Heart of the Treasure Valley: Living history of Idaho City

Allen Frentress tells stories from 80 years in the Boise Basin

August 25, 2013 

  • HEART OF THE TREASURE VALLEY ALUMNI NEWS

    Kurt Koonz, who walked 500 miles on El Camino pilgrimage in Spain, has written a book about his adventures called “A Million Steps.” In conjunction with his worldwide book launch, watch the Idaho premiere of “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago,” a documentary by filmmaker Lydia B. Smith. 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Boise Center on the Grove Summit Room. Tickets are $10 advance/$15 door through brownpapertickets.com. Free Camino tutorial 5 p.m. with both Smith and Koonz. See also KurtKoontz.com.

    Read Kurt Koontz’s story at IdahoStatesman.com/heart.

  • Kurt Koontz, who walked 500 miles on El Camino pilgrimage in Spain, has written a book about his adventures called “A Million Steps.” In conjunction with his worldwide book launch, watch the Idaho premiere of “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago,” a documentary by filmmaker Lydia B. Smith. 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, in the Boise Center on the Grove Summit Room. Tickets are $10 advance/$15 door through brownpapertickets.com. Free Camino tutorial at 5 p.m. with Smith and Koontz. See also KurtKoontz.com.

    READ KURT KOONTZ’S STORY AT IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM/HEART

To those of us who live elsewhere, Idaho City is a quaint weekend destination for ice cream. It’s where we wander for a while on the boardwalk, maybe going to the cemetery or museum, thinking about history, and then we go home.

But Allen Frentress has little patience for those who presume to know what life was like “back then.”

He says: “They have no idea what the hell it was like.”

At the same time, he’s keenly aware that there’s not many people left who do know. “I’m headed toward 87 if I don’t fall off this porch,” he says. That’s a lot of stories — history — to tell.

He doesn’t like that there’s few around to set him straight if he remembers incorrectly. But on the other hand — who else is going to bring history to life? Because what we would call history — that’s his childhood.

“We had to carry water from the old courthouse — there’s a pump, and it’s still there. You go and pump two buckets. … If my mom didn’t, I had to. They were heavy, all the way from the courthouse to our house; what the hell was the name of that street? Our house is still there.”

He’s a native Idahoan, born in Greenleaf. His family moved to Idaho City when he was 7.

“(My dad) was pitching hay all day for 5 cents an hour (in Greenleaf), and then he got a good job in Payette in the cannery — for 15 cents an hour. He worked there two weeks and it caught fire and burned down. So we moved to Idaho City with my mom’s brother in the fall of ’33.”

Boom-and-bust Idaho City, founded in 1862 during the Civil War, had quite the reputation.

“My old Quaker aunt said, ‘You take that little child up there in that horrible place?’ She’d just heard about Idaho City and the bars — bad place. Hell, it was the best place to grow up that I can think of.

“ … I tell you what, you walk by one of the bar doors when I was a kid, you didn’t even stop and look in the door or they’d come out and kick your little butt right off the sidewalk. Sidewalk? — the boardwalk into the street. Oh, no. You didn’t even look in the bars.

“ … We could sit out on the porch with the old-timers, some neat old guys. Gol, I wish I had all their history. … They’d sit there and lie to you. And maybe they’d drop a nickel down into the crack in the walk where they had been spitting tobacco juice, so we could go down under there and get it and then they’d spit on us some more. It was fun.”

His father found work building the highway to Lowman, and later working for the Depression-era Works Project Administration putting water lines through town.

“ … WPA, it got people to work. Got them 10 cents an hour and what the hell. … I don’t know how my poor old daddy fed himself and mom. Don’t know how in the hell he fed me. I still was never hungry.”

A young student once interviewed Allen about his childhood, asking simple questions about the entertainment back then. He snorts.

“ … Quick mercury — the bad stuff that you can’t buy anymore, that they’ll tear up the sidewalk in Boise if you break a thermometer (because) you’re going to die —we used to carry it in our pockets and shine dimes with it. You know, play with it. ‘It’ll kill you.’ Yeah. I ain’t dead yet.”

“ … Old Weigel used to have a movie every Saturday night … where the county offices are. Weigel’s Place — it was 10 cents to go to the movies. Give him one of them dimes, he’d go ‘Naw, this is not real.’ ‘Yeah, it is, we were shining it with the mercury.’ The old gal would give us a hard time. Ten cents to go to a movie! Anyway. It was fun.”

They’d poke sticks up the boardwalk and trip passersby, ride sleds behind the milk delivery, catch snakes, steal cigars, play the penny slot machines.

“We weren’t supposed to get near those. We’d put a penny in and pull it and the damn thing would pay off and we’d run out the door, and pennies were going off. … That’s entertainment.

“We’d steal cigars, and when I started working (at Boise Basin Mercantile), old Ernie the boss said, ‘C’mere. I want to show you something.’ We walked clear to the back by the meat cases and he says, ‘Here’s where you watch the little sons of bitches that come steal cigarettes and cigars.’ And I go, huh? He used to put these Royal Bengal cigars that nobody would buy, none of the men at work, up there just to watch us kids steal them. … (He laughs at himself.) Oh, God, that was embarrassing.”

Allen tells of another young man, making pleasant conversation, asking him about where he took his driver’s education instruction. Allen guffaws again.

“I started driving at 10 delivering groceries (for the Mercantile). They didn’t give a damn back then. I went up on Spanish Fork Ridge to deliver groceries to those miners. One old guy made me drink a beer one day. He was so scary … big old guy, 8 feet tall, I swear to God.

“I delivered groceries to him one day, a case of Budweiser bottles. He had a thing on the tree where the animals couldn’t get (the groceries), and I was putting them up and he come up and caught me. (Allen makes a deep gruff voice.) ‘Have a beer, boy.’ I’d a ate the bottle if he would have told me. … He scared me to death, and I was old enough not to be scared.

“ … That’s where I took my driver’s ed, delivering groceries. Driver’s ed — didn’t have such a thing. Whatever.”

Idaho City’s hummocks and piles of gravel, chewed up and spit out from the dredges, might seem like they came from history too far back for recollection — but it’s not. Allen’s father helped build the Idaho Canadian dredge in 1935; as a kid, Allen and his friends would ride their bikes and watch it work; and Allen worked on it after World War II — until it tipped over one day. Which is another story.

“(The dredge) came up the canyon, as you can see by the mess out there. Past Warm Springs. It went clear to Granite Creek, turned around, came back and what they’re doing is picking up stuff they didn’t get deep enough first time. And then I got out of the service in ‘46, and this winchman tipped it over one night, across from Warm Springs.

“There’s a little old house there built like a dredge, it was behind that to the south where this dredge tipped over. So I lost that job. I had a job for two months after I got out of the service … ”

But the thing that dazzled the young boy’s eye was the “giants” — the enormous hydraulic cannons that devoured hillsides. Gold Hill is — was — where the football field is now.

“Gold Hill, when we got there, they worked 24 hours a day and they’d put these big old giants on that cliff and it would shake the dishes in our house down in town. They talk about a jet airplane today, holy God, and when the dredge went up through town, like I think I told you, people would say ‘It’s shaking our house’ when it got down on bedrock.

“ … But them placer mines was something else. They had three of these big giants going and just washed the poo out of that into them big old sluice boxes.

“That’s what we done for entertainment — they’d shut it down and those sluice boxes were as tall as this roof and we’d get in there and walk down there, dig in there and steal the gold and quicksilver (mercury) and they knew we were doing that; they didn’t care. Then they’d turn on the water in the sluice box, just for fun, a little of it — that would get rid of us.

“That was fun. Anyway. That was amazing, those things.”

There are a few childhood antics that make better stories than historical records. Tell instead, he says, of the time they skied to Centerville — that would be OK.

“We rode over with Don Shackleford — Shackleford was the old truck line. Goddamn, it’s coming back — coming to Idaho City with a truck line with supplies, what little bananas and stuff that couldn’t come on the old stage. … I tried to remember that hours ago, remember?

“He’d let us put our skis and sleds in if he had room and he’d bring us up to the summit. We’d go back to Idaho City — if anybody was on the road, it would have killed you.

“But we come over here once (to Centerville). That was like going to Alaska, holy moly. ‘I wonder if we’ll ever get home?’ That was quite a hill to work out on skis.”

There was school, of course.

“When we was kids in the school … Horseshoe Bend was another planet. One time in track and field, they loaded us in a wood truck, put us in the back like cattle and took us to Garden Valley over Ophir Creek. That was out of the world for us kids to go from Idaho City. …

“That was a good little school — city hall now. Four grades down below and four grades up above, and then you better be shipped out some place, because there was no school buses. No high school, of course. (He had an uncle to stay with in Nampa, so that’s where he went.) Everybody else went to Boise.”

When the war began, Allen threatened to lie about his age. “I’m not going to high school when everybody’s leaving,” he said, so his mother consented. He went to Saipan and Okinawa — earned a presidential unit citation there — and Japan.

“I was there, kid, a little young. I should have been killed but I lucked out.”

Allen came home to Idaho City. He worked on the dredge — till it tipped over; on the railroad in Nampa, on a dredge in California; got married a second time, ran the Boise Basin Mercantile, commuted to Bach’s Photographs and Ballou-Latimer drugstore in Boise, and retired from the Transportation Department after 30 years of keeping the Idaho City highway cleared and repaired.

Today, Allen lives in Centerville, next to the house his dad built. He and his wife, Barbara, moved there to take care of his parents, who died in the 1990s. Barbara also worked at the Boise Basin Museum for years.

“She just liked Idaho City. … She just liked it and the people and the good old kids I grew up with and such. … She really got into that historical stuff.”

They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2011. But for seven months last winter, Allen drove his wife daily to Garden Valley or Boise for chemotherapy. She died April 18, 2013, after 29 days in intensive care.

“I wanted to make 105, just to take care of Barbara. She was 14 years younger than me; I married a baby. She’s only 72. Without her? I don’t know.”

The light has gone out of his life a little. He’s got neighbors who look in on him, and his dog, Zoe, that keeps him going, begging for the end of an ice cream cone every evening at 7 o’clock, Allen half complains. But the weeds in the yard aren’t as under control as he’d like, and he fears that the birds he feeds have given up on him.

“I told (my neighbor) if I don’t answer the phone, I’m dead out in the beer chair. I was going to go up by a tree and sit there like an Indian and die, but it’s too hard to walk up that hill. …

“But I got the dog now to take care of, the adoptee, so I’ll be out in the beer chair. … I used to go around there, get ready to think about what I’m going to do in that yard — nothing as you can tell by the weeds.”

But for one afternoon, he was happy to sit on the porch, watch the hummingbirds, wave to the neighbors and talk about his childhood — Idaho City’s history — that lives in his stories. A good life?

“Up until now. I guess. Ain’t been rich. It’s been different.

“ … (As for the stories), nobody’s left. I don’t want it to be wrong.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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