Fighting to Save a Homestead Heritage in Salmon, Idaho

Lemhi County’s Homesteading Communities Dig in their Heels as Modern Times Encroach

homestead-heritage

Nestled in an isolated river valley, Lemhi County’s homestead heritage hadn’t changed much in a century. Sacajawea, Shoshone guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, was born there. Pioneers first established Fort Lemhi as a Mormon community, then the Old West town of Salmon sprouted up to supply Leesburg mines. Now Leesburg is a ghost town while Salmon struggles to live on.

This is where I grew up. I remember the musky tang of horse sweat beneath leather and the acrid sweetness of thrashed sagebrush after a summer storm. I recall old cowboy songs and the jingling of my dad’s spurs on cattle drives. White frazzle ice floats down a river that steams in the subzero air. It was a simple homesteading paradise where we raised, grew, or hunted most of our food.

I recently came home for Thanksgiving, hoping to again smell sagebrush or to hear the cowboy songs. But the horses were out to pasture and the jingling spurs had been silenced.

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Building a Homestead Heritage

Beside my dad’s rock fireplace, I discussed with Edward Tolman what had happened in the years since I left.

Edward’s grandparents came to the valley during the Great Depression. Ed and Maude Corbett carried their children but little else. They purchased land that had belonged to Idaho’s first state governor, growing potatoes and row crops in the summer and cutting firewood in the winter. The Corbetts accomplished simple homesteading with chickens, turkeys, pigs, and a couple draft horses used to work the land. They next purchased a few dairy cattle. Farming along with animal husbandry, they slowly rebuilt what they’d had before. In 1951, their daughter Beth married Rex Tolman.

My father and Edward called the same man “Dad.” It was said Rex Tolman raised more kids than cattle.

My dad started spending his boyhood summers there in 1958, just before Rex bought rangeland in the mountains near the Salmon River. Dad worked to develop the rangeland, building water troughs and fences by hand. Rex’s first beef cattle were the result of a neighbor’s bull that got in with a herd of dairy cows. Rex bought the heifer offspring. He slowly built up to 225 head. In the spring, he drove the cattle into the rangeland with the help of horses, his family, and kids sent to work on the ranch. He brought the cattle back to the valley as temperatures plummeted. The lifestyle continued for about 35 years.

As a child I rode behind those cattle, slowly pushing them along county roads until we reached the corrals. But I graduated from high school in 1995 and moved to a bigger city.

That was when the cattle drives stopped.

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Technology Accelerates and Ranching Slows Down

Edward names two main factors in their decision to stop working the rangeland: Rex and Ed’s declining health and the influx of new residents in the valley. Those growing up in Lemhi County didn’t mind cattle drives on winding county roads, but newcomers with no homestead heritage were intolerant. They didn’t understand open range ranching laws, didn’t want to slow down on the highway, and they didn’t appreciate the cow pies. Ranchers adjusted by trucking their cattle to and from rangeland. But Edward cites finances as the third factor. Transportation was just too expensive. If it wasn’t for the health issues, Edward estimates they could have continued raising beef cattle for another decade. But it wasn’t going to last forever.

For a while, the focus shifted to dairy cattle. Both Rex and Ed passed on, leaving the ranch to Edward. He milked the Holsteins and sold to the local creamery. Then the creamery shut down around 2003. Local dairymen sold their milk to a facility a few hundred miles away. Then gas prices skyrocketed. Nobody could afford to ship their milk out of town and local customers couldn’t support all the dairies. The milk ran dry as ranchers sold their cattle.

Of all the ranchers who used to raise cattle, some now work government jobs such as BLM, Forest Service and Department of Fish and Game. Others have left town. Some ranchers work the land while their wives, those who would have stayed home with children two decades ago, work in town. Usually, at least one or both spouses work off the farm to pay bills and attain medical insurance.

My father grew up in Lemhi County but served in the Navy for twenty-two years so he could bring his family back to Salmon. Even with his Navy pension, he worked a full-time job and hired out part-time to Rex; we raised our food as a family so Dad didn’t have to pay for that as well.

Problems Aren’t All Rural

Even in town, people struggle to maintain their homestead heritage. When I was a child, those that didn’t ranch still sewed clothing, gardened and preserved their own food. Salmon’s local businesses were enough for them. But as ranchers sold out, the largest employer in the town became the government.

“One farmer or rancher could produce five jobs,” Edward explained. “Ranchers also support the parts houses and implements dealers, creating a sustainable economy because you have to be improving and evolving. Natural resources produce jobs. But one government worker produces one job.”

When Edward grew up, the main industries were mining, logging, and ranching. But logging ended twenty years ago and the last mine closed down within the last decade. Now only half of the ranches are still going, and half of that land is now owned by corporations. There aren’t enough customers to keep local businesses alive.

For a while, the town promoted to tourism. The wild and scenic Salmon River runs through the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states. Local businesses erected Old West facades on their storefronts. School teachers guided river rafting expeditions during summer vacations. But many tourists don’t want to travel hundreds of miles past the last airport.

When the Internet took hold, storefronts couldn’t compete. Main Street Cards and Gifts, the town’s final outlet for print books, held on as long as they could. Now Lemhi County residents must buy their books online.

Edward says the future is bleak.

The way of life died when people like his father passed on, those who could take the time to teach children to follow in their footsteps. Parents now have to work additional jobs to pay the bills. By the time they get home, they’re too exhausted to teach skills that their parents taught them.

Only 8 percent of Lemhi County is privately owned, which doesn’t bring in much tax money for the schools. Fewer young families choose to stay because they can’t make ends meet. Most of Edward’s own children have moved on, except for one son who returned despite his father’s admonitions to stay within a better economy. Now that son works three jobs in order to raise his family in the countryside he loves. But he doesn’t run cattle like the generations before him. That part of their homestead heritage has moved on.

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Digging In and Moving Forward

A few ranchers still drive their cattle to and from the rangeland, using trucks and four-wheelers instead of horses. But it’s more of a business than a way of life. The horses stand in pastures, coming out only for pleasure riding.

Kevin Rice has managed to keep ranching. When I asked how he did it, he explained that when times are tough, you get out there and work double. Kevin sold his dairy cattle at the same time Edward did. He was paying as much for gas in a month that he used to pay in a year. Unlike Edward, Kevin doesn’t drive his beef cattle to and from rangeland. He rents the pastures adjacent to his ranch, from the children of other ranchers who have passed on. Instead of transporting his cattle, he just walks to the next property. Kevin’s wife now holds a job in town, though she was able to stay at home when their children were still young. Tammy’s job provides food and health insurance and it’s just enough to make ends meet.

The bills will lighten up a little for Kevin. He just paid off his mortgage. But when I asked what he foresees regarding his ranch, he just chuckled. “Well,” he said, “a corporation will probably end up owning it.” Most of Kevin’s children have moved away from Lemhi County and have no interest in ranching. His grandchildren are intrigued by their homestead heritage but Kevin says they have no idea how much work is involved.

The few remaining family-owned ranches have had to evolve. Most raise specialty breeds such as Angus. They no longer operate as homesteads that incorporate sustainability and a way of life for their families. It’s all about paying the bills.

Saving the Fish Saves the Ranchers

The biggest saving grace for local ranchers is a new conservation easement. Several breeds of fish residing in the valley also reside on the Endangered Species List. The region’s power company is required by the government to put millions of dollars per year into fish habitat to combat any damage or controversy done by dams. A land trust pays the locals not to develop their ranches in order to preserve fish habitat. By fencing rivers and preserving habitat, the easement has funneled enough money to keep a few ranchers afloat, preserving their way of life.

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Ranching Slows Down and Technology Accelerates

New rays of hope shine within Salmon.

McPherson’s clothing store is still in business, tenacious through the 110 years since Governor Shoup and his brother bought stock in M.N.M. McPherson and opened the store. It still resides in the original building, built of brick made only a few miles away.

Some former residents are moving back. Selph Jewelry, owned by a family that moved away because they couldn’t make ends meet, can now exist within Salmon because of the Internet. The owner has a small store on Main Street but most of his inventory is sold online.

Along the Salmon River lies a farm owned by newcomers. They don’t raise cattle; instead, they sell organic produce at the local farmer’s market. And the market itself strives to revitalize the economy, offering fresh produce every Saturday from June through October. At the end of the season, it hosts an apple festival with cider made from trees all over the valley.

Just eight miles outside of Salmon sits the Baker Country Market, owned and operated by Amish families who moved to rural Idaho for the conservative, small-town lifestyle. They combine their own homestead heritage with just enough technology to maintain a thriving business. Residents of Lemhi County are delighted with the new source of Amish-made supplies featuring food preservation methods and groceries that the locals no longer have time to produce.

The future is still uncertain for Lemhi County. But it’s certain the old way of life won’t remain. That homestead heritage is gone. Modernization is here to stay and farming is small-scale and simple. Growth may occur because of the Internet as retailers sell their goods nationwide or locals telecommute to their day jobs while maintaining smaller hobby farms after-hours.

Though my children don’t have memories of sagebrush and cowboy songs, I hope to retire in Idaho someday. I want to continue on the land my own family worked. But it’ll take a mix of the old ways and modern times to preserve my homestead heritage.

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Comments
  • I love that small town, and in a way I would love to move back. However, I worry about even finding work to make ends meet. My husband is an accountant, and with 3 or so accountants already in town, there wouldn’t be much business. Plus, a lot of the older people are still clinging desperately to the old ways and resist any development, but without any development the town will die off in 20 years.

    Reply
  • What a wonderful article. My husband and I moved up to Tendoy 16 years ago and know many of the ranchers you talk about. It is sad that things have to change, but this will be our home forever.

    Reply
  • I love this site. My daughter & I live in Salmon. She has a house at Daisy & Shoup with Gov. Shoup’s home across the street

    Reply
  • My first introduction to Salmon was in mid 1950s. I was a sailor stationed in Idaho (not a miss print) . I was courting my soon to become my wife, who’s parents lived in Salmon. Not many sailors can say they pulled liberty in Salmon ID. By the way my wife past away not long ago. Many small towns and areas have the same problems as the area around Salmon. I was born and raised In a farming community in Nebraska.

    Reply
  • I thought your article was excellently written. Thanks for helping to explain what has happened to this wonderful community and why. Everyone works so hard to maintain the lifestyle.
    My favorite childhood memories were of summers spent at my Grandparents ranch in Salmon on the same lane that Edward and Kevin grew up. I loved these ranching families and have mourned this loss of lifestyle and the passing on of talents, skills and abilities that was unique to that generation. My mom says that she had the best childhood and grew up in the best place ever in spite of the Great Depression and World War II and it was because of being surrounded by uncles, aunts, cousins and friends that made up the community of Salmon.

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  • I first stayed at Ed Corbett’s place, my relative, in 1958 for 2 weeks. I was 12. My two brothers and I worked there in the summers. I continued every summer working for “Uncle Ed” and Rex Tolman. I helped Beth, mowed hay on the Big Johnny Pop (John Deere Tractor) and raked hay. We had a crew to stack hay and in my teens my younger brother and I stacked a 13 layer stack on the Howard Simms ranch below Ed’s. My sister would come down from Uncle Bill’s ranch, Ed’s brother and help hauling and stacking hay, and we would go up river to help Uncle Bill do his hay. We had such a great time working with the fellows. The boys had to keep working hard because my sister and I didn’t stop. Rex really liked that. Rex would then let us go to the drive in movies on some weekends, or to the Salmon Hot Springs. We loved going up there to swim in that dimly lit pool. After Uncle Ed purchased Hat Creek Ranch, I spent a good deal of the summer riding the range, fixing fence, and putting in a mile long pipe line, then adding to it later. It helped water the cattle high in the mountains so they grazed higher up. We learned well how to work. Stringing barb wire fence and putting in the posts were tough and again we had a crew. Uncle Ed had pack horses and we hauled that wire and posts in on them to most places. He had a great horse, “Diamond” that would carry a water trough upside down over his whole body. I mean it was over his head and rump. Those troughs were made of metal. I came back every summer until I married at 29. My husband loved Salmon as well and we purchased a home on 7 acres of the old Shoup Ranch. Again, we came in the summers. I have now retired from teaching in Montpelier, Idaho and we have permanently moved back into our home. We love the beautiful skies and country of Salmon. Thank you so much for the beautiful article you wrote about my family. What actually was our connection? Uncle Ed was the nephew of my Grandmother Corbett Argyle. From the time he was 4 years old he rode with her to tend sheep. He adored her. She passed away when leaving my mother age 8, and Uncle age 5. Uncle Ed asked us to stay because he loved her and invited my elder brother a job and then took us in. We have wonderful memories and miss Beth, Rex, and Ed so much.

    Reply
  • Marissa, it just dawned on me while I was laying in bed. You must be Frank’s daughter. Of course, you know all this because we worked together on the ranch and range.

    Reply
  • Some of my fondest memories are of time spent with Rex & Beth, and “Uncle Ed”. My favorite summer was spent in the milk barn, and riding with Uncle Ed, though I am sure that I only slowed him down, it was my job to follow him around in case he had heart problems. As it was, he would ride farther in a day at a trot than I could handle 🙂 Sore!!!
    We spent summer “vacations” at Hat Creek – riding old Sparky, Chacho, and Charger…those were kid’s horses…I still remember watching Brett ride on the air strip, and his horse decided it was time to quit (or it got a wild hair). It came running for the barn, and would have beat any Kentucky Derby winner. 🙂

    Those were the days for sure!

    Reply
  • I grew up at the mouth of Perreau Creek, next to Corbetts and Tolmans. I spent my fair share of time working cows at Hat Creek with Ed Corbett. What a wonderful life leaving me with so many fond memories.

    Reply
  • I lived at the mouth of Spring Creek. About two miles from Shoup. As kids it was a great place to be. It was years ago when the mines were working and the sawmill. It was tough for our parents but as kids we were not aware of the war and hardships.Also have lived in Salmon and mined in Lemhi co.

    Reply
  • just a question. I am familiar with Homestead Heritage in Texas. Are you affliated with them.

    Reply
    • Hello, Sarah – There is not affiliation to the Homestead Heritage in Texas. Thanks! ~Steph

      Reply

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