Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Wilder Welcomes You

Welcome to Wilder
By Amy Larson

*As seen in IDAHO Magazine

I have to admit, I hadn’t considered Wilder much. Located on US Highway 95 and Idaho Highway 19 at about 14 miles west of Caldwell and 40 miles west of Boise, one could breeze right through Wilder and not think twice. A store and post office, some modest houses, a lonely railroad track cutting across the main street. 

Out of curiosity, I read up on the place and found, as with every town in Idaho that’s examined closely, a myriad of stories.

In 1904 a group of settlers decided to put down roots there, and often had to haul water from the Snake River to their homesteads. They were making a go of it, and investors began rubbing their hands together over the area, thinking they’d take the railroad from Butte, Montana through Idaho, and then clear to San Francisco. Expecting a future as somewhat of a boomtown, people were talking big, and the group of financiers unofficially hailed the place as ‘Golden Gate’. Settlers liked the name so much, they named a school, a Baptist church, a store, and their irrigation and canal district after it.

And Golden Gate it would have remained, had it not been for Marshall P. Wilder, the enterprising editor of a widely-read women’s magazine called ‘The Delineator’, who bargained with an official to name the town after him in exchange for a favorable write-up. (For one short month, the town was known as ‘Wilderia’, but that got nixed for what might seem like obvious reasons.) The community didn’t exactly love the new dubbing, thinking Golden Gate sounded much better.

Unfortunately, the idea of a second San Francisco in Idaho was short-lived, and the line was sold off to the Oregon Short Line Railroad, which obligingly extended the tracks from Caldwell out to Wilder, but not to San Francisco.

The building of Deer Flat Reservoir and its subsequent irrigation system in 1911 brought more water to Wilder, and with its ideal growing season it became some of the Treasure Valley’s best farmland for sugar beets, mint, onions, wheat, potatoes, barley, corn, alfalfa, grapes, and what developed into Wilder’s largest and most profitable crop, hops. Above all, Wilder is hops country. 

Abundant crops required far more manpower than the tiny town could supply, and migrant workers were attracted, which produced housing dilemmas that needed to be solved quickly. The solution started out as the Wilder Labor Camp and evolved into the current-day Chula Vista Acres, a 120-unit project regulated through the United States Department of Agriculture that provides affordable rental housing for families involved with agricultural work.

Wilder’s population nearly quadrupled during the harvest, with migrant workers pumping welcomed commerce into town, and multiplying its student population in a way that allowed for additional federal funding for its struggling schools.

Old newspaper articles conveyed tales of the town having, instead of a mayor, a Chairman of the Board from 1919-1958, and how a plaque honoring those served was displayed at City Hall. There was print of the overwhelmed city sewer system, and what was to be done, mentions of how farmers didn’t want to sell their prime land for commercial and residential purposes, and how that was driving the land prices up and restricting city growth. Then, the little nugget of how in 1965, the fire station burned down.

To that, I laughed, thinking, “Bet that was tough to live down.”

The pages told of the push by Dale and Vera Kenyon, Wilder’s postmaster and schoolteacher respectively, to open a public library. There was ample mention of the hops-growing Batt family, from which emerged Phil, who served as Governor of Idaho from 1995-99.

The publications told of suggestions made for Wilder schools to give up the fight and combine with Parma or Homedale. The locals balked at the thought, and voted it down. One student was quoted as saying, “We wouldn’t have a town if we didn’t have the high school.”

Curiosity piqued, I felt I was ready for the drive to Wilder. After reading so much about the place, I had some questions. How was the little town doing? Did they still have Wilder schools?

When I told Lee, an older gentleman, that I was going to Wilder, he recommended that I take a photo of a pheasant while there.

“Why a pheasant?” I asked.

“Because there are a lot of them in Wilder,” Lee stated, without any further explanation.

I drove down Simplot Boulevard/ Idaho Highway 19 towards Wilder to find out the rest of the story.

What struck me first were the wide open spaces on the outskirts of town, with straight rows of farmland almost as far as the eye could see, adding to the backdrop of one of the first truly magnificent sunny days of the season and a true blue sky. Fields of deep green shimmered in the breezes, as dust trailed behind a nearby tractor that was making good time, heading towards what was probably a lunchtime meal. Most trees were confined to the vicinity of farm houses, kept out of the way of precious land that was residents’ lifeblood.

Irrigation ditches ran along the country road, filled with water appearing almost a turquoise hue, framed by golden weeds on either side.

Rolling into town brought further testament to the good growing season as many a modest yard was embellished with ample arrays of irises and roses. The railroad track was a presence, with packing yards and pallets situated alongside, evidence of anticipation for the busy harvesting season. I saw Golden Gate Avenue, the Golden Gate Highway District, and the Golden Gate Baptist church, amused over how the name was preserved.

After turning a corner, I happened along the city park, where several people were enjoying lunch in mature trees’ shade. Getting out of my car, out of habit I locked it up, creating an audible clicking noise. Several sets of eyes moved to me, possibly curious at my over-cautiousness. I got the drift that people weren’t too uptight about such things here.

Past the arches of the swing set, I spotted Mercer Hall, a part of the school I’d seen in old photos, and to its left was a newer school building. Just behind was another recently-built school building, and the driveways were dotted with cars and buses.

“They made it!” I thought, happy over the city’s triumph. Driving around the school complex, I saw the proudly displayed “Wilder School District” sign, and “WHS!” formed by plastic cups stuck into the chain link fence at the Doug Edwards field.

“You are now entering Wildcat Territory,” another sign said, “Home of the fighting Wildcats”. Beneath were boards attached, citing years the Wildcats were state basketball and football champions.

Going down street after town street, I realized you could see the water tower with ‘Wilder’ on it from just about everywhere. There weren’t many people around, but when stopping to take a photo of yet another plush flower garden, I discovered two gentlemen across the street, casually sitting on the front cement steps of a home. They were eyeing my camera, so I told them about exploring Wilder for the day.

“We like it here,” one said, “It’s nice.” He introduced himself as Jesse, adding that his real name was really Jesus, pronounced ‘Hay-Soos’.  The other man said his name was Thomas, but pronounced it ‘Toh-moss’. They said they’d lived in Wilder for years, and that they were familiar with hops production, with family ties to hops farms and a history of having worked the harvest.

Jesse grinned, lifted what looked to be a 1.5 liter beer bottle, and declared,

“I’m a supporter!” 

I wandered further into town, taking more photos. I saw two colorful Mexican restaurants, corner-to-corner, a small events center painted in a vibrant red, and murals gracing  a few exterior walls, accented with more irises. I found several churches, and then discovered a smaller city park that honored veterans. While taking photos, a man on a bicycle wearing a ball cap waved, and stopped to chat. We shook hands and he introduced himself as Wilder’s Mayor John Bechtel.

He told me about Wilder’s recent grant, how the city had celebrated with a ribbon cutting and a visit from Governor Otter. It meant improvements for the streets, a safe path for the kids to the schools, and other needed upgrades. He told me a little of his own history, how his parents had been migrant workers themselves, going from town to town with kids in tow during the harvest. Because of his childhood experiences, Mayor Bechtel could better relate to the town’s migrant worker population.

Looking over at the water tower, he mentioned how at one time, someone had come up with the whimsical idea to turn the tower into the face of the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man. I could see how that might have been perfectly executed, but then learned that somehow the folks at Disney had gotten wind of Wilder’s intentions. The movie and animation giant sent the city a letter, forbidding them to infringe on their copyright. So, no Tin Man smiling benevolently down on the townsfolk for Wilder.

With an invitation to tour City Hall later in the afternoon, I said a temporary goodbye to the mayor and continued to explore.

Across the main street near the grocery store was a taco truck with an adjacent awning. Two men sat beneath, eating their lunch. Although I was nearly a block away, the wind carried their comments of, “She must be a Realtor or something, or maybe she works for the city.”

I turned around to go talk to those guys, knowing the greatest stories came from random people. The two told me they were eating at the best taco truck around, and that the food was worth driving down the road a bit further for. They talked about the Fourth of July parade, and how as soon as it’s over, everyone heads for the park.

All the talk about taco trucks and picnics was making me hungry, but I needed to get out of the sun, so thought I’d patronize one of the two Mexican places in town. I walked slowly past both, considering. Suddenly the back door to one of the places swung open, and the Mayor stepped out.

“C’mon in and I’ll buy you lunch,” he told me. Good, I thought, since I had more questions.

Over beef enchiladas, I told Mayor Bechtel about the articles I’d read, and how glad I was to see the Wilder School District alive and well.

“The school is the hub,” I was told. The Mayor added that the kids got an excellent education at the local schools. So excellent that six Wilder students had been the recipients of Gates Scholarships.

“They get a good education,” said the Mayor, “and then they leave.”

I heard about Doug Edwards, the man who the high school field had been named after. He’d been a big part of the community, always helping out, and had a special affinity for the school. When an illness took his life, the Wildcat field was named in his honor.

“We’ve gotten a lot of help over the years,” said the Mayor, “that’s how small towns like these keep going. It’s the givers.”

I nodded in understanding.

“Do they still use the old Mercer Hall?” I wondered.

The Mayor told me it was still used for gym classes, assemblies, and that there was a cafeteria downstairs. Not only that, but the COSSA (Canyon-Owyhee School Services Agency, a Vo-Tech school that’s located on Penny Lane in town), sent students in their culinary program to Mercer Hall to get experience in the cafeteria, preparing school lunches each day.

“I heard about the city sewer system being overworked years ago,” I shared, “Whatever happened with that?”

“We had a big overhaul,” the Mayor replied, “and it cost the taxpayers. They weren’t very happy about that. Their bill went way up. But,” he continued, “We learned something there. Knowing that expense was coming, we should have gradually raised the rates, so it wasn’t such a shock, instead of jumping to what it did. We learned.”

I asked about the fire at the fire station back in 1965. The Mayor laughed and shook his head.

“The fire truck saved itself on that one.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It drove itself out,” said the Mayor, “something went haywire with the battery and it started up. Since it was already in gear, it crashed right through the closed doors and out of the fire.”

I got out the camera and displayed the photos I’d taken so far. Mayor Bechtel nodded as he recognized the buildings and places he knew so well. An old church, a house in town, a mural, the park. When he clicked to a pristine white house with surrounding white sheds, he said, “That’s my sister-in-law’s place. Every blade of grass is in order. Right there where the garden is now, there used to be a house there, but it’s gone now, and it’s a garden spot.”

The Mayor said he’d like to see a few good little businesses come into town, maybe a discount store. He told of how back in the seventies when the mall was built in Nampa, it cleaned out Wilder’s customers. Once the mall was around, almost everyone went there to shop, and it hurt their economy, since traditionally about 60% of what the harvest workers earned went back into purchases made within the county.

He talked about the old Polar Bear, a mom and pop hamburger joint that closed years ago, and how something like that would be nice to have around again, too. A couple of the draws to Wilder were the events, and one was the Fourth of July parade I’d heard about earlier, and the other was the Fabulous 50s festival in late September. Being that the position of Mayor in Wilder is only part-time, Mayor Bechtel fills the rest of his time by driving busses from back East to out West, and gets to see some beautiful countryside. All told, he seems to prefer the ‘Golden Gate’ area.

“Do others see the simple lifestyle and move here to retire in a peaceful setting?”

“Not really,” the Mayor replied with a grin, then added, “But there are about five homes being built down the road.”

Jesse and Thomas had mentioned those, too. The addition of new families was always welcomed. More people meant hope for the future. The slogans on the new town banners even said, “Come Grow with Us.”

I asked about the hops, and the Mayor said, “When people not from around here ask what they are, we tell them they’re giant beanpoles.”

After lunch, I toured City Hall, met its employees, and saw the Chairman of the Board plaque on the wall in the courtroom. Mayor Bechtel sat behind his desk and fished out a paper from a filing cabinet, then handed it to me.

The city had created a resolution, affirming that they ‘welcomed and respected the innate dignity of all people’, and that the residents of Wilder were ‘hospitable and inclusive, living in a bi-cultural community’. The resolution stated an awareness that many new community members traveled thousands of miles to resettle with their families here in the United States, and that the citizens of Wilder would live up to the fundamental American principles of treating newcomers with decency, common courtesy, respect, fairness, compassion, opportunity, and acceptance. It also recognized the many contributions that immigrants make and have made to the community.

Any legal/ illegal alien issues aside, the resolution was saying that people were people, and should be treated as such. Today, many of Wilder’s residents are no longer migratory and lived there year-round.

I asked the Mayor if he’d pose by the huge American flag within the City Hall, and after he did so, we shook hands, and he joked as I exited the building, “I’ll keep the Chief here so you can speed on your way out of town,”

At least, I think he was joking.

More photos of a simpler life beckoned. A farmer on his tractor. A basketball hoop with rows of crops for a background. More glorious flower gardens. By now school was out, and the town was humming with cars and people.

I made my way to the grocery store, walking confidently through its doors, only to be met by confusion and post office boxes. It seemed the post office and grocery store shared the same building, and what I was after was at the next door down.

I talked to Belinda, who was behind the counter. She’d lived in Wilder a while and said she felt it was a good place to be.

She gave me a sidelong glance and said, “Yeah, they told me someone was out there taking pictures.”

In a small town, there are few places to hide.

Even though I’d enjoyed a beef enchilada less than an hour earlier, I reasoned that if I made a stop at the taco truck, I wouldn’t have to cook dinner for the family that night.

At the truck, an older Hispanic gentleman sat beneath the shady awning, possibly visiting a relative working inside the wheeled restaurant. He wore a fantastic cowboy hat, woven in looping holes to allow air to pass through on a hot day. The hat was sprayed black and gray in a rattlesnake pattern. 

“Great hat,” I told him. He just smiled and let me know he didn’t speak English. He looked up at the young girl by the window, who kindly said, “Ella dice que es un buen sombrero.” (She likes your hat).

The man smiled again, and took the hat from his head and placed it on mine. I handed him my camera and asked him as best I could if he’d take a photo of me. Once he did, I ordered tacos for the family, and a tall, cool Horchata to consume on the way home. When I walked back towards my car, I saw my new friends Jesse and Thomas in the parking lot, heading for the grocery store, perhaps to further support Wilder’s biggest crop. They both waved.

Gratefully sipping the iced drink, I had one more stop at Chula Vista to make the trip complete. Pulling over in front of the building that said, “Wilder Housing Authority,” and the grassy area surrounding it, I got out of the car, snapped a couple of photos, then noticed a young couple resting in the cool, under a large tree. Obviously far from home, their loaded-down bicycles told part of their story.

I asked if they were having an adventure. They were. “Tim” and “Liz” (natureofmotion.blogspot) had ridden their bikes from Alta, Utah to Sun Valley, to Stanley, to Wilder. That night they were headed for Vale. They knew nothing of Wilder, but by now, I felt I did. I told them of how Wilder had fought to keep its schools. Of Chula Vista that was just to their left, and how the people there provided a vibrant boost to Wilder’s economy. I told them about the Mayor riding along on his bike, of the informative lunch, and about the fire truck saving itself. They smiled and seemed to dig it.

I was now an evangelist for Wilder, Idaho.

Heading out of town, once again sipping the Horchata, I was sorry to leave.
I passed the sign that said, “Wilder Welcomes You” and thought, they sure do.