Tag: Idaho miners

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.   

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.