Southeast Idaho Fieldwork Survey Part 2: Bear Lake County
This short series is a snapshot of a month’s worth of work conducting folklife fieldwork in the far southeastern corner of the state. Unless otherwise noted, photos were taken with Jack Daly’s camera and text was taken from Jack Daly’s field notes.
Bear Lake County can be broken into three distinct areas: the northern Bear Lake area comprised of the small towns strewn along U.S. 89, Montpelier, and the U.S. 30 corridor. The U.S. 89 area has the small towns of Fish Haven, St. Charles, Paris, and Ovid. Fish Haven and St. Charles still maintain the beachside, verdant vibes established by Garden City, Utah. The more you go north towards Paris and Ovid, the more it begins to feel like farmland.
Three main points of focus exist in these towns: LDS pioneer history, the Oregon Trail, and Bear Lake. Nearly every cultural landmark is tied to those themes. Montpelier is in itself a distinct town. The main life exists on the small Main Street present as soon as you enter town. For me, Montpelier has maintained a feel of the Old West, partially in thanks to the Butch Cassidy museum, Papa’s Fine Chocolates and its unique decor, and the Oregon Trail Center. What I call the U.S. 30 corridor is somewhat similar to the U.S. 89 stretch in that LDS pioneer history and the Oregon Trail are main points of focus, as can be seen through the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum and the Big Hill Site, but one might also find the song “Home, Home on the Range” playing in one’s head as they travel through this particular stretch of land given its particular pastoral setting.
Not sure where to go next, I looked at my list of contact references and saw a saddlemaker in Montpelier listed. I googled “Montpelier Idaho saddlemaker,” and was directed to a person named Daryl Woolstenhulme. After calling the number listed on his website due to trouble finding his business, I pulled up to a worn-down, white-brick building that had a metal sign featuring cowboys and a repair sign. I knocked on the door and heard the sound of a dog barking inside. Daryl greeted me and led me into what was essentially a garage that smelled of leather. Daryl is probably 6 foot 3 and I’d estimate 70-years-old, with a white handlebar mustache. He wore a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a tattered cowboy shirt. As I shook his hand, I noticed how worn they were from years of handcrafting.
Daryl, who is a great speaker, told me that he got into saddlemaking in 1974 when he went to trade school in Washington state to learn from a master leatherworker. There were small-ish pads of leather, magnificently adorned with intricate designs laying around, and he told me they were trivets. These trivets are used to place skillets or hot pans after they’ve been used. He showed me what instruments he uses to create them, which are born from hand-drawn designs on paper and then pounded into the leather in a number of different ways.
Daryl went to a back room and grabbed a saddle off of an oddly placed empty mattress. He showed me a saddle in the process of being built and told me of how it goes from a simple piece to something more intricate, adding that he believes he has his own style. His leather comes from a number of different places: Montana, Pennsylvania, locally. Speaking with Daryl was a very interesting experience, and I found him to be an extraordinary craftsman and an ideal interviewee.
My first stop of the day was at a memorial in St. Charles for Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor and designer of Mt. Rushmore. Borglum’s family had stopped in St. Charles due to inclement weather, where he was born in a small log cabin before the family moved to the Midwest. I was very surprised by this monument, as I was completely unaware that the designer of one of the nation’s most famous landmarks had been crafted by a local of this small Idaho town. Borglum’s parents were Danish Mormon emigrants, and the theme of emigration would come up several times during my fieldwork for the day. The memorial is fairly significant, consisting of four small obelisks placed on four corners of an open area which is made out of shale rock for the ground. There are two signs; one of which tells the story of Gutzon, the other telling the story of his family. A rock sign with a bust of Mt. Rushmore sits in front of one of the obelisks, and a large sign with his face sits in the back-center of the site.
I finished my time in Paris by visiting the local library, which was closed due to COVID-19, as well as walking on the grounds of the LDS Tabernacle. The Tabernacle dominates the landscape of Paris and was built in 1884 and 1889 by Swiss masons, according to a sign that rests upon the grounds. A memorial sits on the grounds for Charles Coulson Rich, one of the settlers of the area, which features his bust perched atop a column listing his biography.
To round out the day, I attempted to stop at a house in Ovid that had a “dolls” sign outside of it. The house was, to be candid, very creepy, but a car was parked outside of it, so I tried to knock on the front door, but there was no answer. I took a picture of the Ovid schoolhouse, which is evidently closed, and I also took a picture of (the LDS ward chapel) on the outskirts of town, which, although manifestly vacant due to boarded-up doors, had orange cones around it indicating that some preservation effort was occurring.
The owner of the Butch Cassidy Bank Robbery Museum (Montpelier) and the site itself are repositories of local history and lore. There is a large piece of brown paper hanging on one of the walls, where the owner has drawn a map of the Bear Lake area, along with other significant cultural markers. This includes a UFO sighting reported by local police, sightings of the Bear Lake monster, the route settlers took over the iced-over lake to transport local rocks to create the church in Paris, and many other historically significant marks. Radek also told me about other factoids of interest, including how a family named the Coons essentially monopolized the nearby town of Bern in the past, to the point that you couldn’t find employment or housing in the town if your name wasn’t Coon. He also told me about Pegleg Smith, a businessman who established a trading post in the area. Local legends say that his wife, Mountain Fawn, is buried somewhere near Montpelier with all her treasures. Later in the day, as I traveled to Dingle, I found a historical sign telling of Pegleg’s ventures.
I drove south along U.S. 30, towards Dingle. On the road, I saw the aforementioned sign for Pegleg Smith. Just south of town I came upon a historical marker noting the location of “The Big Hill” where settlers on the Oregon Trail faced a significant task in crossing over this mountain, which has become known as The Big Hill Site. There are several signs explaining the history of the site, as well as an enclosed space that has more signs covering topics like local history and westward expansion, all while framing the hill through the western exit of the enclosing.
I finished the day by visiting the Old Ephraim statue in Montpelier. Old Ephraim is a bear that lived in the Bear Lakes region from 1911 to 1923 and is renowned for his size. The statue stands on the eastern entrance to Montpelier, and comically is currently wearing a mask. The statue is also accompanied by a stone slab giving a brief overview of Old Ephraim’s history.