Small communities that once defined America now need new roles, relevance in global economy

Published in The Idaho Statesman on Oct. 15, 2001

This was the second story in a series on how rural economies were changing and how that affected Idaho families. I led a team of reporters from four papers and two TV stations in the project, which Pew helped pay for. It was a shared byline with Tim Woodward.

COUNCIL — Dick and Georgianna Parker have been part of rural life in Council Valley for longer than most people who live there can remember. They live in a home her father built on land her great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Dick drew a man’s wages working in the fields when he was 12. He has spent his entire life as a farmer, cowboy and logger — until now.

The Parker home overlooks a postcard-perfect valley between Council and Fruitvale, but for the past two years, the Parkers have worked in town. Dick traded his horses, tractors and chain saws for a computer. Georgianna’s days of sewing and baking and gardening have become nights of telephone interviewing. Their evenings in cramped cubicles, doing surveys for the Council office of Boise-based Clearwater Research Inc., aren’t the life they would have chosen. But their old ways of life are gone, leaving them with a continuing need to work.

“Our house is paid for and we get Social Security, but we still have to buy health insurance because Georgianna’s not on Medicare yet,” said Dick Parker, 70. “The wages don’t compare with logging, and some of the loggers I know wouldn’t even consider doing this kind of work. I don’t blame them, but logging is being shut down. A lot of them are going to have to learn to do something else.”

For a century, most of rural Idaho was relatively stable. Sure, some towns boomed and others busted, but the few hardy souls who settled in the state could find work in the mines, in the trees or in the fields.

But while towns like Council and Paul and Kellogg continued to churn out timber and spuds and silver, the country and its system of commerce were steadily changing.

Trade barriers fell; corporations grew; global markets widened.

And rural Idaho didn’t adapt.

SMALL TOWNS STRUGGLE

“St. Anthony was the place my family drove to shop more than anything,” said Ellen Romrell, who still farms near there with her husband, Paul. “It was a thriving little town. It had nice restaurants. There was not a better restaurant than the old China Clipper Cafe, and my mother and dad really liked it, and I loved it as a kid. Those things are gone. And the Silver Horseshoe was a good place to dine. It’s gone. Our little Ben Franklin store is gone. I nearly cried when I found it was closing. But you can’t force people to shop in a certain place. You can talk till you’re blue in the face to them, but people are going to do their own thing.”

Idaho’s rural economy centered on one thing — resources. And towns such as Central Idaho’s Pierce — which was devastated recently when Potlatch Corp. closed the Jaype sawmill there and 215 jobs were wiped out in a day — have lived and now are dying with the decisions of one company.

“Before Jaype was here, we had several sawmills,” said Orofino Mayor Joe Pippenger. “It was to a point where if anybody ever needed a job, they could go to a mill and be hired within a week to two weeks. But at that point, the eggs weren’t in one basket.

“That’s what we’ve kind of gotten to, most of the eggs in one basket.”

From the start, the rural towns have been intrinsically tied to the federal government. In the 1800s, laws such as the Carey and Homestead acts used the lure of free land to draw thousands of pioneers to Idaho and other parts of the West, and the U.S. Cavalry protected them once they were here. Federal policies encouraged the harnessing of the Snake River and other wild waterways, opened federal land to low-cost timber and mining, and established state trust funds and universities.

Rural Idaho has made a living of carrying out federal mandates. Log this. Mine that. Farm here.

And that role has been vital to the country’s success. Those in the resource industries are rightfully proud of their contributions to feeding, clothing and sheltering the world, but what they haven’t noticed — or have been slow to acknowledge — is that the country’s demands are changing. Even locally, developers, hobby farmers and wealthy retired people are changing the ways land is used and valued.

Many working in traditional industries have a hard time coming to terms with the new rules.

“Well, of course, we feel a lot of development pressure,” said Dean Dryden, who ranches in Adams County. “When my dad was my age, they were putting ranches together and they could pay for them in 10 years’ time. I can’t even look at a ranch. I can’t even look at expanding, even though I’d like to. Even with cattle prices being better this year or for the last few years, you just can’t cash-flow one out. You can’t make it go trying to buy a ranch in this area.

“I’m going to stay at it as long as I can, but my kids can’t come back to the ranch, because it won’t support all of us.”

GENERATIONS IN COUNCIL

In the early years of their marriage, the Parkers lived in a trailer 8 feet wide, traveling from one timber job to the next. Georgianna prepared the meals, cared for the children, made the tiny trailer a home. Dick spent his days in the fragrant forest, helping supply the logs that kept the Council mill running.

“I loved the smell of fir needles in my lunch box,” he said. “Once you get used to that, it’s hard to change.”

They’d graduated to a bigger trailer by 1963, the year Dick accepted an offer to run Georgianna’s father’s 1,000-acre ranch. They raised beef and dairy cattle, hay and grain. It was a home for their growing family, but the business quickly proved to be a financial sinkhole.

“We had a frost in June one year, the grasshoppers ate us out the next year, and we had a drought the year after that,” Dick said. “We went broke in three years and hung on for five more after that. When cattle prices finally went up — they’d been down every other year we ran the place — I figured we could sell out and pay the bills and I could go back to logging. I was tired of lying awake nights, wondering where the money would come from.”

Georgianna’s father agreed and sold the ranch to Eldon Craig, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s father. The property subsequently was resold and today, of the 1,000 acres Georgianna Parker’s ancestors homesteaded and farmed for generations, the Parkers own and live on an acre and a half.

When the dollars were stretched to the breaking point and the farm was sold in 1971, Dick returned to logging. He worked in the woods until 1993, when, at 62, he became a cowboy again, working as a hired hand at a ranch on nearby Hornet Creek.

“I worked there until I got the job at Clearwater,” he said. “I finally had to quit the ranch because my hands wouldn’t take the cold anymore.”

Dick Parker is a community institution. He’s called rodeos, run a farm-auction business and entertained at social events, playing old-time country music on his harmonica and button accordion. Most weekends, he can be found sitting in at Council’s city park with the Jammers, a local country group. A minister of the gospel, he shares preaching duties at the Council Community Church. He has presided over more loggers’ funerals than he can remember, occasionally transporting the deceased to the cemetery in a wagon pulled by his draft horses. He has run numerous charity auctions, and he and Georgianna are steadfast contributors to charitable events and community causes. His blue jeans are cinched around his still-muscular waist with a belt proclaiming him a past grand marshal of the Adams County Rodeo. In 1975, he was Council’s Man of the Year.

But for machinery and modern conveniences, the Parkers’ lifestyle for most of their lives has been little changed from that of William Duke Glenn — Georgianna’s pioneering great-grandfather, who came to Idaho from Tennessee in the 1890s. Like the Parkers, he was a farmer. Like them, he taught his children the basics of riding, roping, caring for sick animals, planting and harvesting.

“He had a few cows and horses, hay to feed the animals in winter and some chickens,” Georgianna said. “He didn’t sell anything; he just built up the place. He made his own soap. There were no stores to buy things. It was just survival.”

Dick Parker’s grandparents came to Idaho from Colorado in 1911. His grandfather, Warren DeKalb Parker, was a logger. Dick Parker’s father, Warren Willard Parker, logged and farmed. He grew up in the Council Valley, but as a young man worked briefly in the orchards around Wenatchee, Wash. It was there that he met his bride-to-be, another fruit picker, named Jessie Forman. Dick was born in Wenatchee in 1931.

The Parkers tried to weather the Depression in Northwest Washington, where Dick’s father logged with a crosscut saw.

“The Depression was real hard on us,” he said. “It was a constant struggle just to eat. Finally my dad told my mother we were going back to Idaho, where there was enough game in the hills that we could live. He traded a milk cow for a 1928 Chevy, and we came to Idaho. When we got here, he had $15.

“We lived on Bear Creek (north of Council) for five years. Then Dad got a loan for $8,000 and bought 1,770 acres, and we started farming. We did it mostly with horses. We had machinery, but it didn’t amount to much.”

Parker laughs at the memory of it.

“We pulled the machines with the horses.”

For more than a century, the two sides of the family that met in Georgianna Glenn and Dick Parker made their living from the land — farming, ranching, logging. The men did hard, physical labor outdoors; the women tended to the home and the children. The children stayed in the valley and lived lives much like those of their parents. Entertainment was homemade country music, potlucks and ice cream socials, baseball, rodeos, swimming at nearby Starkey Hot Springs and just “visiting.”

“There was a lot of visiting among the families,” Georgianna said. “Long Valley folks would come here to get apples; we’d go there to get potatoes. But it was as much social as anything. You’d go as much to visit as you would to get things.”

CHALLENGES TO COME

Romrell, Pippenger, Dryden and the Parkers have seen their share of change, and most experts think more change lies in store as the relationship between rural America and the federal government evolves and the country’s population continues to shift.

In 2000, for the first time, the census documented that residents of suburban and urban areas outnumber those in rural communities.

Karl Stauber, a rural policy expert and the president of the Northwest Area Foundation, explains the transition this way:

America’s rural policy has long been based on “social contracts” — the unwritten deals between rural residents and the urban populations and industries they helped support.

Until the 1700s, rural America was America. As urban areas grew around transportation hubs, they existed largely to serve the rural producers of food, cotton, minerals and more, which were traded and sold to other countries. Around the time of the Revolution, urban areas were becoming more important, both economically and politically, according to Stauber. Urban residents paid for exploration, military protection and projects aimed at displacing Native Americans and to help colonists better compete with other countries’ commercial interests in the West. Rural residents provided food and other raw materials and essentially gave the country its identity and source of hope.

Throughout most of the century, farmers had made up essentially all of America’s work force. But by 1880, they had dropped to just 50 percent of that, and that number has continued to fall ever since. Today, less than half a percent of Americans earn a primary income from farming or ranching.

Rural America’s role as supplier to the nation led to the agricultural programs and the mining and timber incentives that carried rural Idaho and the country through the 20th century.

And that role is still real to many rural Idahoans — especially farmers. But Stauber argues that the relationship has changed.

“Rural America used to be America’s storehouse,” he said. “Today, the world is America’s storehouse. Agricultural rural America likes to claim, ’We feed the world.’ In fact, rural America no longer feeds the world — it no longer feeds America. Today, America eats wherever it is convenient and cheap.”

Stauber thinks the country needs to decide why it should spend money in rural America. Rural residents are no longer settling the frontier, and they’re no longer providing the inexpensive food and fiber needed to keep urban industries vibrant. At the same time, urban and suburban residents are placing a higher priority on the rural environment. Federal land has become valuable open space and habitat, not just a source of timber and minerals and a place to graze cattle.

“Americans, particularly suburban ones, now question the desirability of subsidizing others, urban or rural,” Stauber said. “Put simply, the majority of Americans now ask, ’Why should I take money out of my pocket to make your life better? What do I get in return?’”

JOINING THE NEW ECONOMY

The biggest change to Council came in 1995, when Boise Cascade Corp. closed the sawmill it had operated there for 56 years. The town of 831 lost 56 good-paying jobs that were a force in almost every home and business in town. When the mill whistle blew for the last time, some predicted it would prove to be Council’s death knell.

It wasn’t. To the surprise of economic prognosticators “down below,” the term universally used in Council for the Treasure Valley, mill workers found ways to hang on and remain in the town where many had spent their lives. They did seasonal work, accepted lower-paying jobs, trimmed their living expenses. A year after the mill closed, 53 of its 56 workers were still in Council.

Boise Cascade gave the former mill site to the town, which used part of it to build a 55-acre business park and offered financial inducements to prospective tenants. Boise-based Clearwater Research Inc. set up shop there rent-free in 1998, interviewing more than 60 people in a single night for the 13 jobs initially available. Clearwater now employs 47 Council residents, from teens to retirees. Many are part-time workers, and the starting pay of $6.25 an hour is less than half of what many mill workers earned. But Clearwater was a big step toward what some say the former mill town needed most — diversification.

“I can’t say it saved Council, but it helped a lot of families,” Clearwater’s Council supervisor Kathy Merritt said. “A lot of families had nothing. My husband worked at the mill for 23 years. He took a seasonal job with another company. Without my job at Clearwater, we’d have had to leave.”

A smaller company, Territorial Supply, employs four workers at the business park. Western Timber, a Weiser wood-products company, is expanding to Council and will employ another 10 to 12 workers. A machine shop, a custom snowmobile shop and a water-bottling plant are contemplated. The new jobs are proof that there is life in Council after the mill. Opinions vary on whether it’s better or worse.

“People are starting to mellow out,” said Francee Wassard, Council’s economic development coordinator. “They’re realizing that there’s no Boise Cascade, and there’s not going to be any Boise Cascade. It will never be the way it was, and it shouldn’t be. We have to diversify. We’re better off with a diversified economy. Once you have it, you should never go back.”

Diversification isn’t without costs. New jobs have come too late or haven’t paid enough to keep even the most tenacious mill workers in town for good. Most have been forced to relocate in the last two years. Council’s young people are leaving; school enrollment has fallen nearly 25 percent since the mill closed. And Adams County’s median age of 44.4 years makes its population the oldest of any county in Idaho.

In three years of part-time work at Clearwater, Dick Parker progressed to a wage of $8.64 an hour, about two-thirds of what he made as a logger. He gets $800 a month from Social Security, and the Council Community Church pays him $500 a month as a part-time lay minister. He gets no retirement from Boise Cascade or the other companies that employed him as a logger because he wasn’t with any of them long enough. Georgianna works 28 hours a week at Clearwater, where, with a year’s less experience than her husband, she earns $7.50 an hour. She draws $400 a month from his Social Security.

That amounted to a combined, pre-tax income of about $3,500 a month. They pay $660 for health-insurance — Clearwater offers less-expensive HMO coverage, but they don’t want managed care — leaving a monthly pre-tax income of less than $2,900. With bond elections for a new courthouse and jail and a hospital bailout, their property taxes have almost doubled in the past decade. Without Clearwater, they could have been forced to leave the valley where they and their ancestors have spent their lives.

“It was a consideration,” Georgianna said. “We wouldn’t have wanted to leave, because our whole lives are invested here. But you have to go where there’s work.”

WIDESPREAD DISTRUST

The Parkers’ experiences with the New Economy illustrate why so many Idahoans fear such changes. They also look at “successful” rural towns — and don’t like what they see.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see New Meadows or Council or Adams County become like the Wood River Valley, where the local people can’t afford to live there,” Indian Valley resident Julie Burkhardt said. “And they’re importing people, and people have to move out of their own community in order to live on the pay they make being teachers and servants to tourists.”

The distrust is widespread.

“I’ve seen a lot of economic development where companies have been brought in, but they’ve been brought in so rapidly that people in the community weren’t able to educate themselves to be able to fit into the employment of that community,” said Firth rancher Charlotte Reid. “So that not only are we bringing in a new company, but we’re bringing in a lot of the people to work in that company. We’re not finding out what really fits in the community.”

Many rural Idahoans — and the state’s Legislature — have been hesitant to encourage new industries.

“Making these kinds of turnarounds, if you will, or changes in economies, is very, very difficult at best, especially when everyone else wants to go somewhere else,” U.S. Sen. Larry Craig said this summer. “Usually, the rural residents that are there want the status quo defended. They want what they’ve got. They want what they had. They don’t want the unknown of a future. If you’re a farmer, and your son or daughter, they want to be a farmer, that’s what you want to be. That’s the way the lifestyle of agriculture is. So don’t be so surprised or amazed that you don’t have farmers standing out on the streets saying, ’Gee, let’s transition this. I’ll get rid of my farm and I’ll bring in a new business over here.’

“They don’t think that way, and I can understand that. I grew up in agriculture. Agriculture is a business and it is also a lifestyle. And those two are just uniquely blended together.”

Many residents feel their stability is threatened.

“Those logging jobs or whatever it may be are pretty good jobs,” said Craig’s junior seatmate, Sen. Mike Crapo, “and they’re not confident that the jobs that are being proposed for their replacement are really the high-paying jobs that they have worked into during their career. And so there’s a lot of concern in these communities about the fact that we shouldn’t be too quick to discard our traditional economy. That is not to say that we can’t be flexible and recognize that the world is moving into different kinds of economies, and that there aren’t opportunities to adjust, expand, supplement and so forth, but agriculture and its related natural resource industries are still a very meaningful part of this state, and of the economy of rural Idaho.”

Many communities, particularly those where resource-based jobs started drying up years ago, are looking for ways to diversify. But the first thing many Idahoans hope for is a chance to return to the past.

“In defense of the small communities, everyone says we’ve got to branch out and everything,” said Orofino resident Julia Irby. “But we grow trees here. And we grow them beautifully. We just need the opportunity to manage them. And then we’d have all those jobs back. It’s just ridiculous to try to bang your head against the wall when it’s right in front of you.”

Craig attributes some of these responses to unsuccessful approaches to development that many towns took in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“Everybody was talking about their white knight — finding this new company that would ride in and drop a facility in place and all of a sudden employ a whole bunch of new people,” he said. “It has happened, but it doesn’t happen on a regular basis.”

BIGGER DREAMS

As long as they’re physically able to stay, the Parkers have no intention of selling.

“I’ve been cowboyin’ and loggin’ all over, and I never get over being awed by this country,” Dick said. “When I hit the Fruitvale Road, it’s like driving into paradise.”

“And this is really a community,” Georgianna added. “If you have a tragedy, people almost trample you to death trying to help you.”

Feeling he’d been unfairly criticized by a Boise supervisor, Dick walked out on his job at Clearwater in August.

“I’ve had total loyalty to every outfit I’ve ever worked for until they messed with me,” he said, sounding every inch the independent logger and rancher he has been. “If they mess with me, I’m gone.”

He plans to take off the hunting season, then look for a small tractor to start his own business, moving snow and tilling gardens.

“It’s a blow financially, but we’ll be able to get by OK for a while,” he said.

The Parkers hope to retire permanently in two years, when Georgianna is 65 and eligible for her own Social Security. Dick will be 72 then. Like the rest of their lives, their retirement plans are modest.

“We’d like to get a good camp trailer and some saddle horses and go to some of those lakes up in the Devils (the Seven Devils mountains),” Dick said. “There’s lakes up there we’ve never seen.”

For the community, their dreams are bigger.

“I’d like to see us have a timber industry again, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Dick said. “One thing I do know is that if this town is going to be more than a place for old people to live, it’s going to have to have jobs that work for the people who live here. There are people who work in the woods who’ll never have anything to do with computers or interviewing people. They don’t say three words all day. They need to work with their hands. I’d like to see manufacturing in Council, maybe a trailer factory. Something like that would work here.”

“That’s why Western Timber is perfect,” Wassard said. “The word ’timber’ makes all the difference.”

Six years after the demise of its mill, however, virtually everyone in Council agrees that the days when timber was king are gone for good.

“My advice for Cascade and other towns who have lost their mills is to quit looking back,” Wassard said. “It will never be the way it was. Look forward. And diversify. We aren’t looking for another major employer here in Council. We’re looking for a variety of employers that will pay decent wages and have no more than 10 employees each.

“As it is now, our young people are leaving. They’re going down below to learn skills and not coming back. They’d like to, but there have to be jobs for them to come back to. I don’t know anybody that wants Council to become a retirement community, but without jobs, that’s what going to happen. It’s happening already.”

In her living room, with generations of her ancestors framed on the wall above her fireplace, Georgianna looked forward to a Council she can just barely imagine.

“We’re going to lose the loggers no matter what we do,” she said. “Computers aren’t my favorite thing, but maybe technology is the answer. We need something to attract the kids. We need something that will make this a vital town again, for people who aren’t even born yet.”

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