Monday, September 9, 2019

Small-Town Memories; Small-Town Future. Part 3: Wallace, Idaho.

I've reminisced on the region I grew up in because I'll be taking my family into what is uncharted territory for them -- living in the middle of nowhere.

It all started in the fall of 2018, when we drove to Osburn, Idaho, to buy a dog from a breeder. It was the second time we'd been to Idaho, and it proved to be just as beautiful as we'd remembered it. That got the wheels turning in my head the morning after we got to Idaho. While we sat waiting for breakfast at the Wallace Inn, just down the road from Osburn, I pulled out my phone to do some quick research.

We had an upcoming decision to make regarding our daughter's homeschooling. Once a child in Washington turns 8, parents have to report the child as homeschooled and begin making the child take performance exams. Well, we think our kiddo is ahead in some areas and behind in others, and since we take an "unschooling" approach to her education rather than work from a curriculum, we weren't comfortable making her start to meet someone else's benchmarks.

So I was curious to know what Idaho's homeschooling requirements looked like. As it turned out, Idaho is one of a handful of states that leave homeschooling responsibilities to the family. Michigan, I noticed, was the same.

That gave us a decision to make. Should we consider going back home to Michigan? Or did we want to give Idaho a try, and stay within driving distance of the Seattle area if we ever wanted to go back for a visit?

I focused at first on Michigan. But the more we thought about it, the more we decided we'd rather embark on a new adventure than return to our familiar haunts.

We eventually made the choice to sell our house here in the Seattle area, look for a house we could pay cash for in Idaho, and live on one income -- mine. I work from home, for a company I have a long-term relationship with, so we're hoping that relationship can sustain us for the foreseeable future. My wife will get to stay home, focus more time on homeschooling than I was able to do, and do some of the things I haven't been able to take care of because of time and health limitations.

We knew we might have to endure some short-term financial pain as we try to dig out of our debts and find health coverage, which we used to have through my wife's job. But we'd also be enjoying a lower cost of living. So in the end, the financial burden may be a wash -- less money going out, but less income coming in -- but things should be better for our family. A slower pace of life counts for a lot, as does getting away from the craziness of the Left Coast. It's truly getting crazier, and less tolerant, every day in the Seattle area.

And now, we're getting ready to head out to Wallace, Idaho -- population 784 as of 2010. That's about half the size of White Pigeon, Michigan, the town I grew up in.

I'm not an expert on Wallace, and I won't pretend to be. But I can tell you that Wallace is the Shoshone County seat, founded in 1884 as a mining town, and situated in a region of Idaho called the Silver Valley. The region is home to one of the world's largest known silver deposits, leading Wallace to bill itself the Silver Capital of the World. More than a billion ounces of silver have been pulled out of the ground in the valley, which at one time accounted for half of the United States' entire silver production. It's also been a leading producer of zinc and lead.

But pollution from mine runoff was a concern as far back as a century ago, as farmers took miners to court over the spoiling of their lands. As the years went on, toxic runoff accumulated in the waterways, wildlife was dying, and kids were being born with alarming levels of lead in their systems. Eventually, most of the mines shut down, leading to massive unemployment and a subsequent exodus of the local population.

A few mines remain operational today, but the valley has largely shifted its economy to focus on retail, light manufacturing, and tourism. So in some ways it's a forgotten corner of the state of Idaho, but in other ways the tourism means that the historical appeal of the region has been well preserved.

Wallace in particular was once a thriving town, with a notable taste for vice. Saloons and gambling halls were abundant in the early days, as were brothels. When men were said to outnumber women 200-to-1 in the heyday of mining, perhaps it's no surprise that the bordello industry flourished. The ladies would register themselves with the police station while the madams in turn would quietly provide money for any number of school fundraisers and infrastructure projects. They paid their taxes, and the law looked the other way -- especially if, say, the cops needed someone to buy them a new police car.

And believe it or not, the prostitution business continued in Wallace until as recently as 1988. That's when word of an impending federal raid quickly shut down the last remaining house of ill repute. That building now stands as the Oasis Bordello Museum, preserving the brothel exactly as it looked when the madam and her employees hastily vacated the premises.

The abundant gambling options around the area also took a hit in the early '90s, following yet another FBI sting. Apparently, bringing down the hammer on some poker machines in small-town Idaho was more important than getting a handle on, say, domestic terrorism.

So today, Wallace's salacious history is just that -- history. But there's still plenty to enjoy. You can tour a mine, ride miles of bike trails, go skiing or zip-lining, enjoy old-time melodramas written by local performers, visit a number of restaurants and antique shops, take in the annual blues festival or the yearly townwide flea market, or stop by the Northern Pacific Railroad Museum, which preserves the city's history as an important stop on the rails back at the height of the mining days.

Wallace boasts quite a few distinctions. It was the birthplace of actress Lana Turner, and it featured in the 1997 disaster flick Dante's Peak. (Spoiler: There isn't a volcano anywhere near Wallace in real life.) It was also the last place in the United States to have a traffic light on an interstate highway.

I-90 is now a freeway all the way from Seattle to Boston, but at one time the freeway ended at Wallace. Traffic was routed through downtown on city streets, and then the freeway resumed on the other side of town. The Federal Highway Administration didn't care for the slowdown and intended to demolish downtown Wallace to connect the two pieces of freeway on either side of town. But the residents of Wallace didn't want to see their town destroyed, and they fought back, eventually succeeding in placing the entire downtown on the National Register of Historic Places. With the downtown off limits, the feds were forced to build a viaduct around the town.

Wallace may have lost to the federal government on prostitution and gambling. But in this case, Wallace fought the law, and Wallace won.

When the viaduct opened, I-90 was finally complete from coast to coast, and the townspeople of Wallace took down what had been the highway's final traffic light and paraded it through town in a mock funeral. It remains on display in the Wallace Mining Museum.

Residents of Seattle's Fremont neighborhood may also be surprised to know that Wallace is the center of the universe. That story begins when Wallace became part of a massive Superfund site that devalued homes and businesses in an area already reeling from the loss of its mining activity. The EPA was targeting the lead that was polluting the soil and water, but when pressed, the agency couldn't say whether the pollution was from mining activity or was naturally occurring. Wallace's mayor responded with a delightful bit of small-town snark: He declared Wallace to be the center of the universe, since it couldn't be disproved that it isn't the center of the universe. A manhole cover on Bank Street now marks the precise point, and drivers know to stop and wait while tourists run out to the middle of the street to pose for a picture. There's even been a wedding performed on the spot.

And finally, there's the intriguing story of the town's namesake, William Wallace. No, not that William Wallace, although this William Wallace was also known for his participation in warfare. The Civil War colonel was one of the town's founders, but he eventually moved away and was buried in 1901 in Whittier, California. In 1967, Whittier's leadership decided to demolish two city cemeteries and turn them into parks. The headstones were all removed, while the bodies remained in the ground.

A Wallace native managed to track down the location of William Wallace's headstone. A California antique collector had arranged to have four semi-truck loads of headstones delivered to him, and he'd set them up to look like a real graveyard, in an apparent ploy to thwart the construction of a high-speed rail across his property. And sure enough, his collection included the headstone of Wallace's founding father. So the owner of the Red Light Garage, a Wallace restaurant, arranged to have the grave marker returned to the town that bears William Wallace's name, and the man drove to California to retrieve it. William Wallace's body still rests somewhere beneath a city park in Whittier, California, but his gravestone is now enshrined outside the entrance to the railroad museum.

That museum, incidentally, was once Wallace's train depot. When the town was successful in getting I-90 rerouted around town, the depot was the one building that had to move to accommodate the new viaduct. It was picked up and moved about 200 feet, across the Coeur d'Alene River that runs through Wallace, and set down in its current resting place.

Wallace has a lot of charm. It looks like something out of the Old West, preserved by virtue of the ingenuity of the residents who did what was necessary to keep their town from being demolished. But it is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, on the way to nowhere. We'll be a good 40 minutes from any significant shopping centers, which will probably be a shock to my wife and daughter. But they're game and willing to take the trade-off of a simpler, quieter, slower, and less expensive life. So am I.

For me, I'll be continuing a life's journey that strangely has kept me close to I-90. Aside from the seven years my wife and I lived in the D.C. area, I've never been more than a few miles from that freeway. When I was growing up in White Pigeon, it was part of the 80/90 Indiana Toll Road, about 3 miles south of my childhood home. The west end of I-90 begins about 15 miles north of our home in suburban Seattle. And in Wallace, we'll be able to see the I-90 viaduct from our new house. Funny how things work out like that.

Our closest major population center will be Coeur d'Alene (2010 population 44,137), the location of the aforementioned shopping places. Another half-hour west of that is Spokane (2010 population 208,916). Sports, concerts, and other forms of entertainment that we take for granted around Seattle will exist there for us. Or we can drive two hours east to reach Missoula, Montana (2010 population 66,788), or two hours southwest to reach Moscow (2010 population 23,800) -- home of the University of Idaho, a hub for the arts ... and location of the nearest Chick-fil-A. Going without a CFA chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and a vanilla milkshake? Now that's going to be a hardship.

But we'll have a grocery store a block away, and Wallace is still home to St. Alphonsus Catholic Church -- at least for now. The Episcopal church in town closed in recent years, so who knows whether the local Catholics may eventually suffer a similar fate.

Just down the road in Kellogg, there's an indoor waterpark and gondola rides. Plus a massive car dealership, which I guess will be good when one of our cars decides to conk out. There's a McDonald's too, and that'll pretty much be the only option for fast-food chains. Which is fine -- we'll just eat more at home or frequent some of the fine mom-and-pop restaurants in Wallace and surrounding towns.

Smelterville has a Walmart, which is really strange for a town in the middle of nowhere with a population of only 627. But Walmart isn't a regular destination for any of us. So if we need big-box stores, it'll still probably mean a trip out to Coeur d'Alene or Spokane.

Beyond that, there's a nice state park in Cataldo, where you'll find preserved an old Catholic mission -- the oldest standing building in all of Idaho.

And we'll have gorgeous scenery everywhere we look. That counts for quite a bit. Will we find nicer people in this small town than we did on the Left Coast? Remains to be seen, but I'll keep my fingers crossed. I'm sure they'll be more politically conservative, but I can deal with that. I grew up in conservative West Michigan, and I'm not unsympathetic to many conservative points of view.

So let's get this party started. Thanks for nine good years, Seattle. Wallace, we're on our way.