The Spirit of Stanley

Life in one of the coldest towns in America is hard, but for Stanley’s handful of bona-fide locals, it’s paradise. Karen Day, who lives there from the first thaw of May until October threatens to freeze the pipes in her century-old lodge, shows us the faces and spirit of her neighbors.
Photos by Karen Day.

“Last winter, it was 35 below for 39 hours,” says Hannah Stauts, the 26-year-old mayor of the tiny Sawtooth Valley town of Stanley, Idaho. “Those without a wood stove or propane heater watched their toilets freeze and crack.”

Mayor Stauts holds down five jobs, from waitressing to city duties, the latter of which pays $250 a month. “I’m the only mayor to ever finish the four-year term,” she says, a wry, wide smile on her lips. “Survive is a better word, but the sense of accomplishment is huge. I was 22, the youngest mayor in America, when I got elected. I knew nothing about politics, and less about Stanley. I remember trying to introduce myself to someone in town and he said, ‘Never mind—don’t tell me your name until you’re still here next spring.’”

Frequently noted as one of the coldest towns in the lower 48 states, Stanley’s winters routinely span more than six months. Those who can’t tough it out till spring are deemed tourists by the 100 or so year-round locals (even half a lifetime of summer-only residency will not bestow that title).

Life in this remote but often frigid slice of paradise has always been susceptible to the vagaries of nature. But today, something more sinister threatens. The Mountain Village Resort, a motel, restaurant, grocery store and gas station that makes up a quarter of the town’s acreage and tax base, is teetering toward new ownership. The resort is being sold off along with the Bill Harrah Trust’s other Stanley holdings for $12.5 million. As one of the few businesses open year-round, Mountain Village is the town’s lifeblood. Some wonder if its sale will irrevocably alter the civic landscape and force out those who have withstood 35 below zero without electricity. Not likely. They breed them hardy in Stanley.

Long before the potential sale threatened their existence, Stanley’s townsfolk had to overcome the dramatic topography and weather. Walled between three rugged mountain ranges—the Salmon River Range on the north, the White Clouds on the east, and the Sawtooths on the south—Stanley has one of the most dramatic mountain backdrops in the West. Geologists say the valley was created by the Idaho Batholithic intrusion in Cretaceous times—some present-day locals described it more graphically as “the place where Hell freezes over.”

In pre-settlement times, Sheepeater Indians frequented the land, wisely only during the summers. In 1824, Alexander Ross, a Scottish schoolteacher, came in search of game for the Pacific Fur Co. According to his journals, more impressive than the plentiful elk, deer, salmon and beaver were the dozens of grizzly bears digging for camas lily bulbs near the headwaters of the Salmon River. “Rooting like a bunch of pigs, there were nine in one place. We shot seven at once.” Lucky for the bears, winter howled in and shoved the trappers toward Challis.

This quick exodus in the face of fierce forecasts became a pattern. Gold lured a second wave of dreamers shortly after Idaho became a territory in 1863. Trouble with hostile Indians, lack of supplies and the unbearable cold convinced them to move out quickly, but not before naming the area in honor of Capt. John Stanley, the oldest member of the party.

By 1917, cattlemen had noted that summer grass could be digested into dollar signs. Ranchers with surnames that still thrive in the region drove herds up and down the river with the seasons. Chivers, Thompsen, Ginis, McGown and Piva are names known by Stanley’s first postmaster and by today’s UPS driver. Tom Chivers, now living in Challis, remembers the winter of 1931, riding a sleigh from Clayton to Stanley in 60-below weather. “We’d stop at Robinson Bar Ranch and get hot stones to keep our feet from freezing.” The ranch, now the private retreat of singer-songwriter-environmentalist Carole King, is for sale for $19 million.

The advent of cars and a road over Galena Pass in the 1920s brought the largest population influx, both transient and permanent, into the Sawtooth Valley. It also gave birth to a bustling summer scene at Redfish Lake, which was no more than a sagging dock with row-boat rental until a sharp-shooting showman named Robert Limbert envisioned the lodge as it stands today.

Virginia Finkelnburg, a strikingly attractive octogenarian, was a well-known early Idaho aviatrix and raconteur of ruggedly won wisdom. She and her husband, Fink, raised their children on Loon Creek in the Yankee Fork during the late 1930s without electricity or running water. “I never saw a fist that could settle anything, so I tried to keep out of the swingin’,” she says in one of the oral history tapes at the Stanley Museum. “I always carried a rock hammer, good for killing rattlesnakes and chipping off a rock sample that wasn’t so big it would pull your pants down.” Virginia spent every summer in a cabin up the gold-dusty Yankee Fork road until she died last August. She agreed to have phone service put in two years ago when her health began to fail, but insisted on living her life the way it began, by the light of kerosene lamps. She is one of many who forged a life from the rock and the water.

A recent issue of the Stanley Insider proved her dated wisdom is worth following when it boasted that the town is “one of last places you can get in a fist-fight … for fun!” You can also buy a pack of Marlboros in a local bar, light up and blow smoke rings toward a ceiling decorated with women’s lace panties without getting a sideways glance. Such political incorrectness does not come without a rowdy history to back it up. Every resident over 70 remembers by lore or memory when Main Street offered gambling, fighting and dancing every night of the week in three clubs within 200 stumbling feet of each other.

Jake White, 31, a whitewater rafting and fly-fishing guide, says he stays here year-round for the opposite reason. “If I were in Ketchum, I’d just spend my money in a lot more bars. I stay here because I love the solitude and lack of useless distractions.” His opinion is shared by most of the 20- and 30-somethings who eke out a living by plowing the eternal snows or educating the handful of children during the four-day school week. In their words, “There’s no place like Stanley, in temperatures or views or lack of income.”

No one knows better the lawlessness, excitement and characters of Stanley’s hippie-haven days than the only “badge” in town at that time—forest ranger Tom Kovalicky. “Thirty-nine people wintered here in 1972,” says Kovalicky from behind the counter at his day job, tending to hopeful fishermen at McCoy’s Bait and Tackle Shop. “Tall Mary, at 6-foot-4, ran the Rod and Gun Club with Casanova Jack, and a French woman served whiskey and great hot sandwiches all night long at the Kasino Club. The town was famous and we earned it every night with no cop, no fire department and my station wagon as the only ambulance.” One of the community’s biggest complaints today is the preponderance of law enforcement cars corralling partiers along Highway 75. “The flashing blue lights have chased away the good times,” one local laments.

Dia Danner chose to stay year-round after her husband, Bob, a local flying legend and founder of Stanley Air Taxi, was killed in a flying accident several years ago. Her cabin sits atop the city’s runway in the shadow of the Sawtooths and is frequented by rogue cows and private planes ferrying millionaires from Los Angeles to summer homes. The ridges are dotted with their log fortresses, which blaze brightly but empty for eight months of the year. Dia savors “the gift of time” that she has discovered living among the peaks. Like most in the small community, she lives her life purposefully, volunteering at church and playing Debussy on her grand piano to friends by candlelight and the crackle of the wood stove. “Life is harder, especially for a single woman,” she says. “But the rewards are greater. If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.”

Becky and Tim Cron, owners of Stanley Baking Co., agree. Pancake-hungry customers swallow their in-demand stacks as fast as the pair can flip them. However, this young husband and wife see a future for Stanley that few business owners bother to pursue past Labor Day. Partnering with Becky’s sister, Kelli Kerns, they bought and self-renovated the downtown Sawtooth Hotel through three long winters. The beer and wine bar are now in full swing, promising old-fashioned boarding-house hospitality and inviting cross-country skiers to try the path less taken “over the hill.” Aligned with the chamber of commerce and other local merchants’ good intentions, the first annual Sawtooth Winter Fest is being planned to lure people up and over Galena Pass this January.

Jack and Ruth Niece, the most venerated of the old-timers, shake their heads at the news of the Sawtooth’s grand re-opening. Jack’s great-uncle Tink Niece settled the valley in 1906, built a thriving mercantile business and became the postmaster. Ruth and Jack still live on Niece Street, with Jack’s childhood home and icehouse 20 yards from their current log house The north side once served as the state liquor store where Ruth sold spirits until Bill Harrah moved it to the Mountain Village grocery in 1991. “Bill was a wonderful man,” says Ruth, who worked as his right-hand woman for over 25 years. “He loved Stanley and cared about the people who lived here. His two sons, Tony and John, don’t come here anymore. Who knows what will happen when the Mountain Village sells.”

Clichés become such only because they are true. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” the Nieces might be thinking as private planes roar in overhead and the next generation of hardy residents bang hammers, count salmon and brave wicked winters, preserving the unique, hard-won treasures of Stanley.


Stanley, Idaho in the late 1930s.

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“I always carried a rock hammer, good for killing rattlesnakes and chipping off a rock sample that wasn’t so big it would pull your pants down.”
Virginia Finkelnburg

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“I remember trying to introduce myself to someone in town and he said, ‘Never mind, don’t tell me your name until you’re still here next spring.’”
Hannah Stauts, mayor of Stanley

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Photos by Karen Day

Harper Crabtree, the author’s son, at home on his own wide-open space at the Salmon River Lodge, Stanley.