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.
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.
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.
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.
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.