Writer in Residence

All This Idaho

Idaho stories run deep and broad in my family, and I have been told them since I was a boy by my mother, my uncle, and my great grandmother, Agnes Klingensmith, who lived most of her 96 years in a little bungalow a few blocks from here down 8th Street.

There is the story of my great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Jane Vance, who came out on the Oregon Trail from Missouri with her husband, Henry, in the 1870’s. They settled near Big Butte just south of Arco, Idaho and ran a stage stop along a treeless, bleak and windswept stretch of land on Goodall’s Cutoff. They served travelers food and drink and sometimes offered a place to stay. A year or two into their Idaho tenure Henry got sick and passed away, and what Sarah did was put him on ice, wait for the stage the next day, and shipped him back to Missouri to be buried. She stayed on to run the stage stop with her children for a couple more years, then moved on to run hotels in Houston, a ghost town now just south of Mackay. From there she moved to the mining town of Bayhorse, also now an amazing little ghost town preserved by the state just off highway 93, north of Stanley. Sarah Jane ran a hotel in Bayhorse, and what my family thinks doubled as a sometimes brothel. Bayhorse is where my great grandmother Agnes was born, and a place I was able to travel to with my uncle Joe, her grandson, the man who unfurled the histories and stories of Bayhorse and so much of Sarah Jane’s life here in Idaho.

My mother herself was born in an Idaho ghost town – Stibnite, above Warm Lake and Cascade, a town built to house tungsten and mercury miners and their families during the early 1940’s. My grandfather ran a grocery store in Stibnite those years, and the stories of the deep and brutal winters were told to us often.

I was told stories of Nettie Chip, a pious and big-hearted Christian, who was the head of the Women Christian Temperance Union in Idaho, and who signed in prohibition with Governor Alexander. There is also a photograph of Nettie out at the Old Idaho State Pen where she counseled and proselytized to inmates in the women’s ward. Nettie also became friends with Harry Orchard, the man who was hired by union bosses to assassinate Governor Stunenberg and who was a major player in what was then deemed The Trial of the Century. My great grandmother and uncle would tell me how Harry Orchard became a changed and very Christian man during the tenure of his life sentence, a model prisoner, and by later in his life Grandma Nettie was given permission to have Harry to their North End home for weekend dinners and prayer, then return him to the penitentiary by dusk on Sunday.

There is the story of my great Uncle Lloyd, a grocery warehouse man who went into business with a grocer named Joe Albertson and opened the first Albertson’s just down the street at 17th and State, and went on to partner with Joe for many years.

There is the story of my Great Uncle, Charlie Pryor, a bright industrious entrepreneur who for many years was known as “Dr. Baker,” one of the only doctors in Idaho. The rub was that he had never gone to medical school. Yet, when he was condemned and called out as a charlatan and fraud Charlie went directly out and passed the medical exam with flying colors. Uncle Charlie, aka “Dr. Baker,” later went to become a three-term Senator right here in this building.

There is the story of my great uncle Clay Vance who owned the Elkhorn Ranch out in the Big Lost River Valley and who became the first head of the Idaho Cattleman’s Association.

There are stories of my mother growing up here as an adventurous and strong young woman. There are stories of my uncle Joe playing music in the bars off Main Street. There are stories of births and deaths, street parties and fist fights. More stories, of course, than I can go into here today.

These Idaho stories stuck with me, and I grew up to become a writer, a storyteller, a collector of characters, imagery, culture. And, for the past nineteen years I’ve been an official Idahoan, too. Maybe I always was, because this state and the city of Boise have always felt so comfortable and right for me, a home base to work as a writer and teacher of writing, and to immerse myself in the amazing community of artists and great creative minds in Boise and throughout the state.

I moved to Boise from Seattle almost 20 years ago, took an apartment on 10th Street in the Jones Building, a graceful, turreted sandstone structure, one of Boise’s oldest apartment buildings, and which was erected to house legislators when they were in session. I wandered the streets of Boise, drove the desert highways, the winding mountain roads of Idaho, camped at Redfish Lake, began visiting these places I had been told stories about – Bayhorse, Mackay, Salmon, Houston, Arco, Stibnite.

On top of that I jumped into Boise’s rich literary community, and I dug deeper into creating my own Idaho stories. I was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at BSU where I have gone on to teach over the years, began writing for the Boise Weekly, The Idaho Statesman. I started teaching for The Cabin, Idaho’s largest literary nonprofit, an amazing organization I still work with regularly – teaching young writers in their summer writing camps and adult workshops in novel and short story writing. I’ve been able to create and help promote a handful of reading series here in Boise and beyond – Modern Campfire Stories and Storyfort among them.

To be named the Idaho Writer in Residence this summer was and is a humbling and deeply gratifying honor. To get to travel the state now to represent and work with Idaho writers and lovers of words for the next three years is amazing, and an Idaho story itself that I will be telling all my life.

I thank the governor for supporting the arts in this state through the Idaho Commission on the Arts and beyond, and I count myself lucky and honored to be able to be even a small part of keeping art alive and thriving in Idaho. Thank you.