Monday, November 18, 2013

Lake Lowell: The Friendly Neighbors Club

The Friendly Neighbors Club

 A Rural Idaho Women’s Tradition

as seen in IDAHO Magazine 

By Amy Larson

“Would you like to go to lunch with me sometime?” said Jean, a senior lady I’d just met. She was short, and her sparkling eyes, crisp voice, and white hair reminded me of an elf. It was 2001, and we’d just moved out to the rural Lakeshore Drive area near Lake Lowell. Each home in the neighborhood had at least an acre or two, and I was out exploring. Jean walked to her mailbox at the same time I trudged up the steep gravel road, and our chat led to a lunch invitation. Initially worried that I’d be lonely living the rural life, I said, “Sure.” She was a spitfire, and I had plans to be that way at her age. I was ready to watch and learn.

 A few days later, Jean picked me up in her sports car. I got inside and simply held on, certain she was a Nascar fan. We stopped to pick up Thelma, who lived nearby. Thelma laughed a lot, and told great stories. Three seemed like a good number for a get-to-know-you lunch, but at the restaurant, I was surprised to find nine others waiting there. They called themselves the Friendly Neighbors Club, comprising women who lived around Lake Lowell. They needed new blood . . . and that was me.

I can’t say I minded. Each had a tale that would familiarize me with area names, farms, and who was who. I got a crash course in rural Idaho by attending a two-hour, once-a-month luncheon. These ladies were really funny, and their club was an entertaining diversion from doing our business’s paperwork and our house’s housework.

I continued to ride to meetings with Jean and Thelma, who amused me with their Abbott and Costello act.  Sometimes Thelma would pass along a recipe she’d clipped from a magazine, knowing I had a family to cook for.  When I walked or drove up the hill, I’d either wave or honk at Jean. She became “Grandma Jean” to my children, who visited her every now and then. During morning workouts, when I rode my bike past Thelma’s little house down the road from mine, I’d wave at the big picture window I couldn’t see into, just in case she was nearby. She often spotted me.

Phyllis, another member, was a published writer, educated and well-spoken, who gave great devotional readings. Ruth made me laugh so hard I’d have to gasp for air, and she regularly invited the kids and I over for lunch and a dip in the pool. Charlotte, both smart and funny, was an artist who knew how to create just about anything. Midge, under five feet tall, shocked me at many a luncheon by ordering a big, juicy hamburger, and then eating it all. Soft-spoken Idella and her husband lived on our road, too, and year after year I took the kids trick or treating or Christmas caroling there.

Peggy, who claimed never to have had a toothache, earache, or headache, had supervised a corn topping crew in her forties, even during pregnancy. She never sat still, canned hundreds of quarts of this or that, crocheted blankets or anything else possible to crochet, and bowled with her league, who named their team Peggy’s Pickles in honor of her famous pickle recipe. “The secret’s in the water,” she told me. “It’s my special well water, and no one else can duplicate it. Many have tried.” 

Our entire family went yearly to the July potluck picnics held on Peggy’s front lawn under her huge shade trees on Walker Lake Drive. Because of these ladies, I never felt lonely living at the Lake Shore house. They took in my family and I. Nor was I the only one who felt that way about the club. Several of the members shared how they’d been transplants from other states, had needed friends, and the club had been there, making them feel that they had a place. The ladies were there for each other with a comforting sort of steadiness. Together, they mourned losses and celebrated gains. Their children were practically like siblings.

One summer, I developed a bike route past the houses of Thelma, Peggy, Idella, and Charlotte, which I rode almost every morning. The hunting dog of Peggy’s son followed me down the road one day and was struck by a speeding delivery truck. The dog didn’t survive, and I was heartbroken. A family came out of their home to help with the dog while I wondered how on earth I’d tell my friend. I rode back to Peggy’s and knocked on her door, but got no answer. At home, heavy-hearted, I called Peggy, and when she finally answered, I told her what had happened.

After a long pause, she said, “I just lost my son two weeks ago to an accident. He loved that dog, and now his favorite dog is with him in heaven. It’s okay, Amy.”
I cried a little, not having heard the sad news yet. Peggy, in her strong, corn-topping-while-she’s-eight-months-pregnant-way, consoled me, and after a moment said simply, “I sure miss him.”

I’d been a member of the club for five years before I had the good fortune to be entrusted with “the box.” One of the secretaries asked me to keep it for her. The cardboard box was clean, white, and carefully tied up with a thin turquoise string. At home, I went through it like a hungry child. It turned out to be filled with journals, minutes, old black-and-white photographs. What I learned filled me with a deep reverence for the club and the women who’d been a part of it all of this time.

I learned from its contents that the Friendly Neighbors Club had been formed on April 5, 1928, by farmers’ wives and mothers of school-age children. The first meetings were held twice monthly in a small building that became the district’s first schoolhouse. The club wasn’t unique. Many of the surrounding farming areas had such groups, and their heads would gather every so often to find out who was doing what within the communities, and sometimes coordinate their activities.

The Friendly Neighbors saw many needs to meet, one of which was proper school lunches. Long before a lunch program was instituted in the schools, the FNC made sure students had a good midday meal. Within the club, there were committees for just about everything, among them: flowers (weddings, funerals, illness), programs, membership, school, press and publicity, helping hand projects, ways and means, amusements, showers, books, decorations, the Marsing Auction, a scrapbook, and welcoming.

From about 1930 on, meticulous club meeting minutes were kept, which had the incidental effect of capturing the members’ cleverness. For example, each roll call featured a theme, as a way for people to get to know each other better. Here are some of them: “Name a Current Event,” “Name a Woman Writer,” “Yes or No: Does the Modern Girl Make a Better Homemaker Than Her Grandmother?,” “What I’d Do with a 25th Hour,” “My Secret Ambition,” and “What I Do When I Do What I Please.”

The minutes also provided evidence of stunts, riddles, card playing, games and contests, book and movie reviews, gift exchanges, spelling bees, and jokes played on husbands. Once, the members even held a “little kid party,” for which they all dressed as children.

The meetings often included the Pledge of Allegiance, readings of part of the Constitution or Gettysburg Address, and prayers. The “club collect” or motto, written by Mary Stewart, was: “Keep us, O God, from pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.” Activities changed with the seasons: a family picnic in July, spook stories in October, family Christmas dinners and parties in December, Irish jokes in March. In the spring there was an early bulb and seed exchange, and the anniversary luncheon in April was always a big, fancy affair.

Within the box, I also found tiny, handmade booklets titled, “In Memoriam.” One for each year contained the names of lost members, frequently with the same quote beneath each name, “As if a rose had climbed the garden wall and blossomed on the other side.” It was evident that as the list got longer of original members who’d passed on, the ladies found ways to celebrate their lives. Instead of a regular monthly meeting, candle ceremonies were held and memories shared of the friend lost.

The women were conscientious, determined to make their contribution to society, and the minutes showed their specific concerns: Public Welfare, What the Community Hall Needs, Winter Care of Poultry, Favorite Breed of Chickens and Why, What Can I Do for My Community, Ways to Conserve Sugar, What I Can Do to Help Win the War, Suggestions for Club Work for the Coming Year, Putting Something Christmassy on Helen Johnson’s Nursing Home Door.

The Lakeview School attended by their children was their pet project. They oversaw last-day-of-school picnics, teachers’ receptions, tokens of appreciation for cooks and custodians, presents for the teachers, blankets for emergency use, and assisted with the repair and/or purchase of the furnace. I believe they even helped to purchase a piano one year.

            Most of them were mothers, and children were welcome at club meetings. After a fire at the schoolhouse in 1967, students were bussed to different schools, but the tight-knit farming community and the club helped them to stay in touch.

If a farmer decided to sell or went bankrupt, club entrepreneurs discovered a way to make money. A crowd of people would descend upon those farms on the day of the auction, which many times continued during lunchtime. The Friendly Neighbors set up shop, selling home-made goodies to hungry buyers and bystanders. The money they made went right back into the FNC fund, which was often used to help each other or someone else.

Turning the pages of minutes and journals, I was amazed at the many ways these women had made their mark. It seemed they’d been everywhere in their heyday, lending  helping hands and making donations to the Salvation Army, Red Cross, American Cancer Society, March of Dimes, Marsing Disaster Fund, Children’s Home, Lizzard Butte Easter Association, Hope House, Mercy House, Youth Ranch, and Polio Fund. They donated turkeys during the holidays, granted modest scholarships, baked cakes for receptions, sent cards to anyone they knew going through a loss or a hardship, sent money to heart transplant recipients, and bought get-well gifts. They even “adopted” a resident of the state school to give birthday and Christmas gifts.

It wasn’t all work, though. The minutes revealed pranks played on members’ husbands, who often did the heavy lifting for events and fundraisers, in exchange for a hearty and tasty meal or two. The members were famous for their cooking. By way of pranks, one year the husbands got a little good-natured revenge during a club meeting. When the ladies went to their appointed luncheon at Lakey’s on Highway 20/26, they were told reservations had not been made, and that the restaurant had not been expecting them. Not sure what to do, the women sweated it out for a few minutes before a back room was suddenly opened with tables neatly set up for lunch and their smirking husbands inside, who were no doubt proud of themselves for finally getting even with their prank-playing wives.

            At one time, membership had climbed to fifty or more. The club was quite the social event at its height, with mothers, daughters, in-laws and sometimes grandmothers on the roster. Longtime FNC member Mabel Farner created a book called Yesteryears in Lakeview, documenting memories of the area before there was a lake, the farming life and other histories, and of course, the club. Mabel had passed away before I’d moved to the country, so we’d missed each other.

In 2006, when the Friendly Neighbors Club held its eighty-third anniversary luncheon, I was made an “honorary” member. I laughed, thinking I’d been a member all along, yet the main criteria for being in the club had been that the women were from the Lake Lowell area (what was once called Lakeview), and by then, I had moved back to the suburbs. Perhaps this was their way of letting me know that I still belonged, no matter where I lived. They were, after all, friendly neighbors.

 *For more adventures in Idaho, (with recipes between the stories!) get the "Appetite for Idaho" book here.

And visit the Appetite for Idaho Facebook page, with new stuff to do posted every weekday!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Roseberry, Idaho: Restoration Inspiration


Perseverance and a Population of Two

By Amy Larson

As seen in IDAHO Magazine

            As I thumbed through a high-quality picture book of Idaho atop a rustic coffee table at a Lake Cascade vacation rental home, my eyes fell upon a quaint, white church. Something about it spoke to me, although I didn’t know why. It wasn’t an intricate building. Its lines were clean and simple. Why did I like it so much? My question was answered by the text below the image, which said the building was in Roseberry and had been constructed by Finnish people who settled there. My heart leaped. Strangely enough, I knew a little something about Finland. 

            Twenty-five years earlier, I had met Jari Vesterinen, the first Finn I’d known. His wife Mona quickly became one of my dearest friends. Jari introduced me to the Finnish language, which I still don’t pretend to understand, and Mona also taught me a Finnish word: sisu. She said it’s difficult to translate into English, but the best definition for it might be someone with courage and tenacity. The Finns use the word to describe someone who possesses strong determination, the ability to stick to something, and who is able to keep a cool head during crises. It’s a lasting quality, not a brief burst of courage for the moment. It’s sustainable. Being told you have sisu is the ultimate compliment.

            Although not yet the world traveler I plan to be, I did obtain a passport to visit Mona and Jari in their new home in Finland. Not long after stepping off the plane, I became fascinated with that country’s craftsmanship and architecture. The act of staring at that little church in the Idaho picture book tugged at my heartstrings. I hadn’t known there was a place so close by that was, in part, built by my friends, the Finns. After reading each word and looking at every picture of the Roseberry section of that book, our vacation soon ended, and I forgot all about it.

            Many months later, I was hunting for another Idaho city to explore, something different, something unique. I thought it might be fun to understand the history of Donnelly. When I looked up the town’s name on the Internet, Roseberry also popped up, along with a photo of that same, quaint church from the vacation home’s book. I learned that before there was a Cascade, before there was a Donnelly, there was Roseberry. It had been the largest town in the county at one time, sporting a population of five hundred. It had a  bank, restaurant, a mercantile where customers could get anything they needed, schoolhouse, a soda fountain, its own newspaper, a creamery, beautiful hotel, drug store, upholstery shop, flour mill, harness shop, real estate company, butcher, livery stable, veterinarian, barber shop, doctor, brick kiln, law office, two churches, hardware store,  confectionery, a baseball team complete with uniforms, and a band shell smack in the middle of an intersection, complete with a band that wore all matching attire when performing.

          By 1910, Roseberry was one hopping place. The following year's Fourth of July parade was real cause for celebration. The inhabitants of Roseberry not only assumed they’d become the county seat, but expected the railroad to come their way, as well.
How wrong they were. Before long, the Pacific and Idaho Northern railroad announced it would bypass Roseberry by one-and-a-half miles, a mere stroll's distance that would make a world of difference.

            Donnelly was established, named after a prominent railroad man. Once the railroad announcement was made, Roseberry, formerly the county seat hopeful and largest town in the valley, quickly began to decline. It was a church-going town that had a staunch rule of no pool halls, bars, or any other places that would evoke a bad reputation, which was why some folks claimed the place was "already dead long before the railroad killed it off." 

            Innovative at moving buildings, the locals relocated several Roseberry dwellings to nearby Donnelly, where the action and commerce would be. 

            This wasn’t the first time folks had cleared out of Roseberry, though. Many initially approached Long Valley, which contains both Donnelly and Roseberry, for a few reasons, but most wanted to homestead. It was free, richly-earthed land, and all one had to do was work hard enough for five years, to “prove up” the property.

            The area's first store was established by J.W. Pottenger and W. B. Boydstun in 1905. The post office went up in 1892, and postmaster Lewis Roseberry became the town's namesake. After H.T. Boydstun acquired the post office, he and a group of investors began platting the town site and selling lots through their Roseberry Commercial Club. The town’s initial population consisted of mostly English-speaking inhabitants, with a scattering of Finns.

            The Finns were builders who took much pride in their craftsmanship. Their log cabin building technique was so tight-fitting, it required no chinking—a handy thing for the cold weather.

 Even so, some Roseberry area homesteaders didn’t figure on the all-out Idaho winter. Particularly brutal was the winter of 1888-89, which provided a stark lesson on deep and enduring snow. Short on available pasture, hay, and feed for cattle, a large group chose to leave the valley.

            The Finns, used to the old country’s long, dark winters, weren’t scared off by the region’s worst weather. With good land for the taking, they stayed. For many, homesteading was a dream come true. They were accustomed to hard work and harsh conditions. All went splendidly, until that problem arose of the railroad track's location. Soon, building after building was loaded onto log skids and hauled off to Donnelly, and the once-booming Roseberry became a ghost town.

            When the last commercial building finally closed in 1939, the town drew what most thought to be its final, weak breath. By that time, very few Roseberry buildings were left.

            Enter Frank Eld. 

            The son of homesteader Albin Eld, Frank and his friends frequently walked to Roseberry as grade schoolers. One day, they visited the Nichols family's honey processing facility, located in the old Roseberry mercantile. Mrs. Nichols reached behind the counter and pulled out a nice pair of high-top tennis shoes. “These are left over from when this was a store,” she said. Frank was given a memory that stayed with him for a long time. A seed had been planted, causing him to determine that he would purchase a building there someday.

            During the 1960 commemoration of the Idaho Territorial Centennial, Frank helped get a temporary museum going in Donnelly at the city hall. One day, he and friend Margaret Klient stood on the city hall's steps, talking about how nice it would be to create a permanent museum in Long Valley. Discussing a location, they agreed on Roseberry, reasoning that it was very different from the three neighboring towns of McCall, Donnelly, and Cascade.

            In 1969, the mercantile in Roseberry was put up for sale, and college graduate Frank Eld bought the place from the Nichols family, thinking it would be a good location for a museum.

            When I drove through Roseberry on a bright morning last summer, I didn’t see a soul, although there was evidence of recent activity. Pulling into the parking lot by the big red barn, I noticed an open door on a building marked as the Nell Tobias Research Center. Not wanting to intrude, I poked around the little town, taking photos and exploring. There were the buildings I’d seen in the picture book, large as life. One cabin’s sign read, “Following the end of the Spanish-American War, four Finnish veterans, John Korvola, Jacob Kantola, Henry Harala and Nick Randa built this cabin. They came here seeking homesteads and wives.” 

            There was a schoolhouse, the Valley County museum, the recently-moved Mahala home, a carriage house, and the famous and picturesque white with red-trimmed replica of the bandstand, now moved to a corner lot. All in all, there were about twenty-five buildings to pore over.

            I saw two women walking along, and thought they must be tourists like myself, but it turned out they both worked at the research center. Gerry Wisdom and Bev Ingraham [MSOffice2] invited me into the building that they said was once a gas station, bar and grill in the nearby community of Lake Fork. They happily agreed that those celebratory vibrations were still present. 

            As I viewed the cabinets full of information and walls lined with maps and county records, I asked, “How many volunteers work here?” 

            “Not enough!” was the reply, as they related that their map specialist who’d categorized and catalogued the maps had just passed away, and was sorely missed. They also told me they were in need of a new specialist.

             “My friend Paula, there, is a captured volunteer," Gerry said. "She came down to visit and I put her to work.”

            These archivers and accessionists work every Tuesday from May to October, researching and accepting historical items that are brought in for donation. The center’s volunteers help historians with any research and family heritage inquiries. I shook my head in admiration upon learning that the center was known in many history circles, and has been called ‘the crown jewel of Roseberry’ by members of the Idaho State Historical Society.” 

            “How do you keep all of the information straight?” I asked.

            “That’s the job!” said Gerry.

            The two told me a little more about the Finns, although they were quick to explain that Roseberry was not entirely a Finnish community. Many English speakers had come from places like Kansas and Nebraska. It just so happened, though, that the Finnish part was the part I loved, so I kept prying them with questions, which they graciously answered.

            Gerry said during the time of the Long Valley homesteading, people were leaving Finland in droves. In that country, farmland was divided amongst the families’ children, which could leave little to be had. In addition, the Finns had been subjugated by the Swedes, who enlisted them into their armed services, but still allowed them to wear their own uniforms. For six centuries, the Finns were under Swedish rule, but were still Finns in their hearts. Later, the Russians took over, and made the Finns wear Russian uniforms in their Russian army. That was the final insult. Finns came to America by boat, looking for freedom to be, for once, exactly who they were.

            Although many Finns grew up as farmers, the money in America at that time was in the dangerous work at the mines. Many of these immigrants had been people of status in the old country, but now they had to answer to mine owners and others. After ages of tyranny, the Finns weren’t going to take it anymore. Upon hearing of free land in Idaho, they gladly left the mines. Seeing Long Valley's mountains, evergreens, and rich soil reminded them of their mother land. They obtained property, and told their friends.

            The research center staff in Roseberry joked about how they also got roped into getting involved in their yearly ice cream social, on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. 

            “If Paula sticks around long enough, she can get help out then, too,” Gerry said.

            Paula called from a corner of the room, “I’m going back to Oregon, where I don’t have to work!”

            The two women explained that Frank Eld did more than just buy the mercantile building. Over the years, he and the Long Valley Preservation Society helped bring structures back into town. For example, the Larkin House, Mahala Blacksmith Shop, and research building were either returned or relocated. It so happened my favorite little church was also a returnee, placed on the same spot from which it had been taken.

            Just as I was about to ask another question, a staff member came around the corner, displaying a book with the title, “Ladies with Sisu, by Floyd A. Loomis. Unprepared to see the word that had been a kind of personal battle cry, I had a strong emotional reaction. The center workers waited patiently for me to regain my composure, and then I explained.

            “First off,” I told them, “You’ve got to warn me when you’re going to do something like that. That word,” I said, choking up again, “has deep meaning for me.”

            “We know,” the woman holding the book said understandingly. I was sure they were all very aware of the term. 

            “In past years,” I said, “I’ve had to use every shred of sisu I had.” I took a breath, still trying to settle down. “Is that book for sale? Where can I get a copy?” 

            “It’s yours,” the woman said, handing me the gift.

            The ladies’ shift was ending, so I wandered outside to the big red barn. I’d heard of the Roseberry Music Festival held there each year around the third week in July. I wanted to see the barn, but it appeared to be locked. Then, amazing luck: a group of women, one carrying a binder labeled My Wedding, approached the barn, and their leader had a key. I guessed one of them was planning to rent the building. Walking in behind the group, I snapped some pictures of the interior. 

            When I left the barn and entered the parking lot, a man pulled up in his ATV. I mentally crossed my fingers and asked, “You wouldn’t be Frank Eld, would you?”

            It was Frank, the only full-time resident of the town aside from his wife, Kathy.
He opened the mercantile for me, which was arranged as closely to the original schematics as possible.

 As we talked, his friend Delbert entered the store. 

            “Don’t let me interfere,” he joked. “The longer you talk to him, the less work I’ve gotta do.”

            Frank, a Finn, mentioned the high quality of Finnish architecture. He’d written a book on the topic, Finnish Log Construction—The Art. “If it fits, it’s Finnish,” he said, citing an old Finn phrase and displaying something else that was common of the Finns I knew, a dry sense of humor.

            I listened to him telling me the museum and its items had moved across the street to an old schoolhouse that had come from McCall, but I was distracted by the church. I couldn’t wait to see it. “There’s something special about that church,” I said to my host, “It’s actually the reason I’m here.”

            “Oh, really?” 

            I told him my picture book story. He had a copy of the same book at his store.

            When we entered the church, all I could say was "Wow."  Frank told me his father had helped to build the place. It had everything a historic structure should have: creaking front door, wood that talks to you when you walk on it, mismatched pews. One pew was an original, one that Frank said he’d most likely sat on when he attended this church at its Donnelly location. “If you look underneath, you might still see my gum there,” he said.

            In the chapel’s front right-hand corner stood an antique wooden organ, which Frank zeroed in on. When he was a fifth-grader, he asked his mom if he could take a reed to play with, from an old organ that was stored in the barn. Ella Eld told him no, and then told him why. Her older brother, Victor, once worked an entire summer for a farmer who gave him the organ as payment. Victor was a natural musician who played by ear. At age twenty-one, he obtained land to homestead, and built a cabin on it. He stayed in his cabin just one night before being drafted into World War I. He went off to France, and never returned. The organ was housed at his parents’ home until they passed away, and then at his brother’s place, and finally in the Eld barn.

            Young Frank asked his mother, “Can we fix it?”

            It was winter, and the only place to work on the organ's many parts was in their living room. His mother gave permission to move the organ there. While Frank worked on the wood, she worked on de-mousing and cleaning out the bellows. They got most of the keys to work again.

            “Right there,” Frank said, pointing to the old organ, “is the reason that everything else is here. Working on that organ with my mother lit a fire in me to preserve things. She and I were very close, and she helped me with this preservation project for as long as she could.”

            “I knew this church was special,” I said. “I think it’s because that organ is in it.”
            Once again, Frank gave his knowing smile. “Now you understand why I like to have school kids visit, hoping some student will do the same thing, and that someday, they’ll take over.”

            “Look what you and the Long Valley Preservation Society have done,” I said, truly impressed, “That must make you feel so accomplished.”

            “I always joke that it keeps me out of the bars,” he replied.

            He said he often tells Donnelly people he’s coming back for a few more buildings that "don’t belong" there. “I admit it, I love history, I love buildings, and I’m happiest when working on a building.” He grinned again, “I think some of my happiest moments are during the music festival, when I see the people here. That’s why I do this, so everybody can share this.

            “My philosophy,” he added, “is that we need our history books and original documents, but the only place you can experience history is in a restoration.”

            If you ever need to find a little sisu within yourself, Roseberry is the place to visit. Despite all odds, it’s quite alive, the very essence of sustainable courage and perseverance.

            “To the Finns, sisu means tenacity," Frank said. "To the non-Finns, it just means stubborn.”

            All I have to say is, “Long live Roseberry.”

 *For more adventures in Idaho, (with recipes between the stories!) get the "Appetite for Idaho" book here.

And visit the Appetite for Idaho Facebook page, with new stuff to do posted every weekday!