Idaho Pioneers: Robert and Anna Hicks

Robert and Anna Hicks

On March 31, 1881, Robert and Anna Hicks, with their two kids, Marion and Ethel, loaded their wagon and headed west out of Kansas. They were looking for a better way of life – to breath air that hadn’t already been breathed. The Homestead Act of 1862 promised 160 acres to those who were looking for land to settle on, improve, and farm. The plan was to find a new place in what is now Washington state.

Robert’s and Anna’s spirit of exploration and industry was inherited from a long line of hard-working farmers from Virginia who came to America during the mid-1700s. Robert’s dad, Jacob, was born in Virginia. He ended up in Kansas by way of Ohio and Missouri. “He was an honest and scientious man, a good neighbor, a kind and loving husband and father.” He married Harriet Hall in 1837.

Jacob and Harriet

Anna’s family was from Missouri. Her dad, William Henry Lile, fought for the Confederacy and was captured and sent to prison in Alton, Illinois. He took the Oath of Allegiance to the North and was then set free. He walked home to Missouri and died a few months later due to the deplorable conditions put upon him while in prison. His wife, Sarah Angeline, lived on and kept the Lile legacy alive.

Front: Henry Lile, Sarah Angeline Lile; Back: Lucy Lile, Anna Lile

Robert and Anna followed the Oregon Trail along with some other folks from Kansas looking for a better life. Within a few months, the wagon train combined with another coming from Texas and together, they traveled on to Cokeville, Wyoming where they all decided to spend the winter of 1881-82.

Robert worked at getting lumber and making railroad ties for the Union Pacific Railroad. Anna helped cook for the laborers. In Cokeville, Robert received a bullet from a “quick triggered” bad man and was nursed back to health by Anna. He was shot in defense of chivalry and respect for the women of the wagon train which he was traveling with.

In the spring, the wagon train set out again on the Emigrant Trail. This trail led up through Eagle Rock, now Idaho Falls, Idaho, through Arco, Bellevue, and Camas Prairie. The beauty of the prairie and green grass was a sight to behold and the party split. 

Big Camas Prairie (Terry Eggers, 2018)

The Hicks’ stayed along with Andrew Fletcher, M.L. Davis, Jonas and Wilson Carter (brothers). Andrew Fletcher settled at the head of Chimney Creek. Here he built a dug-out in the side of the hill and settled for the winter. Jonas and Wilson Carter selected land at the head of Corral Creek. Martin and Sarah Davis settled on a branch of Corral Creek. Robert and Anna Hicks settled on a creek further up the Prairie called Hicks Creek, now called Boardman’s Creek. They too built a dug-out for winter accommodations.

It was necessary to stockpile food for the winter, so the men arranged to return to Kelton, Utah which was the terminus of the railroad. Robert and Anna claimed two, 160-acre plots – one wooded and one for farming.

In 1886, Robert made a deal with some newcomers to the prairie. H.F. McCarter and his family bought both parcels of the Hicks’ land. As far as is known, the McCarter family still owns and operates the farm to this day.

The Hicks’ moved their family to what was called, The Swamp, in Camas Prairie. They lived there for some time. Some surmise that Robert grew tired of farming and was attracted to the mining operations that were cropping up throughout Idaho. Small, private claims were being developed all over the state, and Robert wanted in on the prospects of a more lucrative future.

So, Robert moved his family north to Salmon and filed claims to minerals rights on a place above town, near Stormy Peak. He created a high-pressure water system to wash the soil into his sluice boxes, where the gold collected. According to family records, Robert shared the water with a rancher below his claims. The pressure system operated on the principle of gravity, so it took some time to build up enough water up-stream to create pressure.

Robert’s claim cabin: Doris Hicks (Robert’s Granddaughter-in-law) 2006

Robert built a cabin near his claims and lived there throughout the week. On weekends, he headed back to town to be with Anna and the kids. Legend has it that at one point in his mining operations, Robert hired a man to do roustabout work on the claim. The man turned out to be a thief and was caught stealing some of the gold stored in the cabin.

After a heated argument, Robert ended up shooting the man. The guy reportedly stayed alive and made his way back to town where he filed a complaint with the local law enforcement in Salmon. The officer who took the report told the man, “You were caught stealing Mr. Hicks’ gold. I would’ve shot you, too!” No charges were brought in the case.

Anna died in June, 1928. Robert died five years later in February 1933. Both are buried in the Gooding, Idaho cemetery.  

Lessons from an Old Mine

The Bugs Bunny, Road Runner Hour was my favorite cartoon in 1969. A few years before when we lived in Boise, I took dad’s police gun out of the holster early one Saturday morning and tried to shoot the Road Runner. I figured Wile E Coyote needed some help, and I had a good shot!

Dad came home from working night shift as a deputy Sheriff. He committed a huge error and simply forgot to put his gun up. I watched dad shoot that .357 magnum revolver; I knew how it worked. How nice of him to leave it laying there for me! I figured I’d be famous around here if I took care of Road Runner for that stupid Coyote.

Well, while I was trying to make the gun work and blast a hole in Road Runner through the TV, my brother was in my parent’s room telling on me! Suddenly dad appeared in a flash and disarmed me.

“Jeff, don’t ever take this gun out of the holster again unless I say you can. Do you understand me?!” he yelled, with a bunch of swear words thrown in.

“Okay, dad,” I said.

And before I could explain my genius plans to shoot Road Runner, he disappeared into his bedroom mumbling something about those darn kids, except he didn’t say darn. I looked over at my brother and gave him the evil eye. That morning I learned my first lesson about gun safety. I also learned that I couldn’t get away with anything if Mike was going to tattle on me. All I wanted was to accomplish something important, like shooting Road Runner. But Mike was my buddy – sometimes – when I wasn’t hating him for beating me up or telling on me.

Saturday was cartoon day – a day more sacred than Sunday and church. My brother and I got up Saturday mornings before the TV stations came on the air. It was customary to sit and watch the test pattern until cartoons started. We didn’t want to miss anything; it was our routine. Dad and mom didn’t’ mind as long as we weren’t noisy and wake them up.

So, you can imagine how mad we were early one crisp fall Saturday morning shortly after moving to Salmon, when mom came in and ordered us outside. “Get out of here, you two! I don’t want to see you around here till this evening. Go play in the field, throw rocks in the river, go on a hike. Just get out of the house; it’s a nice day! Here’s your lunch.”  She handed Mike an old Army surplus day pack with a couple apples and sandwiches inside.

We stood on our huge front porch for a couple minutes. “I don’t think mom likes us anymore,” I said.

“Oh, shut up, Jeff,” Mike said. “You’re always worried about stupid stuff.” I was only five years old. I’m not sure what stupid stuff he was talking about. I was sensitive to the fact that mom didn’t want me around. And I was ticked that she had the audacity to turn off our cartoons right in the middle of Scooby-Doo!

As I was standing there contemplating my deep thoughts, Mike was scanning the horizon. “Hey, let’s walk up to that old mine!” He pointed to a mine across the valley. “We could eat our lunch there and throw rocks into the hole,” he said.

“Alright,” I said. “Sally! Here Sally!” I called to our dog. She came running up with her tail wagging. Let’s go, pooch! And we headed out. I figured since Mike had just turned seven, he could lead the way. What could go wrong? He was practically an adult as far as I knew.

It took us at least a couple hours of steady walking to get to the mine. Of course, we stopped along the way and threw rocks at stuff. Sally chased a few rabbits and killed a mouse. We even scared up a few deer that went bouncing away.

In our new hometown of Salmon, I thought it was cool we could play anywhere we wanted. In Boise, we had our whole neighborhood to roam. But here, there were miles of open land, mountains, and forests. I felt lucky to be a kid in this place. I suddenly felt sorry for all of my buddies back in Boise who were probably standing around with nothing to do but throw rocks at the neighbor kids up the street.

Those days were behind me; I was a ‘country kid’ now; whatever that meant. I now had better things to do. Well, I did kind of miss those big rock fights. But a few months before moving, I broke the neighbor’s car window during a street rumble. Mom and dad said I couldn’t have a bike until they had paid for the window.  

When my brother and I finally made it to the mine, we were tired – no question about that! We sat on some old rusty equipment and ate our lunch. “I’ll bet there’s some gold hidden in that cave,” I said to Mike.

“Yeah, I heard some cowboys were being chased by bad guys and hid their gold in there,” Mike said. “But they probably came back and got it. Or somebody stole it from them.”

“No, I think it’s still in there somewhere,” I said.

So, we walked into the opening of the mine and looked around.  In our romantically adventurous minds, those sacks of gold had to be in here somewhere.

We didn’t find those cowboys’ gold, but we did have a lot of fun throwing rocks at old mine equipment, yelling down the mine shaft, and basking in the excitement of our newly discovered playground with the quaint name of ‘No Trespassing’ posted on a sign at the entrance.

When we got home that evening, mom had supper on the table. It was a good thing. We were starved! We discussed our adventures of the day while we ate beef and potatoes and drank some fresh cow’s milk. “You boys be careful playing around those old mines,” dad said. “You fall down a mine shaft; that’ll be the end of you.”  

How It All Started

“It’ll feel better when it quits hurting,” is what dad always said when I got to blubbering too much. Perhaps there is more to that phrase than just getting a kid to stop whining. I don’t want to get too philosophical here. But maybe that phrase is what’s defined my drive to keep looking over the next horizon – just looking for a way to assuage what was hurting at that moment.

As a kid growing up in the rough-and-tumble town of Salmon, physical pain is not all of it, not by a long shot. The pain of broken dreams, lost loves, forgotten friendships, and ‘what could’ve been’ should be thrown in there too. Life as a kid growing up in those ‘olden’ days could hurt, but there were so many happy moments! Optimism to stop the ‘hurting’ became the incentive to keep getting out of bed in the morning in my pursuit of happiness. And believe me; I pursued that happiness with great gusto!

I was a kid who survived never wearing a bike helmet, no seat-belts, riding in the back of a pickup, drinking out of a garden hose and creek, shooting guns off the front porch, jumping over mine shafts, playing with dynamite caps, not wearing a life jacket, and driving cars long before most kids these days get their first bike.

I’d like to say this story has a humble beginning and a heroic end, just like in all those Louis L’Amour books I read back in the day. But we all know the story of a person’s childhood doesn’t really end; it just transforms into a story of adulthood. But all strung together, those youthful plots and subplots are quite interesting and maybe a bit fascinating. It’s like one big story of survival, but is also a love story, a mystery, a comedy, and a story of redemption.

This is the first episode of many and tells how it all began. I’ll go back a hundred fifty years and check in on my people – the ancestors that started the family rock rolling – at least for my story.

The .38 Colt that Robert Hicks wore in 1881 had seen some use. Most men and a lot of women kept a gun handy in those days. The Civil War had been over for 15 years, but for some, anger and hatred were still raw. Folks just couldn’t take any chances. So, Robert strapped that gun on every morning and kept it hanging on his bed post at night.

Robert and Anna

Robert wanted to make a go of it in Kansas, where he grew up. There was land to be had and it was a good enough place to settle down and raise a family with his wife – the dark-haired Anna Lile. But he just never felt settled. Kansas was his dad’s country, but it never seemed to be his. Memories of the war still caused him nightmares. And his sweetheart, Anna, whose dad fought and died for the Confederacy, wanted to make a new start somewhere else – away from the politics and anger.

So, the two made up their minds. As soon as the next spring hit, young Robert and Anna set out for parts unknown. They headed west, like so many others. They were people who wanted to leave the past behind and find a new future – any future. Sometimes new scenery and new challenges were all it took to drive out the bad memories. And God only knew that for some, the war never ended.

To say the couple just jumped in their wagon with their two kids and moved to Idaho would be correct. But in the 1800’s nothing was done that easily. First, they hitched up with a bunch of other settlers moving west. It was the best way to guarantee survival, as much of the territory they planned to travel through was hostile and dangerous.

Robert got in a gun battle with a man in Wyoming where he and Annie stopped for a few months to earn some money, working for the railroad. Some unnamed guy was smarting-off at and dishonoring some of the women in the wagon train and Robert took it upon himself to send some hot lead that man’s direction. That .38 was his choice of tools. During the fight, Robert was shot at least once. Anna spent the next few months nursing him back to health.

When he was able to travel again, Robert and Anna and their kids headed out. The next stop was Central Idaho in what was then known as Big Camas Prairie. Idaho has three distinct places with the name Camas Prairie – two in the central part of the state and one up north, near present day Grangeville. When Robert and Anna saw the rolling hills and broad, grassy fields of Big Camas Prairie, they decided their journey was over. This was to be their new home.

Robert staked claim to two 160-acre plots of ground – one a farm stake and the other, a timber stake. Since there was no home to move into, there would be some work to do. To buy some time and provide a roof and some comfort for his family, the family moved into a cave nearby. That damp, cold darkness is where they lived during their first year on the prairie. Corral Creek flowed out of the lush, green canyon where they settled. And their little community adopted that name, as well: Corral.

Robert and Anna had thirteen kids – ten of them born in Corral, out on the Camas Prairie. They were Marion, Ethel, Ida, Victor, Minnie (died at birth), Harry, Orla, Jesse, Robert, Gladys, Altha, Alma, and Sarah. Altha and Alma were twins. Victor was my great grandfather.

Vic, as he was known, grew up and attended the one-room schoolhouse in Corral. In 1886, Robert sold his land to H.F. McCarter, a newcomer from Virginia, and moved his family a few miles away to what was known to the locals as ‘The Swamp.’ Vic grew up like the other kids on the Camas Prairie – working hard and getting schooled in the art of survival.

When he was in his late teens, Vic moved north to Pahsimeroi with his brother Jesse. Vic distinguished himself in those parts as a man who could handle a team of horses with great skill and ease. Living in Pahsimeroi, he met Clyta, who was a daughter in the rough Walker clan – mountain folks from Missouri.

According to family legend, Clyta was actually adopted into the Walker clan as an infant. The way the story went, Grandma Walker lost a baby during childbirth. She was so distraught over the loss of her baby, she drifted into depression and couldn’t be consoled. Grandpa Walker, looking for a way to help his lovely wife find happiness, rode up to an encampment of gypsies living at the top end of the long valley. He did some bargaining with those folks and rode back home with a beautiful, dark-haired baby girl swaddled in blankets to protect her from the harsh winter cold. They named the baby Clyta. Almost exactly 20 years later, she met and married Vic Hicks.

Clyta and Victor

My grandfather Harry was born to Vic and Clyta in 1916 in Pahsimeroi. He was born on a cold winter day in January. The midwife, Granny Meltzer, who helped deliver him, traveled all night on a rawhide slip tied behind “Wild Horse Bill” Hamilton’s horse. Harry survived his birth and grew up, the son of a miner and teamster. He moved from Pahsimeroi to Yellowjacket and finally to Salmon where the family settled down and Harry went to school.

In Yellowjacket, Harry learned the ‘art of the deal’ as a young entrepreneur making ‘two bits’ for every cigar he watched at the big dance hall. The deal was, the young boy would watch the miners’ smokes as they danced. Harry nearly met his death in Yellowjacket when some of his enemies – bullies in town – decided to hang him. Luckily, a miner happened by and cut Harry down from the makeshift gallows before he died.

Later, as a kid in Salmon, Harry worked with his dad running a pack string down the Salmon River on the old Sheep Eater Indian Trail to supply mining operations. One can still see the old trail if they look for it opposite the river road.

Harry met Doris Brown at a dance in Salmon. Doris had moved to town a few years before from Wyoming. Her dad was a rancher and ran his cattle on a piece of steep ground up the 4th of July Creek canyon. Harry was a rough customer – one of the last bonefide Cowboys of the Old West. Doris was the pretty daughter in a good Mormon family. Despite their differences, Harry and Doris married a few months after meeting and settled down in Salmon.

Doris and Harry

In 1942, shortly after World War II had gotten underway, a little blonde-haired boy was the last kid born to Harry and Doris. Mike grew up on River Street in Salmon in the house ‘that Harry built with nothing more than a plumb bob, a Spirit Level, and a hammer.’ When he was a young teen, Mike worked at his brother-in-law Carol Jarvis’ gas station in Cobalt. He drove over the ridge road every weekend after school – snow, rain, or shine – and pumped gas for the miners.

One day at work, a beautiful young girl named Birdie King was visiting Cobalt with her friend. Birdie looked over at the cool kid running the gas pumps and announced to her friend, “That is the boy I’m going to marry someday.” They both giggled and walked off. Around five years later, Mike and Birdie were, indeed, married.

The young couple ended up in Boise so Mike could attend Boise State College. To support his family during school, Mike worked as a Deputy for the Ada County Sheriff’s Department. He distinguished himself as a law officer, making ‘policeman of the year’ and getting lunch with the governor. A few years in a row, Mike received recognition and commendations for his good police work.

Birdie and Mike

In February 1964, almost exactly 80 years after my ancestors, Robert and Anna, moved onto the Big Camas Prairie, I came into the world. I survived a few brushes with death that first few years – once when I choked on my food. Mom ran me over to the old guy next door who swung me around in the air by my feet until the food dislodged. I took a deep breath of air, bawled, and lived to see another day.

In the summer of 1969, when I was five, Mike and Birdie loaded a moving van with all our earthly belongings, and we headed to Salmon. And this is where I’ll begin my story. Salmon was the general spot where four generations of Hicks’ had made their marks. It was our town. Well, we shared it with all the other fine folks in the valley, but to me, it was home. Welcome to my own saga as a kid in Salmon where the phrase, “It’ll feel better when it quits hurting” became my mantra. Welcome to Growing Up in Idaho.   

Dugout Dick: Living the American Dream

Richard Zimmerman (Dugout Dick)

I suppose the first time I crossed paths with Richard Zimmerman (Dugout Dick) was when I was seven or eight years old. I grew up in Salmon, Idaho, and I knew most of the people my folks associated with and some they didn’t. Dad was always polite and treated everyone with respect and kindness regardless of where they lived, how they dressed, or the career they chose, and he taught his kids to do likewise. The only reason Dugout was different than some I knew in Salmon was because he was known to me and others as “the cave guy.” The fact that he chose to live in some old, hand-made caves was intriguing to me and perhaps a bit odd. I knew how cold winters got in Salmon!

My dad and I were talking about him one time and dad recalled a conversation he had with Dugout a couple years before. The story went something like this: Dick was serving in the U.S. military. His group was out on patrol, and he ran out of water. So, he peed into his canteen and drank that until he could find some fresh water.

Dugout Dick

As a kid, I wondered what kind of maniac would drink pee – there had to be other options! But then I heard some survivalists talking about this very subject, and they claimed urine could be used as a liquid survival ration for a short time if there was no water to be had. The point is, that’s the story that, to me, defined Dugout for the rest of the time I knew him. But like I was taught, I took an interest in Dugout, greeted him on the street, listened to his stories, and called him ‘sir’ when it was appropriate.

Richard Zimmerman arrived in Salmon, Idaho in around 1948. That’s the time he decided to become a hermit. In today’s terms, they’re known as ‘solitaries.’ With his own hands, a pick and shovel, and a wheelbarrow, he dug into a rockslide on some land near the banks of the Salmon River about 20 miles south of town. It was BLM property, and I guess he figured nobody wanted it. Who views a rockslide as prime real estate? Probably not even the BLM. But his hard work and ingenuity paid off. Before long, he had a few ‘rooms’ carved into the hillside, custom-fit with odds and ends rustic framing along with some old windows and doors he probably found in a junk pile somewhere.

Like the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I suppose that’s what defined Dick’s way of life and his decision to make do with whatever he could find. I overheard a few conversations around town that often went something like this.

“Those trashy-looking shanties across the river there by Elk Bend sure are an eyesore!”  

“Well, you know, those are Dugout Dick’s caves, and he lives there; that’s his home! He’s alright – not hurting anyone. Leave him alone.”

And that’s usually where the talk would end. The fact is, Dick was a nice guy and harmless. And maybe to some people, he represented a life of freedom – living the American Dream on his own terms. He certainly didn’t bother anyone; and nobody bothered him, as far as I knew. Salmon was a place you could live on your own terms – a place where if you didn’t bother anyone, people left you alone and didn’t ask a lot of questions.

According to family lore, my ancestors lived in caves when they migrated to Idaho from Kansas in the 1800s. It was their only option at the time. They were some of the first settlers on the scene in the Camas Prairie. According to their journals, cave-dwelling isn’t so bad if that’s all you’ve got.

Mike Hicks, my dad, drove a school bus up the river in the 1970s. Every couple weeks, Dick would hitch a ride into town on the morning bus and be at the bus stop in the afternoon to catch a ride back home. I remember Dick climbing aboard the bus. I suppose, in retrospect, he looked just like a caveman, aside from his blue jeans, the flannel shirt, and the hardhat he wore. The beard and bushy hair, along with his calloused hands were the giveaway. But he was polite, and the kids showed him respect – some even conversed with him, asking how he was doing and what he planned to do in town that day.

Dick’s place: November 2021

“Oh, gonna get me a few groceries and maybe go see a friend,” he would say in his fast, clipped style of speech. I think he really liked the company, and perhaps he looked forward to those journeys into town once in awhile.

Before showing up in Salmon, Dick was a 20th Century drifter. He spent some time in the military. He hunted and fished. He worked as a farmhand on a few ranches; he did some general roustabout work, and then he showed up in Salmon at the age of 32. It wasn’t long before he traveled up the river to a rockslide nobody wanted and claimed it for his own.

Like I mentioned, most of the times I saw Dick, he was wearing a hardhat – the kind you might see workers wear at a construction site. “You bump your head a lot when you live in a cave,” Dick said one time. In his heyday, Dick had 14 caves he rented for $2 a night or $25 a month. I didn’t know anyone who stayed in his caves, but I heard there were some out-of-staters traveling through who did so. I suppose if you wanted to have a memorable time in the wilds of Idaho and a good story to tell your friends back home, a night in one of Dick’s caves would be the place to do it. And to have Dick serenade you with his guitar and old hobo songs would be a great memory!

Dick’s Caves in His Heyday

Recently, I took a little trip to Salmon to see what’s left of Dick’s place. The BLM left one of his main caves — the one he lived in — and removed the rest. Other than that, a few walls and trails are all that’s left of Dick’s 60 years of livelihood and handiwork. Thirty yards from Dick’s cave dwelling is a vehicle turnout and some signs reminding the curious public who Dugout Dick was and what he was all about. To the young, perhaps he is a legend; to the rest of us, he’s just a kind old guy who called a cave his home.

Personally, I didn’t really consider Dugout any more of a celebrity than some of the other old-timers I knew around town – like old Ollie the Swede and some others. Salmon was a unique place where some unique people lived. And because of that, Dugout Dick just seemed to fit in and lived life on his own terms. The American Dream means different things to different folks. Some may seek riches or fame; some just want to live in a cave along the river.

Buckskin Bill: The Man, the Legend

Buckskin Bill

It was 1976, and I was invited to float Idaho’s Main Salmon River on an early spring training trip for Western Rivers Expeditions. Those were the days when Jack Curry owned and ran the company. Jack’s son Steve, Joe Van Leeuwen, and a few others needed some extra training hours, so we set out for a leisurely 5-day trip on the river from Corn Creek to Riggins.

A trip down the river was always filled with excitement. Decent whitewater was the main attraction. The wildlife and scenery were spectacular. But the chance to meet and visit with one of the last remaining mountain men in existence was what excited me the most!

The name Sylvan Ambrose Hart might not mean anything to most folks. But like a lot of famous people whose names were changed to fit their image, people simply don’t recognize them by their real names. But in Idaho fifty or sixty years ago, if you asked anyone along the Salmon River if they had heard of Buckskin Bill, the answer would be yes.

In 1932, Hart left civilization and headed for the hills – literally. He found Five Mile Bar on the Main Salmon River and decided to stay. There were no roads, no telephones, no nothing that resembled civilization. The nearest community was 40 miles away, and you had to walk to get there. There were, however, some old frontiersmen living nearby – leftovers from the horse and buggy generation who had settled in the area long before the industrial revolution took over. But Hart was young, and they were old; it wasn’t long before he was the last one living in the neighborhood of thousands of acres of forest and wilderness.

According to one report, Hart took a reporter to the exact spot and pointed out the place where “he had lived when newly come to the Salmon in 1932, sleeping under a tree and doing his baking in a stone oven. His land was a placer mining claim then, and Hart bought 50 acres for one dollar.”  

The time lapse from 1932 to when my boat pulled into the back eddy and drifted up to Buckskin’s sandbar was exactly 44 years. In that time, Hart evolved from a newcomer to a legend. It wasn’t long before his fame spread far and wide all along the river corridor and into numerous magazines and books. Even a writer for Sports Illustrated in 1966 had to meet and write about the legend.

Before long, someone started calling him Buckskin Bill and the name Sylvan Ambrose Hart drifted out of memory. According to his own history, Hart spent a lot of time in the early days with those old frontier neighbors, picking their brains for all the information he could gather on living and thriving in a remote, unforgiving environment. He was a smart guy and remembered and applied what they taught him.

Of all the famous people from Idaho, Buckskin Bill is arguably the most unique. Who could argue with that? Anyone who met him, saw his place on the river, viewed his medieval suits of armor, including his Spanish Conquistador helmet, his hand-made flintlock rifles, knives, and cannons, or his specially built rock fortress on the hill above his cabins, they would know he was a man to be reckoned with and respected.

People like Sylvan Hart don’t come along every day. What would make a person want to live a solitary life, alone in the wilderness of Idaho? Every person that pulled-up to his sandbar asked the same questions. What is his story? Where did he come from and what led him to that spot on the river? Humans are social creatures, they surmised. Holing-up as a hermit along the Salmon River, famously known as the “River of no return,” could get dreary and lonesome.

In one of his many interviews, Hart related this story regarding people coming around his place. He said, “Five Mile Bar is the only place on the river with good firewood. That’s because there’s never been a woman here. A woman sets around the stove all day burning fuel.” Besides, Buckskin implies, he doesn’t regard too kindly some of the women he does see.

“I was taking a little bath in the river one day when I heard all this hollering and screaming. I had just had time to get on my long red underwear and these women came round the bend yelling that their rubber boat was leaking.”

“I hauled them out, prob’ly saved their lives, and all the while those frozen-faced women were sitting there looking disapproving. Well, first, I had less hide showing than they did, and then I don’t think they were showing any proper appreciation a’tall.”

“I’ve got six months, from November on, when this place is just like it’s always been,” Hart said. “Nobody visits, and I get mail twice a month. If I want to go anywhere, I put a pack on my back, get my gun, take off and stay as little or as long as I like. What more could you want?” (SI)

As I walked up the sandbar and approached an assortment of log shelters partially hidden beneath a grove of trees, I saw a medium sized man wearing western clothes and topped with an oddly shaped hat emerge from one of the cabins. He was shorter than I imagined. And he looked a lot less intimidating. After all the stories I had heard, I figured Buckskin Bill was as tall as Bigfoot and likely just as ornery!

The man that approached was a kindly looking, aged man with a big smile who welcomed us to his place in a kind, gentlemanly tone. His conquistador helmet seemed as natural as the rock fortress jutting out on the face of the hill above. Buckskin Bill remembered Steve Curry and during the introductions and small-talk, Buckskin commented how pretty Steve’s wife looked. “She’s welcome to stay here with me and you can pick her up next week!” he said jokingly.

“Naw, she’ll stay with me,” Steve said with a wry grin. His wife made no reply, but her eyes and facial expression said exactly what she thought. I made a mental note regarding the oddity of the two men talking about an intelligent, grown woman like she wasn’t even there.

We were all invited into Buckskin’s cooking cabin. He had just finished building a large table made from a flat, granite rock. I wondered how he had maneuvered that giant rock into place with just himself to move it about. I imagined some bloody knuckles and smashed fingers after that job was done. He showed us some of his knives, hand-carved wooden eating utensils, a few pots, pans, and other cooking essentials he was proud of. Then he went off on a tangent about how tough things were before he built all the nice amenities contained in the room where we stood. My mind drifted off as I looked over all his creations. I thought, “When you’re all alone with plenty of time on your hands – no TVs, phones, jobs, or meetings – you can get a lot done.”

Next, we walked a short distance to his armory. Inside was what you would imagine seeing in an 18th century warrior’s inner sanctuary. There were swords, big knives, and old-fashioned rifles that looked like they belonged to a small army from a bygone era. A couple of the guns had the horned barreling known in the history books as a blunderbuss. He talked about the time and talent it took to make a gun from scratch, including rifling the barrel and creating and applying all the detailing and inner mechanisms that made the gun work. I was in awe.

As we parted company and my group began to head to the boats, I recalled a conversation from the previous summer that seemed to define the moment. It was a large group of city folks, all quizzing Buckskin on his primitive lifestyle and how he survived living alone and so far from civilization. One woman chimed-in with a cogent inquiry. “Mr. Hart,” she said, “What would you do if you were out working on some project, for example, or you were up in the forest hunting and you accidentally broke your leg?”

Without missing a beat, Buckskin Bill said, “Ma’am, we don’t get broken legs around here!”

Sylvan Ambrose Hart died in 1980. He had lived and survived 48 years in some of the roughest country on the planet. He made the phrase, “living off the grid” into a doable lifestyle. But the one thing that defined him best in my opinion was the fortress he built into the side of the hill.

“What did you build that for, anyway?” a man in my group asked.

“Well, in that rock structure is a large cannon I specially designed for one purpose only. In fact, it’s aimed directly at where we’re standing.” Then, Buckskin Bill folded his arms and in a serious tone he said, “I let the U.S. Forest Service know if they pulled their boats up to this sandbar one more time to bother me about my place here, I was going to blow their boats and them completely out of the water!”

Nobody should mess with a man who wears an ancient warrior helmet and builds his own guns. I haven’t been past Buckskin Bill’s place in years. But the memories of him and all the relics and stories he left behind will linger on in my mind for the rest of time.

(SI) See Sports Illustrated, Issue, October 3, 1966

Old Idaho News: The Runaways

Remember the days when coffee shops, barber shops, and beauty salons were favorite gathering places? So many political and social discussions were had in those venues.

Early Idaho’s newspapers also were favorite sources of information. In fact, if you want to read about old families, businesses, and community problems, peruse the pages of some old community newspapers.

I was reading some century-old articles in the The Idaho Recorder a few days ago, looking for some items of interest regarding the good ol’ days of Lemhi County. I love the human-interest pieces often found in those old papers.

It seems in those old times, any family who ventured out of town for any reason got their travel story published. And the locals loved it! Every trip out of town was more than a road trip; it was an adventure – often fraught with danger and at least one vehicle break-down!

Local happenings become part of community and cultural history. A lot of information is gained from reading past news articles, including reading between the lines. Heck, even the lingo and slang found in the local dialogue is revealing. There’s a story everywhere you find people gathered.

In the April 8, 1921, edition of The Idaho Recorder, the precursor to The Recorder Herald of Salmon, I found some interesting news and a few names some old timers might remember. Apparently, there was a big spring snowstorm in the mountains earlier that week that wreaked havoc on the mail delivery for the Leesburg area.

Worst Blizzard Comes Late

“Eighteen inches of new snow that fell in the mountains during the storm of Monday made it difficult for Ferrell Terry, Star Route mail carrier, to deliver mail on schedule Tuesday, but he finally succeeded in making the fourteen-mile trip over the mountains to the camp of Leesburg, after being eight hours on the way. He left Salmon with the mail sack on horseback, as it was impossible to use the stage, as is customary, but after half the trip was accomplished, he was obliged to leave his horse and proceed on foot through eighteen inches of snow.”

That week, a ten-year-old boy was lost. Apparently, Little Jack Maher, as he was known, came up missing. Here are excerpts from that story. As illustrated, the Salmon Country can be unforgiving, especially during the cold seasons, which, in the mountains, can pop in at any time. Anyone who has spent much time in those mountains knows first-hand! But, you know, kids who grow up in the mountains know their way around and learn early how to take care of themselves.

Little Jack Maher is Lost For a Night

“In the evening at supper time his mother observed him pensively sitting on the back doorstep. A little later she missed him. The shades of the night were falling, and the parents became anxious. At their calls there was no answer from little Jack. All through the night they kept up a fruitless search for him. At dawn they called over the phone to tell neighbors and friends not apprised of the disappearance and soon, the Boy Scouts were called out, centering in every direction over the surrounding hills.”

As a point of interest, the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910 and soon spread throughout the country. Apparently, the scouting organization soon found its way to Central Idaho, as eleven years after its founding, a group of scouts were called-up to look for Little Jack.

White Rock (Salmon, Idaho)

Being boys who spent a lot of time out camping and playing, the boys had a good idea where to begin looking for the lost boy. On the west side of the river from Salmon is a series of cliffs and bluffs carved into the foothills by the river. To all the local folks, that area is known as White Rock. And that is where the boy scouts figured Little Jack headed.

“White Rock is the scene of many an imaginary wild adventure of boys, the most likely place in the world to find such an imaginative youngster as Little Jack. But when the searchers got there only the remains of a recent campfire were to be found.

The two regular scouts thus put on the trail were Clayton Scribner and Morton Havemann. They were accompanied by the distracted father, Jack Maher, Sr., as well as young [Monroe] Quarles (Little Jack’s best friend).

The scouts thought they would proceed to a homestead cabin that stood in sight to make personal inquiries. As they neared the place, little Jack stood in view before them, playing with a fuzzy puppy. The cabin belongs to Ben Hirshberger.

When Hirshberger went down to see about it, he found the child with no comforts except the big blazing logs which the young [kid] had cut with his little axe and dragged to his camp.

Little Jack is an unusual boy. In his make-up there is not a particle of cowardice. So far as courage and steadfastness goes, he would have stayed at White Rock all night long without a whimper.” (The Idaho Recorder)

The Hicks Boys Plan Their Escape

In 1974, my brother Mike and I decided to run away. We lived directly across the Salmon River from White Rock mentioned in Little Jack’s story. It was fall and cold weather was coming on. Dad and us boys had just finished hauling a dump truck load of wood from the sawmill, and it was laying in a pile in our backyard. It was Mike’s and my responsibility to ‘rick’ that wood in neat stacks back by the shed. I was ten years old, and my brother had just turned twelve.

The more we worked the more pissed we got. We were overworked and underpaid! After discussing our plight at some length, we figured our best course of action was to run from our lives of oppression and live down by the river in an old cabin we often visited. After much talk, we had a flawless plan established.

I would surreptitiously enter the house and haul out my new .22 Marlin rifle and all the shells I could find. I would also stuff my Buck hunting knife and clothes in my backpack and hide it on the back porch. Mike would do the same. He had his shotgun and enough shells to hunt ducks and kill any bears that happened along. I could shoot a deer’s eye out at 50 yards with that Marlin, so we could eat venison to our heart’s delight!

For the other needed food, we decided to make a raid on the family food storage. Nobody would miss those canned goods. And there was enough beef and pork in the freezer to keep us going for at least a few weeks. When we needed more supplies, we would sneak back in the middle of the night.

I was euphoric knowing I would never sit in another school class as long as I lived! And no more bedtime at 7:00 p.m. or doing chores for those ungrateful parents who were, at that moment, sitting by the fire with our sisters, relaxing, while we were out working in the cold!

Well, like so many other big plans and dreams I had as a young boy, my plan to run away and live independently of any adult supervision soon unraveled. Dad opened the door and called out, “Hey boys, supper is ready! Get in here and eat!”

Mom had the table set with a big cast iron pot of chili and a pan of cornbread. As Mike and I sat down and began wolfing down the food, all thoughts of living on our own down by the river suddenly vanished. Before bedtime, I made one last ditch-effort to get my brother to run away with me. “Jeff, there’s no way we can cook as good as mom. I’m staying home.” And that was that.

Through the generations, beef steaks, chili and cornbread, pies and cakes, and other delicious, FREE food have likely inspired a lot of kids to remain at home under their parent’s roofs. I’m thinking Little Jack Maher back in 1921 would’ve found that out soon enough, too.

Healed by an Indian Woman: Disease in Early Idaho

Native American Sweat Lodge

Harry Hicks was a young boy in 1924 when he got scarlet fever. The doctor in Salmon thought it was diphtheria and gave him a shot of a new serum that had just hit the market. The old doctor didn’t know how to give the shot, as it went into Harry’s kidney and laid him up for nearly six months. Shortly after that, the boy contracted what he called, “rheumatic rheumatism.” He was “coated all over with Ergophene Ointment, then wrapped up like a mummy in wax paper to cure the rheumatism.” He was also given “beef iron and wine” along with ‘niter and sugar’ to boost kidney function.

It was soon decided that Harry’s condition was caused by tonsilitis. So, the doctor came by to remove them. According to Harry’s history, “The doctor cut all the left side of my throat out. All the doctor could do was clamp off the bleeding artery with a large horse clamp borrowed from Seth Mathews. My throat was clamped inside to outside with that huge horse clamp, which was hung from the ceiling on a wire.”

To help matters, Harry’s mother Clyta rigged-up a medieval contraption by tying “two bacon cords to each big toe, and when I had too much pain, I would relieve the pain by the simple purpose of creating a greater pain by pulling on the cords to my toes, which had loops in the end for my middle fingers.”  

Some folks today might scoff at the way things were handled a hundred years ago. But life histories, journals, and social studies books are packed full of stories of brutality in dealing with illness and disease before modern medical advancements.

I’ve been intrigued by the history of medicine. I’ve seen some amazing medicinal marvels over the years that I witnessed first-hand. And I’ve read numerous stories and articles of both victories and utter failures regarding treatment of illness. Keep in mind, we’re not too far removed from the era “blood-letting” to cure common maladies.

Yap Culture

I lived in Micronesia back in the early 1980s on the small atoll of Yap. There, the indigenous doctors took care of medical emergencies and illnesses. They were trained in the art of natural remedies. And believe-it-or-not, I’ve seen some miraculous things done at the hands of those indigenous practitioners.

One day, a guy burned his leg on his boat’s engine exhaust. The hot pipe had burned into the man’s flesh and looked horrible and painful. The doctor ran into the jungle and came back moments later with a bunch of leaves and other stuff. He chanted some ancient rhyme while he chewed on the leaves for a few minutes, then took the gooey poultice out of his mouth and applied it to the man’s wound. Then he secured it in place with some coconut fiber twine.

The injured man visited that doctor for the next few days and had the same treatment each time. After five or six days, the man’s leg was completely healed and all that remained was a red spot. At that point, I became a believer in natural remedies.

So, move forward 40 years. The year 2020 will be marked in global history books as the year the COVID-19 pandemic got traction. Yes, the virus was recognized in Wuhan, China in 2019, but at the time, it was little more than a potential epidemic. And yes, people will attempt to investigate the exact place of the virus’ exact origin for at least the next hundred years. Theories abound.

With sickness or the potential for sickness comes numerous ways humans have devised to combat contracting illnesses. Many forms of illness are intentionally contracted to bolster immunity through antibodies. Does anyone remember when mothers would send their kids over to play with other kids that had chicken pox?

I got chicken pox the first day of summer vacation after first grade. It was horrible! I lost a couple weeks of playtime; I was in bed feeling miserable when other kids were out riding bikes. Mumps was a thing in those days, too. My dad and I had mumps at the same time – I was around 10 years-old at the time. Mom put us in the same room where we languished for over a week with swollen neck glands. And that is the time dad introduced me to Louis L’Amour. We read 10 or 15 of his greatest novels and the world of western heroes came alive to me.

Because inoculations have pretty much wiped-out diseases like chicken pox, mumps, measles, and polio – all dreaded illnesses when I was a kid – we don’t worry so much about them anymore. In fact, I’d bet that kids today would not even know what you were talking about if you brought them up. They’re things talked about in history books now.

But how were things before widespread immunities became a thing? Specifically, how did early Idahoans deal with disease? First, we must consider the fact that vaccines for diseases were not as ubiquitous in those days. Yes, scientists were in the labs looking for ways to boost immunities to disease, but the field was relatively new. And remember that antibiotics that battle bacterial infections were not widely available until the mid-1900s. So, all the bacterial infections that invariably become a problem when viruses strike had to be dealt with through home remedies and other medical concoctions.

A couple years after Harry’s tonsils were removed, he contracted Bright’s disease. A lot of kids in Salmon were dying from this malady at the time. According to the research I performed, Bright’s Disease, as it was known in the early 1900’s, is today known as a class of kidney disease described in modern medicine as acute or chronic nephritis. Harry spoke of his experience with Bright’s Disease in his life history. Here is the story in his own words.

“While being farmed out to round up wild horses in the mountains near Challis, I got sick and was once more to feel the worry and fear of sickness, for I swelled all up with Bright’s Disease and Dropsy. Even my eyes swelled up. I became puffy and kind of glazed all over from the water build-up.

My mother came up to get me, and I felt like everything would be alright. I was so relieved, I fell asleep and when I woke up, we were in Salmon. I had to lay in bed propped up because of my heart splashing in the water every time it would beat.

Momma put me in the backroom and told me to be quiet, the doctor was coming with the undertaker, and crying, she told me they were going to take me away.

“Clyta,” said the doctor, “We came for that dead boy. It’s against the law not to bury a body when they die!”

I immediately raised up in my bed and yelled, “You get out of here you son-of-a-bi*ch! You’ve made your last mistake!” I was remembering the other times with my tonsils and kidneys – he about killed me.

Some time after they left, an Indian woman appeared at our door and said over and over, “I can fix the boy; I can fix the boy!” I can never praise my mother enough for the spunk it took and the nerve to turn the doctor from our door and tell him an Indian woman was going to be my doctor. How he cursed my mother and told her she was just inviting death and I would surely die.

After preparations were made, the Indian woman took me down by the river where there were plenty of round wash boulders. She had a fire burning with plenty of big rocks heating. There was a cot set up with a tub of water setting underneath.

The Indian woman, chanting all the while, gave me a cupful of slippery elm bark tea, hot and so slippery and slimy you could not quit drinking once you started. The slime would just slip down your throat by the siphon method. Then laying me on the cot, she threw a horse blanket over me and then began to throw the hot rocks in the tub of water.

I lay and the sweat poured out of me; I reveled in every drop because I felt better all the time, and I drank my slippery elm bark tea every so often. Along about midnight, the swelling went out of my body, and I was able to go pee for the first time in about a week. I was passing dirty looking, old brown water – brown because it was mixed with blood.

The ordeal kept up for about 24 hours until I went down to normal size – just a little puffiness around my face. Not long after that, I was standing on the sidewalk by our house enjoying the summer sun when the doctor drove past. I thumbed my nose at him, but he didn’t recognize me.” (Harry Hicks History)

After reading Harry Hicks’ story about the Indian woman curing his disease when the local doctors could do nothing, I imagine all of Harry’s kids and grandkids and other descendants being thankful for that wonderful woman and her knowledge of the old ways of healing. She saved their dear father and grandfather’s life.

A Teamster Looking for Work in Yellow Jacket

Yellow Jacket 1905 (advrider.com)

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.

Clyta and Victor Hicks

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.

Morgan Creek Summit

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.

Yellow Jacket, Idaho

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.

Being a Second in a First-Rate Series

“Wild” Hammer Work

Ten years ago, Beau Stephenson invited me to work on-set as a paid second for the Discovery Channel documentary series, Gold Fever. The documentary was a look at the historic California gold rush and some of the people involved. It was a rough-and-tumble time in U.S. history. I had never worked on a movie set, so everything was new and intriguing. Being from Idaho, I liked the idea of portraying a ‘rough-and-tumble’ miner from the old times. I had ancestors who blazed trails in the mining business.

My job was to look mean, worn-out, and hungry for gold. I was to pound nails on a huge wooden dam, carry lumber, dig for gold, run a sluice, fight in a small army, and look tough. It wasn’t that hard; not much different than growing up in Idaho digging post holes, fixing fence, picking rocks, milking cows, fighting with my brother, bucking hay bales, and anything else dad told me to do, or else! Being in the movies is fun business. Here’s how it went for me.

After taking care of all the HR preliminaries, I went into the dressing area, got into my ‘work clothes,’ then went over to make-up – another first sitting in the chair and getting – well, made-up! I walked out of there looking like a grime-ridden 1800’s western laborer who needed a bath. I grabbed a bite to eat in the food tent, then boarded a bus and rode out to the set along with all the other rough-looking characters cast for the show.

The set was located along a river, west of Brigham City, Utah, USA, out in the middle of nowhere. It looked typical to me, with a few campers dotting the landscape, a big wooden dam in the distance, some old camping tents, and a bunch of props. The huge cameras set up nearby looked completely out of place. I asked a question I’m sure some others were wondering. “Can I pull out my phone and take pictures?” The guy in charge said, “Sure! I don’t care, as long as it’s not on camera!”

“Cool!” I mumbled under my breath.

My first scene was to hoist a couple boards on my shoulder and walk them over to the dam and hand them up to a worker at the top. On the signal, I did what I was told and tried to act natural as I made my way along, trying not to trip, stumble, or fall. Once the scene was over, I thought, “Hmmm, not bad. I think I can do this ‘acting’ stuff.

The director said, “Good job, man. You looked good! Just don’t talk! You’re not getting paid to talk!”

“Okay,” I thought. I’ll be a mute dam builder.

It doesn’t take long to figure out how things are done on the set to make scenes look, sound, and feel authentic and real. For our purposes, there were smoke machines and filters to make everything the camera saw look old. I also took note of the angles, background, foreground, and all other elements present. It was fun and easy. The small talk and camaraderie of the rest of the actors in the cast was fun and a bit entertaining. There was a lot of downtime between scenes when we ate, relaxed, snoozed, and joked around with each other.

One time, an assistant director came over and asked if I and some other guys would be in some B-reel he was shooting. “Absolutely, man!” We walked out and waited for him to instruct us where to be and what to do. This AD was kind of a smart-aleck who had pissed me off earlier when he got lippy over something somebody said or did. I could tell he was trying to impress his boss – bullying his way up the company ladder. It was in my blood to even the score – I could hear my ancient Hicks ancestors who fought oppression hundreds of years before calling for me to act!

I got my assignment, which was to swing a hammer and pound nails into the dam. I got a few nails started. Then when the camera began to roll, I swung my hammer as hard as I could, then let up just as the hammer head hit the nail. I figured the herky-jerky movement of my arm swinging wildly would cause the AD to blow a head fuse. I could passively get even with him for being a jerk earlier. He did go a bit nuts over what I was doing, but he didn’t re-shoot! Funny thing was, the film editor put a full shot of me being an idiot in the movie, and it actually looked awesome on screen!

The few days I worked on that set were fun and memorable. For sure, the most satisfying part of working on a movie is seeing the final product. Being on TV is cool and a bit surprising. It’s interesting to view the scenes, remember the exact moment when the camera was rolling, and then observe what the camera saw.

If you’re sitting around wondering what to do, go on Amazon and buy the movie, Gold Fever. It’s a good flick, is well-done, entertaining, and covers an interesting if not dangerous part of U.S. history. Check it out.  

The Art of Life: Take Me Back to Salmon

Good Times (Salmon, Idaho)

As a writer, I think in terms of words, phrases, and scripts. I love dialogue – the sharing of words between people. A lot can be learned from what is said or not said. I’ve always argued that a well-written scene is better than any photo. Arguably, however, a well-written scene and an accompanying photo will always hit a home-run in the literary sense.

I’ve done a lot of writing over the years. My first story was a four-page third-person narrative about an Indian boy named Two Wolves. I wrote it in Mrs. Harris’ fourth-grade class for a journaling assignment. The story, in my mind, was worthy of awards. None came – only recess. But my foray into storytelling had begun, and I couldn’t stop the flow of ideas and words.

I suppose like most writers, I carry four or five – sometimes more – plot lines around in my mind. As often as possible, I scribble a few notes about the plot so I can easily recall them later. Most of these plots involve protagonists doing heroic things – saving people, looking out for the underdogs, winning the hearts of their true loves. Some are even revenge stories where the good guy wins, either with fists or wit or both.  

But sometimes the plots involve people similar to the way I existentially view myself – just ordinary people doing ordinary things, but with passion! What I call the “art of life.” These simple but profound plots include basking in sunsets, walking beaches, story times with kids, contemplating the future, exploring abandoned places, and being in love – real, true love.

I also love nostalgia. I like all things ‘old.’ Old mines, old cabins, old houses sitting on a hill, old, gnarly trees, old people with a story to tell. I love sitting around telling stories about the good ol’ days. Of course, the good ol’ days are different for everyone. But I think every person thinks their version of those days are the greatest in some way. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. I left home in 1982 after graduating from high school and never looked back – only in memories. And those memories are special.

About twenty years ago, I was visiting my hometown, Salmon, Idaho. It was a family outing with my kids. We jumped off the bridge into the river after rafting and tubing our favorite section – from the Shoup Bridge to the Island Park. Like every visit, my kids tried their best to talk me into moving the family to Salmon. I guess they wanted what I had growing up. It’s really what every kid deserves.

During that visit, I had some words pop into mind. After a few minutes of playing with and arranging those words, I came up with this simple, five-stanza poem about the Salmon River. It speaks to what I was feeling at that moment and perhaps since. Perhaps we will all eventually return to our roots and reclaim in some intrinsic way what was once ours.

Mother River

Peering out from my vantage on the shore,
The cool breeze cradled my nostalgic soul.
Inner weeping for buried memories of before,
Resulted in remembrance of my youthful goals.

That ole meandering, rolling, raging flow,
Traveling onward – flowing onward to the sea,
Cloaked at times ‘midst the fog’s heavy glow,
Keeps rhythm, a cadence to Nature’s simplicity.

Fertile banks guide those anxious currents.
Adorned lush in spring, barren in fall,
She’s mothered her hungry brood with opulence,
Nurturing Nature’s balance, her greatest call.

‘Twas my river, my home, I dwelt here long ago!
Sharing claim with others, our sentiments the same,
We tread her banks as children. Running to and fro,
All basked in her beauty and wild torrents of fame.

Gone are those moments of mirth and swank regaling,
Of each new day – loving life near my river’s banks.
But the memories! The gist of nostalgia’s lonely hailing,
Cause my soul to weep with joy and give God thanks.