Thursday, February 4, 2010

Adams County Makes the News – Introduction – #1

[We’re really excited to begin a new long-running series—Adams County Makes the News. This is a manuscript containing letters from the Adams County newspapers from the early 1900s to about the time of World War II; Eberle compiled the collection, & also wrote a most interesting introduction. We’ll begin with Eberle’s intro, which will comprise the first three or four installments before moving on to the letters themselves. Enjoy!]
“Council Valley First, The World Afterwards,” proclaimed the Adams County, Idaho newspaper banner in 1910, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek bravado about its local focus. From early on, the paper exhibits this kind of self-consciousness about its small-town nature—a particular combination of pride and defensiveness that I see as persisting over its history. I walked into the newspaper office in Council a while back as people were discussing moving the old printing press, which has loomed hugely in a corner for many years, to the local museum. I asked Tim Hohs, the editor, if he was going to do a story on the move, and he responded with the recognizable 1910 spirit: “You know our motto here in Adams County: if it happens, it’s news.”

Since 1901, there has been a newspaper located in Council. For its first few years, it was known as the Council Journal, and then as the Council Leader. Adams County did not become a separate entity from Washington County until 1911; during World War I, the paper changed its name to the Adams County Leader, not to change it again until the 1990s. In the seventies, two other papers started up in Council: the Upper Country News, whose existence was brief, and the Council Record. The Adams County Leader merged with the Record in the nineties to become the Adams County Record, and the newspaper has retained that name through the present time. The continuity of the newspaper—its Council location and the stability of the population it served—has shaped the evolution of its unique relationship with communities of readers in the area.

The population of both Adams County and Council has been remarkably stable over time, with
the town of Council having fewer than 1000 inhabitants over the course of its whole history. The entire county has had 3000 or fewer inhabitants. Council, with a population of 816, is still the largest town in a county that does not possess a single stoplight. With Adams County comprising 1370 square miles, sparse population has been an on-going fact in local community identity. Difficult travel conditions meant that many areas (such as Cottonwood, Alpine, and Mesa) used to be more identified as separate communities than they have been since the advent of paved roads. The newspaper would report, for example, in 1910 that: “The Fourth was passed very quietly by most of the Cottonwood people. Earl and Glenn Kiser went to Weiser. Several went to Middle Fork fishing. There was a family reunion at the home of Mrs. Moser, all of her children being present except the oldest daughter.” In 1925, a newspaper reader from Sourdough wrote in: “Why does our (county) sheriff’s office require a permanent deputy at a salary of $900 per year whose residence is at Meadows? Do they need a deputy up there more than we do down here at Sourdough? Is it because their moonshine up there is not as good as ours?”

Even given greater ease of travel, communities in the county retain their autonomy—and come into conflict with each other, on occasion, over that autonomy. Although self-identified over most
of its history as serving the whole county, the Adams County newspaper is subject to periodic complaint that it is too focused on Council at the expense of other towns and communities in the county. One way the paper has addressed the reality of autonomous and far-flung communities is to print, on a regular basis, news sent in from other areas. However, New Meadows, for example, can experience a major upheaval in its city government without an Adams County Record reporter sent to the scene— the 52-mile trip being outside the paper’s current expense budget for travel. The populace of Bear can descend on the county seat in a fury over contested possession of the road to its cemetery or over county trash disposal policies, and express complaints about Council’s lack of understanding of the rest of the county. In the newspaper as well as within the county there is an on-going question about whose voices will be heard and whose ideas about the county’s identity will prevail—this is part of the way in which the newspaper participates in the community’s narrative about itself.

So Adams County, though sparsely populated, doesn’t exist as a single, monolithic community,
but rather as a collection of communities. The low population density also contributes to the fact that communities at the borders of the county have some partial allegiance to the neighboring county—children of Indian Valley attend school in Washington County, for instance, and many residents of New Meadows work in Valley County. When county lines were first being drawn, these varying geographic and social contiguities came into play. Arguments in the newspaper over the drawing of county lines enact these underlying dramas of allegiance as points of crisis in the creation of local identity.

Historically, roads and the railroad occupy a good deal of space as topics in the newspaper. Geography is clearly a powerful force, and shaped the relationship between towns in the larger
region of Adams, Valley, Idaho, and Washington counties more than I would have guessed. I expected to come across early evidence of relationships between the towns in the larger region, but very little in the nature of an active relationship is expressed, except for a recurring spirit of rivalry between the towns—over attracting settlers, over sports and contests, over who gets money for roads, who has a gymnasium, who has contributed most to the war effort. Within the larger area of the county’s interest, there are constantly shifting rivalries and alliances— for instance, on numerous occasions, the newspaper expresses Council’s animosity toward Weiser. In 1925: “To us, hell is just a place; and we used the word in the same sense that one might mention Boise, or perhaps, to be more exact, Weiser, for instance.” But newspaper readers can also be asked to band together with Weiser to face what is perceived as a shared threat, such as during the anti-mail-order-house campaign. Overall, the history of geographic isolation and a sense of very localized identity seem to be more powerful than motivations that would create more active partnership between towns in the region. McCall and Council, for instance, though only 35 miles apart, often don’t even provide information in their present-day newspapers about major local events in the other town.

The early economic history of Adams County is also directly connected to its geography.
Council’s early existence as a town was very much linked to its role as a supply station on the route to outlying mining concerns. Business and agricultural enterprises grew up in the wake of that supply activity, making Council the economic center of the county. Council continued as the county seat, although other towns vied for that honor. Geography proved to be a crucial factor in the failure of mineral extraction in the surrounding mountains to become viable industries. The Mesa Orchards, referred to frequently in the newspaper, were a flourishing enterprise for a while, with expectations of becoming one of the nation’s largest suppliers of apples. They were the source of much hope for the economic future of the area, but declined through the twenties and thirties. Geographic isolation gave the orchard owners an economic edge at first, because they didn’t have to battle the infestations of insects which plagued other orchards in the nation. The arrival of the coddling moth was inevitable when better roads led to increased travel to the area. The costs of insect control and of irrigation proved to be huge blows to the orchards, which were eventually abandoned as any kind of major commercial operation.

Between mineral extraction, fruit culture, fox and fur farms, the railroad, farming, ranching, and the timber industry, Adams County has experienced several waves of boom and bust. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the spirit of hope truly springs eternal in the pages of the newspaper—possible grandeur for the county seems always to be appearing on the horizon during this period. There is a strong belief that Adams County can become “the garden spot of Idaho, and Idaho the garden spot of the earth.”

A remarkable spirit of “boosting” the town persists through all the vicissitudes of fortune. Those
who “knock” the town come in for abuse that can get very personal, and the paper takes on these “knockers” in a serious way. In 1915, the editor writes: “While down at the depot one day last week we heard J. L. Griffith of Payette knocking the Council Valley as hard as he knew how in the presence of a homeseeker whom one of our real estate men was about to close a deal with. On coming up the street we were told that Mr. Griffith had been doing a lot of knocking which we did not hear. He was very imprudent to say the least. Mr. Griffith sells tombstones and he has practically a monopoly on the business in this part of the country, but such talk as he made on his last trip will certainly erect his business tombstone in this vicinity in short order. The people will not exert themselves to give their patronage to such knockers.” The way that the newspaper addresses individuals—with the understanding that its readers will know, personally, who these individuals are—is part of its community-created rural identity.

Eberle Umbach
© 2003-2010

Pix from top:
The Adams County Leader Building:
January 10
The Outskirts of Council looking toward the eastern foothills: August 08
Bear School:
May 99
Hay Bales in a Shelter, Indian Valley: November 09
The Old PIN rail line, now a Rails to Trails conservancy, in Glendale: October 08
Horses & colts with a view toward Mesa Hill: June 07
Adams County Rodeo Parade in Council:
July 98

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  1. What a delightful article about your neck of the woods. A "combination of pride and defensiveness"...sounds like pioneer stock, to me!

  2. I'm just sitting here, on my couch by the fire, marvelling at the fact that I have a connection to people from the town of Council, Idaho, pop. 816.
    "Kiser went to Weiser" really cracked me up!

    Loving it!

  3. Dear Willow,
    I think you're completely right about that! I've come to recognize this combination in myself, the longer I live in the country with my trips to cities becoming more and more infrequent - I sometimes think that I'm actually losing my ability to handle the conditions of civilization (roads of more than two lanes and so forth) which both frightens me and invigorates me at the same time...

  4. Dear Poetikat,
    I'm so glad you liked that line! To me, the old newspapers, especially the bits of gossip and the letters to the Editor, give these amazing little windows into what everyday life was like during a very different era. But it might not be everyone's cup of dandelion tea...


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