To those of us who live elsewhere, Idaho City is a quaint weekend destination for ice cream. Its 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, hes keenly aware that theres not many people left who do know. Im headed toward 87 if I dont fall off this porch, he says. Thats a lot of stories history to tell.
He doesnt like that theres 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 thats his childhood.
We had to carry water from the old courthouse theres a pump, and its still there. You go and pump two buckets. If my mom didnt, 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.
Hes 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 moms 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? Shed 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 didnt even stop and look in the door or theyd come out and kick your little butt right off the sidewalk. Sidewalk? the boardwalk into the street. Oh, no. You didnt 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. Theyd sit there and lie to you. And maybe theyd 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 theyd 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 dont know how my poor old daddy fed himself and mom. Dont 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 cant buy anymore, that theyll tear up the sidewalk in Boise if you break a thermometer (because) youre going to die we used to carry it in our pockets and shine dimes with it. You know, play with it. Itll kill you. Yeah. I aint dead yet.
Old Weigel used to have a movie every Saturday night where the county offices are. Weigels Place it was 10 cents to go to the movies. Give him one of them dimes, hed 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.
Theyd poke sticks up the boardwalk and trip passersby, ride sleds behind the milk delivery, catch snakes, steal cigars, play the penny slot machines.
We werent supposed to get near those. Wed put a penny in and pull it and the damn thing would pay off and wed run out the door, and pennies were going off. Thats entertainment.
Wed steal cigars, and when I started working (at Boise Basin Mercantile), old Ernie the boss said, Cmere. I want to show you something. We walked clear to the back by the meat cases and he says, Heres 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 drivers education instruction. Allen guffaws again.
I started driving at 10 delivering groceries (for the Mercantile). They didnt 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 couldnt 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. Id a ate the bottle if he would have told me. He scared me to death, and I was old enough not to be scared.
Thats where I took my drivers ed, delivering groceries. Drivers ed didnt have such a thing. Whatever.
Idaho Citys 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 its not. Allens 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 theyre doing is picking up stuff they didnt 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.
Theres 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 boys 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 theyd 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 Its 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.
Thats what we done for entertainment theyd shut it down and those sluice boxes were as tall as this roof and wed 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 didnt care. Then theyd 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, its coming back coming to Idaho City with a truck line with supplies, what little bananas and stuff that couldnt come on the old stage. I tried to remember that hours ago, remember?
Hed let us put our skis and sleds in if he had room and hed bring us up to the summit. Wed 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 well 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 thats where he went.) Everybody else went to Boise.
When the war began, Allen threatened to lie about his age. Im not going to high school when everybodys 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 Bachs 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. Shes only 72. Without her? I dont know.
The light has gone out of his life a little. Hes 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 oclock, Allen half complains. But the weeds in the yard arent as under control as hed like, and he fears that the birds he feeds have given up on him.
I told (my neighbor) if I dont answer the phone, Im dead out in the beer chair. I was going to go up by a tree and sit there like an Indian and die, but its too hard to walk up that hill.
But I got the dog now to take care of, the adoptee, so Ill be out in the beer chair. I used to go around there, get ready to think about what Im 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 Citys history that lives in his stories. A good life?
Up until now. I guess. Aint been rich. Its been different.
(As for the stories), nobodys left. I dont want it to be wrong.
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