Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adams County Makes the News – Introduction – 4

[Here's the final installment of Eberle's introduction to Adams County Makes the News; posts of the actual letters will start next Wednesday]

Looking back over a hundred years of newspaper material, there are some surprises about what has changed and what hasn’t changed. The voice chiding county residents who go out of town to shop in 1902 has a distinct echo in the new millennium—and there is a slight shock in recognizing that the seemingly contemporary issue of “retail leakage” in rural Idaho goes so far back. This is one of many realms of concern in the county newspaper that have stayed constant over time. Other aspects of the newspaper have changed a great deal. A variety of national services provided the paper, and still do, with “filler” material—quotes and anecdotes and curious facts, convenient for filling up blank spaces left between articles in the paper’s weekly lay-out. I was surprised by the amount of casual racism and sexism in the short anecdotes used as filler in the past—the irrationality and cupidity of women is often a source of “humor,” as is the cunning laziness of blacks. I have not included any of this, or other, filler material, since my focus has been on local writers—who apparently accepted the presence of racist or sexist anecdotes as filler in the paper, while rarely expressing these prejudices in their own writings. Staff at the newspaper today describe the filler that is selected as falling into several main categories: science, self-improvement, business, and “country wisdom;” these were common in the past as well.

I was also surprised to find out that there was much more live music and entertainment in the Council area at the beginning of the twentieth century than there is today. As a musician, I felt a
definite pang reading a request of local businesses to give “liberal support” to local musicians—and at the regularity of dances with live music. When the town invited the CCC camp to a celebration, local poet and songwriter Orianna Martin composed a song in their honor and the lyrics were published in the paper. But times have changed. The People’s Theatre—once the site of shows by Miss Willey the world-famous whistler from California, operettas by the high school, and movies such as “Park Avenue Logger” with locally provided musical accompaniment-- has languished abandoned for years down the street from the Adams County Record office. In addition to shows and dances, a significant part of entertainments offered locally included school programs, debates, and talks by local or visiting speakers. A debate on prohibition held in 1909 was packed with area residents, the paper reported. In 1911: “Mrs. C. W. Wight will give a lecture at the Congregational church December 14. Her subject will be ‘What is Woman.’ This lecture will be both humorous and instructive and everybody is cordially invited to attend.” The newspaper, as history, has the ability to recapture some of the more ephemeral aspects of daily life and include them as part of a community portrait.

The local focus of the Adams County paper makes for a particular perspective on political history. Issues that may be considered major in the early twentieth century, such as women’s suffrage and prohibition, take on a local slant. For instance, when women got the vote, an article on the subject was reprinted from an urban newspaper, but there was no wave of editorials and letters specifically addressing the event. However, anxiety about gender issues surfaces at that time in jokes about women in town bobbing their hair, in a facetious suggestion to have a local beauty contest for men, and an editorial questioning why most of the organizations in town are run by women.

Adams County in the twenties experiences a truly remarkable surge of club activity for women,
with groups including the PTA, Ladies Aid, Red Cross, Worthwhile Club, Indian Valley Improvement Club, Bluebirds, Rebekahs, Witness, Women’s Auxiliary, and Royal Neighbors. The exact nature of all these groups is not clear from the newspaper record, but they identify themselves as groups to promote social good. Nonetheless, some doubts, apparently, had to be assuaged. In 1928: “Next Tuesday evening will be a red letter time for husbands of these beautiful ladies of the Worthwhile Club. Said husbands may have wondered many times during the past year what it is all about—this club business—but now they are going to be shown. It is the first annual banquet in honor of the husbands of the club members.” Prohibition receives more attention as a national phenomenon, but much of the commentary on this topic as well has to do with its local effects—an argument that Valley and Adams counties could not be merged because Valley is “wet” while Adams is “dry”; a letter from a local doctor deploring cases of alcoholism in Council before prohibition.

Other on-going themes in the first decades of the twentieth century include transportation, education, grazing and farming legislation—topics that continue with some degree of similarity
today. Roads and the railroad take up a large share of discussion. Concerns over local natural resources are also voiced, but I was surprised by the differences between what those concerns used to be and what they are today. It is interesting to see that in the past, regulation of resource use didn’t necessarily spark the kind of anger that it can currently in the newspaper. I wouldn’t have expected to find such early tolerance of many Forest Service regulations—restrictions on fishing and fire building, for example. In 1919, violation of the order not to build fires on forest land “subjects an offender to a fine of up to $5,000 or ten months in a tomb of reflection, or both.” City ordinances on water conservation, restricting the time and days when irrigation could take place, were enforced by the village marshal in 1928. Locals recognized that over-use of resources would be a bad thing, and supported stream closures (although they blamed dwindling fish populations on over-fishing by tourists.) Similarly, there are letters both for and against killing animals such as bear or beaver. What’s remarkable is the absence of a group identified as hostile to local interests and labeled “environmentalists”—a perceived opposition that often dominates present-day local discussion about the use of natural resources.

The biggest conflict over natural resources expressed in the newspapers is the great huckleberry dispute of the late twenties. The huckleberry patch in question was one in the midst of sheep-grazing allotments that had been left voluntarily free of sheep so the public could pick berries
there as well as camp and fish. The trouble started when a Forest Service supervisor, Mr. Rice, told grazers that if they didn’t actively use that part of their allotment, their allotment next year would be reduced by that amount. Things became very personal: “We understand Mr. Rice is from Kansas, where they raise huckleberries only in barrels. Mr. Rice seems to think that twelve cents a season for grazing sheep mounts up on four sections to huge sums, and he says that amount of land cannot be spared from the sheep to furnish a few thousand people with huckleberries and the incidental recreation of camping and picking them.… The Leader believes Mr. Rice is wrong. Mr. Rice intimates that there is only one person interested in huckleberries, and that that one person is an ignorant faultfinder. The editor wants to add at least one more ignorant faultfinder to the list.” The use of regulations to threaten a traditional local use of the land seems to have infuriated people in a way that other restrictions did not, and the furor didn’t end until that supervisor left town.

The process of editing newspaper material for this collection was influenced by the vision that I came to have of the material as a kind of community memoir. Memoirs inevitably involve
omissions, and I have left out a great deal of material in order to follow what to me appeared to be vital and engaging threads and voices. I also made a decision to limit this collection to the first four decades of the paper’s history. I found this material to have an almost narrative cohesion, documenting the development of the first phase of the region’s economy. The thirties brought the first wave of “bust” after a series of hopeful “booms”—the agricultural ventures and local businesses that grew up in the wake of mining interests, as well as the once flourishing Mesa Orchards, all suffered decline during the depression. The next wave of boom and bust, associated with the timber industry, was just beginning at the end of the thirties and would create a different phase of the area’s identity. Focusing on the early decades made it possible to convey a detailed portrait of that era in the newspaper’s history.

To me one of the most interesting things about the newspapers is seeing how the use of language varies over the decades, making word-portholes back into time. It’s interesting to consider that application forms used to be called application blanks, and that an angel food cake pan was called a Turk’s head pan. Reading a phrase such as, “He sat in the saddle with the dignity of a bedbug on a hairpin,” is to experience armchair-travel back into time. The continuity of certain voices and usage is intriguing as well. People used to use the word “country” to mean region—the “country newspaper,” for instance, meaning the Adams County Leader, and people still use the
word in this way: the “lower country” for Weiser and Boise, and “this country” for the local area. There are voices, too, which recur and seem constant over time: the voice that exhorts community effort, the voice of personal outrage, the voice that deplores gossip, and the voice that thanks the community for help during times of hardship.

Sorting the Adams County newspaper material has been, for me, archeology of a very amateur kind. I have enjoyed it in the same way that I like to poke around in an old homestead dump near my house
where tin cans and broken bits of china spark my imagination, not because of their rarity or exoticism, but because of the opposite. Their everydayness and their proximity to where I live are what intrigue me. This book comes from my curiosity about what is near instead of what is farfrom seeking for the mystery in what is close to home, the beauty and value of what is close at hand.

Eberle Umbach
© 2003-2010

Pix from Top
A Pizza Restaurant for Sale in Downtown Council
The People's Theater, Council
The Ace Saloon & Branding Iron Restaurant, Council
The Weiser River in Fruitvale (north of Council)
Sheep on an Indian Valley Ranch
A View to Indian Valley from Our Upper Pasture
An Old Bottle in the "Homestead Dump"


  1. The "everydayness" is what links us to the past. I'm certain this was enjoyable research and will be a wonderful book.

  2. Dear Karen,
    I do think that the "everyday" is greatly underrated - and I enjoyed your insight that the everyday links us to the past. The things we share with the people of the past, like the first food of the day - it's the differences between then and now that ultimately connect us as well,

  3. The People’s Theatre... has languished abandoned for years down the street from the Adams County Record office.

    This is such a shame and unfortunately happens in a number of towns and cities. There's so much benefit to these places too - to encourage creativity and bring people together and open up places where people can really communicate and have an interesting evening. I think that just as there's a tendency to overlook the "everyday", there's this a kind of contempt for things perceived as "amateur", as if the only real art/entertainment/public speaking worth paying attention to is by people getting paid a great deal for it and/or those with a lot of proper credentials.

  4. Dear HKatz,
    I think you are right-on about the perception of "amateur"- when I started living in Idaho full-time and participating in community music and community theatre, my whole scale of values about art changed from what I had been taught at school. These days, art without community seems kind of dead to me - as if some vital spark of connection is missing and I want to say hey! all of you out there! art is not something you buy or talk about - it's something you make and share. Thanks so much for your visit!


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