Around 1927, Vic and Clyta Hicks moved their family from their homestead in Pahsimeroi, Idaho to Yellow Jacket. Like so many folks trying to make a living in those days, Vic was looking for a bit of good luck to go in his favor.
Years before, he moved his family onto the homestead in Pahsimeroi, but he couldn’t secure enough water to get a good crop. Neighbors on bigger places had rights to the water in agreements that were decades old. Even from a canal his father-in-law helped build that ran next to his property, the water was already claimed. Water has always been sacred to ranchers and farmers. It’s their life-blood. If you don’t have water, you’re done as a rancher or farmer.
After trying unsuccessfully to secure water rights, Vic ran a small logging operation in Patterson, further up the valley, but that petered-out. So he and Clyta decided to take his team of horses, Dot and Gyp, and try to find work in Yellow Jacket. The mining operation in that area had started back up and Vic figured he could do some freighting or whatever else he could find. The family moved out in a wagon loaded with all their possessions and pulled by the two big blacks, Dot and Gyp.
Vic and Clyta’s son Harry, who was 11 years-old at the time, wrote about this event in his life history written in 1974. Here are some excerpts taken directly from his memoir regarding the move to Yellow Jacket.
“The first day, we headed up to the Morgan Creek divide. Mom and dad rode in the covered wagon seat. That prized team of horses; I remember their hooves were the size of the bottom of a nail keg. They weighed 2200 pounds each.
I’ve seen my Uncle Earl, as good a teamster as dad, risk his life as a showman trick on the performance of that team by casting aside the lines and directing the horses by talk alone. ‘Up a little, up a little, whoa back, who back!’ and so on.
When Dot and Gyp got old, dad sold the team to the city of Salmon where they sprinkled the streets, pulling the sprinkler wagon up and down the streets to settle the dust. The old fellow that drove them would crawl off the water wagon and visit with someone on the street or get a shot of bootleg and catch the team on the way back to the filler hydrant!”
“The first night we camped above the old Kingsbury ranch on what was Big Creek, now Panther Creek. While dad made camp, mom caught enough big trout for supper and breakfast the next morning. She tied a knot loop in a string and flipped the fish out of the water onto the bank. That night, we sat by the fire and told stories until I fell asleep.
The next day, we pulled into the stage station on Big Creek in Forney. The place was run by a typical French pioneer, Milt Merritt, with his big moss-horn mustache and broken French language. Mom got a job working there as a cook for the freighters that stopped in there regularly, and for the pilgrims, salesmen, miners, and such that came along the road. Dad went on to Yellow Jacket to find us a place to get settled-in.
My sister and I started school in Forney. The schoolhouse was a mile or so below town. The O’Conner kids went to school there, too.
I would meet every freight string of wagons as they came in, and I got to know them all. There was Hilliard Griebbler, who was from Tennessee and drove an 8 or 10 mule hitch. He had a jockey-box full of rocks and would cuss and throw rocks at the leaders because he couldn’t reach them with his whip. Then there was Ferrill Terry, a gently saint, but all man, who had a great sense of humor. I later worked for him in the CCCs.
I remember Charlie Mitchell, the stage driver. His boy Charlie and I went to school together in Salmon later on. Then there was Curt Roberts, another ring-tailed, rootin-tootin, mean son-of-a-gun from Tennessee, same as Rufus Isley.” (Harry Hicks History)
For some reason, the old cuss who worked the stage station intrigued me. I did some research and found a short volume of oral Idaho history given in 1969 by Wayne O’Conner – from the same O’Conner family mentioned by Harry Hicks in his personal history. According to O’Conner, the Milt Merritt mentioned above – the man who ran the stage station – was killed a couple years after the Hicks’ moved through Forney in 1927.
It would be well to mention a bit about the O’Conner family who ranched in Forney. The family migrated to Idaho from Iowa in the 1890s. Wayne was the son of Frank and Belle O’Conner, and he was born in 1897. O’Conners moved to Forney in 1907 and lived on the ranch there for some time. The interview I found was one given to Don Smith in Salmon in October 1969. Wayne discussed events in Forney near the same time this story takes place.
Wayne’s father Frank “drove the mail route to the Singiser mine, Meyer’s Cove, and on into Yellow Jacket.” He was killed in 1912 after being thrown from his horse. After his father died, the rest of the family continued proving up the ranch near Forney.
According to Wayne O’Conner, Milt Merritt’s name was actually Malcomb Benjamin Merritt, but people called him Milt or Malc for short. Merritt was a “little, short, heavy-set fellow and was crooked as could be. He was in horse stealing for a long time until the government got after him. He’d been into so much trouble, and been in the courts and everything, over shooting at people and stealing cattle and so on.” According to O’Conner, nobody felt very bad when somebody shot and killed him – even the Sheriff – who was Tommy Stroud at the time, seemed to care much. An investigation was done by the sheriff and his deputy, Vaughan Clark, but everyone had a solid alibi, and the case was eventually dropped and closed. The year Merritt was killed was 1934. (Interview with Wayne O’Conner, 1969)
Harry Hicks’ account of Yellow Jacket continues.
“Later that fall, we were to leave the schoolhouse at Forney and mother was to leave the cooking job, and we were to move over to Yellow Jacket. The road as I remember went up the same side creek where Forney was located, not the canyon where the O’Conner ranch is now. Mrs. O’Conner raised several good boys and girls there after her husband’s death. I believe I knew them all; they are scattered all over – same as we all.
We got an early start out of Forney. I remember the sounds the horses made as they pulled the two wagons with our stuff and junk – the creak of the leather and the jingle of the chains and the smells of the horses and plump, plump of those huge feet as they set down on anything. I could hardly keep my head on my shoulders as it kept rocking around; this part of the road was creek bottom. It became easier as the road began to rise and climb.
Along in the evening, we came to the town of Yellow Jacket. The town had it beginnings through Mr. Steen. Much later, my wife and I was to get to know the son of Mr. Steen – a man in his forties – Heber Steen – and we became good friends.
What a thrill it was to see the town itself – such a hurry and scurry of building. There was a carnival-like attitude in everyone. And the change in dress confirmed each kind of work. The general working type men wore overalls and logger boots and jackets. The company men wore tight legged pants and tight-laced boots.
We pulled our wagons in at the wagon yard. The big team shook their harnesses and gave a sigh. Everyone gathered around our outfit to see such a big team of horses, and the men began to carry on a familiar conversation with father. Some had already heard about the big team that had come up from the Camas Prairie several years ago. They had seen them in Challis at a pulling contest.
After the talk, we put the horses in the barn where they had to duck their heads to enter. Then they called for grain with a soft-coaxing whinny. They were fed hay and oats, and we broke open an extra bale of hay, as we would be sleeping in the barn too.” (Harry Hicks History)
Note: For those wishing to visit Yellow Jacket, Idaho, please keep in mind that much of the property around the old townsite is privately owned.
Anyone who would like a copy of the 1969 interview with Wayne O’Conner, please send me a message via email.