all of Stanley qualifies as a historical museum. Living through the Stanley winters will turn you into a certifiable historical figure or you’ll be on the first hound to Phoenix with the snowmelt. The museum is in the old forest ranger’s cabin (a renovated, relocated ice cabin has been set next door) near the confluence of Valley Creek and the Salmon River.
The whole operation is getting a jolt of new management and updating. Visit the museum and then the town. And imagine living here when the USA Today weather map not infrequently identifies Stanley as the coldest place in the Lower 48.
Heritage & Ski Museum
Washington & First Street, Ketchum
Open 12-4 p.m. (not Sunday)
Located on the old Forest Service property just off Main Street in Ketchum, each building has its own focus. A dedicated director and the volunteer staff, operating with baling wire, duct tape and contagious enthusiasm, have created rewarding places to visit.
The exhibits are varied and easy to grasp, and visitors get a keen sense of the harrowing (comparatively) early days of skiing and the tumultuous youth of a town sustained by silver and sheep until Averell Harriman rolled in with his resort scheme.
The facilities are painfully and inexcusably underfinanced. A potentially great community asset languishes because of inadequate financing. That said, the museum provides a gratifying experience that too few Wood River Valley residents have experienced.
218 North Main Street, Hailey
Open daily, May 31—October 31,
11 a.m. (1 p.m. Sundays) to 5 p.m. 208.788.1801
In the middle of Hailey’s Main Street, discover the ultimate Idaho attic.
From a grade-school classroom to an engrossing exhibit of political buttons and paraphernalia, it’s great fun. The exhibits are interesting but so, too, is the astounding serendipity of it all.
Again, the spirit is sustained by the staff’s energy and conviction, not by any consequential financing that would allow a more cohesive presentation. Don’t miss it. Anyone who lives in this valley should see the museum’s glimpses of a valley life that preceded the era of glitter and glam.
Old City Hall Museum
206 Main Street, Bellevue
Open summer weekends
This Bellevue Main Street centerpiece gives new meaning to the term “loving hands at home.” Those hands have produced a very local museum in a city hall that began life as a storage area for the town’s fire-fighting gear.
The building is unmistakable. Its signature icon is the old bell tower on the roof, which tilts alarmingly out of kilter with the lines of the building. Mining machinery litters the yard. Out back are a historic jail structure and a miner’s cabin. This is a place for people who have a real curiosity about Bellevue.
The locals work hard at the museum and do original research into the community and its history. Bellevue is enjoying new vitality as the valley’s population moves south. People here don’t need the buzz of Sun Valley and Ketchum to find the piquancy and romance of their little town.
124 East Camas Ave, Fairfield
Open July 3-4, July 30-31, Aug. 21 & Labor Day weekend,
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 208.764.3359
Fairfield is small-town America, away from the hustle and self-importance of the Wood River Valley. The museum, housed in the old train station, is a relentless succession of images and objects that spark curiosity and bewilderment.
Fairfield is a low-rent town with great pride. Someday, the local feeling goes, another train, a gravy train, will roll into town: the ski mountain in the Soldiers, the new airport, whatever. Until then, Fairfield celebrates its history and invites visitors to the Camas Prairie, which has a vivid history and a stark beauty. But don’t think this is some hayseed, backwater town. One of the best museum guides is a noted American author who lives there part of the year on a small ranch with her photographer husband. More than most, Judith Freeman knows the value of a cluttered attic for spinning a zesty yarn.