In Search of The Last Chance Gulch Grocery
By Dan A. Shaw, as told by Bryan Lee Shaw
(Also includes an Interview of Nellie Hirt by Elizabeth Smith )
Last Chance Grocery
I enjoy reminiscing with my boys about going on fishing trips with my dad up to the Middle Fork of the Boise River. Most of these trips included a stop at the Last Chance Grocery store. It sat between the road and the river, just upstream from the Slide Gulch Bridge about 40 miles above Boise. On those hot summer afternoons, Dad would buy me a Grapette and visit with the owner, Old Lady Ma Hirt. I would sit and listen to their stories and savor each swallow of that cool, wet Grapette.
I have often thought that I would like to have a photo of that old store, so I could show my boys. As Dad's birthday was drawing near, I had the thought that such a photo would make a great present. So on January 6th, 1997, I began my search for a photo of the Last Chance Grocery; a simple task which might take two or three weeks to get a print and have it framed for Dad's birthday on February 6th. The simple task became a 3-month quest.
I first called the Forest Service: "Can anyone there tell me about the Last Chance Grocery on the Middle Fork of the Boise River?" I asked. No one in the front office had a clue of what I was talking about. So they transferred me to a fellow by the name of Russ Newcomb. Russ is the head Forest Ranger for the district where the store was located. He told me that when he started working for the Forest Service back in 1974, the store was in his area, but unfortunately he couldn't help me with a photo. But he gave me the name of Elmer Huston, who was the Ranger at Cottonwood Station during that time. However, he didn't know if he was still alive, because he retired back in 1975. The last he recalled, Elmer was living in Nampa, Idaho.
Well, I looked in the phone book, and sure enough there was a Elmer Huston listed. I called the number and Elmer, himself, answered. He was pretty sharp for being in his mid-80's. We visited a while and he gave me some dates and times of different things that happened when Nellie Hirt was running the store. But, once again, he couldn't help me with a photo. Elmer told me to try another fellow who had been a Ranger at the Cottonwood Stationk, Eruol Sheffield.
Two days later, on the 8th of January, I found Eruol's number listed in the Meridian directory. I called and talked to him, but still could not find a picture. He gave me the name of Jack Logan, who owns Hilltop Cafe on Highway 21. Jack used to run fresh chickens up to Nellie Hirt. I called Jack a couple of times over the next two days, but never was able to talk to him. No photo.
A couple of more days went by and I was getting discouraged. On the evening of the 10th, I got a call from Eruol Sheffield. He and his wife were having dinner at a restaurant and who should walk in but Jack Logan. Jack saw Eruol and started talking about the Last Chance Grocery. Eruol thought that I must have talked to Jack about the store, as he had given me Jack's phone number. Jack didn't know what the hell Eruol was talking about. Well, that was the last I heard from Eruol and I never did get in touch with Jack Logan - and still no photo.
Almost two weeks went by and I was running out of time to get the photo for Dad's birthday. I decided to go back to the beginning. On January 22nd, I called Russ Newcomb at the Forest Service again and told him I wasn't having any luck. Russ was glad I called, because he had another person for me to try, but he had lost my phone number. He said that there was a Special Use Permits officer for the Forest Service, named Cam Hale. Since Nellie's store was on Forest Service land, she might have something. I called her but she didn't have anything. But she gave me the name of Will Reed, the Forest Service Archeologist.
I called Will Reed's office, but his secretary said that he was in Washington, D.C. for the next two weeks and I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to have a photo of the Last Chance Grocery by the time Dad's birthday rolled around.
For the next two weeks I explored different avenues trying to locate a photo. I tried the BLM, Water Resources, and the Historical Archives as well as noted historians Arthur Hart, Merle Welles, and Susan Stacey. Still nothing. How could such a prominent landmark never be photographed? What's the use of spending all of this time and energy looking for something that probably doesn't exist? I was losing my passion for the quest.
But then an experience that I had years ago on that river behind the Last Chance Grocery came to my mind. As a boy fishing with Dad, I had been trying my luck some distance from where he was fishing. I had grown discouraged and decided to check to see how he was doing. As I slid down the side of the dusty bank to where Dad was standing knee-deep in water, he turned to me and asked if I had caught any fish. He knew by the look on my face that I had not. He said, "You need to have patience." He then showed me how to cast my bait on the other side of the big rock in the river and let it drift through the deep pool. As I tried it, I patiently waited for the nibble and then caught my first fish of the day.
Patience. I needed patience.
On February 10th, the day Will Reed returned from Washington, he called me. He told me that he personally didn't have a photo of the old store, but if anyone did it was Suzy Osgood, the Forestry Historian. Will said that they had just put a historian on the payroll as of January, and had asked her to go through old photographs and get them organized. I was beginning to feel the patience paying off.
The next day I called Suzy. She personally knew a lady who had written a book about the history of the Forest Service. Her name was Elizabeth Smith. Suzy said that she would call Elizabeth to see if she had taken any photos of that area when she was writing the book. Over two weeks went by. Finally, on February 27th, Suzy called me at home and said that she had located a photo of Nellie Hirt, standing with District Ranger Phil Glass, in front of the Last Chance Grocery- and a typed interview of Nellie by Elizabeth Smith!
I didn't waste any time! The very next day I went down to the Forest Service offices and picked up a negative of the photo from Suzy Osgood. Three months after my first phone call on April 8th, I picked up the prints at the photo lab. There in the photograph, looking back at me, were the faces of a trusted Ranger and the little old lady who had served me that cool Grapette thirty years ago. There in the photo was the Last Chance Grocery. My search was over.
It was a challenging task, but one I would do again in a heart beat. I had a chance to talk with some interesting people: Elmer Huston, Eruol Sheffield, Cam Hale, Will Reed, and especially Russ Newcomb and Suzy Osgood all went out of their way to help me find my memories. It was like fishing with my dad by the big rock on the Middle Fork. A special person going out of his way to help me make my memories. Patience, patience, patience.
An Interview of Nellie Hirt, Proprietor of The Last Chance Grocery
Interview with Nellie Hirt, Middle Fork of the Boise River, November 11, 1974.
Interviewers: Elizabeth Smith and Boise District Ranger Phil Glass
Subject: Boise National Forest and area history
SMITH: You mentioned that you won't be having hippies anymore. Did you have some living up this way?
HIRT: We had a whole group of them right up here at Twin Springs. It was terrible. They lived there summer and winter. They treated me as though I was some cur dog.
SMITH: Did they have children, too?
HIRT: No, heaven forbid!
SMITH: You say they won't be back. Did someone else buy the place?
HIRT: Oh yes. He wouldn't have hippies. The young man came and shook hands with me and said, "I'm going to undo some of the things you had to put up with from the hippies."
SMITH: How long were they here?
GLASS: At least two winters.
HIRT: They killed deer all of the time. They lived off the fat of the land. I am a deputy sheriff. The sheriff says, "Nellie, you assert yourself. Don't let anyone think they can put it over on you. If you can't handle it, you know what to do." I've had to call deputies and the sheriff from Idaho City. I'm pleased with my new neighbor.
SMITH: How long have you been here?
HIRT: Over forty years.
SMITH: Did you start the store, or was there one here before?
HIRT: There was no store here. There was a cottage over there. My husband was sick for thirty years, so that was the reason we bought it. We weren't going to have no store. I was going to see that he had plenty of fresh air and proper food. We had enough money from our jewelry store to run us for a number of years. But the doctors got it all. We had to start the store. There was one Ranger- he's been dead for years now- Frank Gray. I never will forget him. He said, "Nellie, why don't you just turn your kitchen here into a store?" I didn't want to. I had helped my husband in the jewelry store and I was trying to get away from some of that. I found out I couldn't, if we were to live up here. So we put in a little store. From the very first day we come here the Forestry people were just like our own people.
SMITH: You were here when there were CC Camps up here?
HIRT: Oh yes, They had one down at Cottonwood.
GLASS: Where were the locations, Nellie?
HIRT: Cottonwood, and up here at Big Birch Creek, and up at Alexander Flats. I think that's all we had at that time.
SMITH: Were most of the boys from back east or were there alot from Idaho too?
HIRT: They were all from out of state. They came from a poor class of people and they were the grandest people that God ever let live. We never had a minute's trouble with any of them. I was "Mom" to every one of them, and my husband was "Dad". And even the officers called us Mom and Dad.
SMITH: How long has your husband been gone?
GLASS: Eleven years Nellie. I think you said ten last year.
SMITH: I can imagine the CCC boys really appreciated your being here.
HIRT: They were the poorest class of people, but they were the loveliest boys we ever met.
SMITH: What kinds of things did they work on here?
HIRT: On the roads. Fixed the creeks so they wouldn't overflow, and like that. This was just like a boulevard then.
GLASS: Didn't they build some recreation camp grounds too?
HIRT: Yes. Oh, they done an awful lot. And they were sure great guys. Sometimes when they were in the store and other people would come in and get fresh with these boys, I'd tell them, "These CC boys are our friends, decent and respectable people. You just leave them alone."
SMITH: Were you here when the CC boys came?
HIRT: Right after, and there were some coming up right along all the time. [to Phil Glass] Boy am I glad you are here to fix things up for me.
GLASS: I was going to bring you some fried chicken today, but they were closed up for the holiday.
SMITH: Does the bridge down here have a name?
HIRT: That's the Slide Gulch Bridge.
SMITH: Then you are just above the Slide Gulch Bridge on the Middle Fork of the Boise River.
HIRT: Up that way you go up to Prairie.
SMITH: Phil Glass was telling me that you are 91 years old.
HIRT: If it weren't for the help of the Forestry people I couldn't stay here. All the Forestry people we know. The people all know me. All of them that get transferred, I get letters from. Of course, they all quit writing to me since I quit writing - I can't see to write.
SMITH: How close is your closest neighbor?
HIRT: Four miles - the only neighbor I've got.
SMITH: In the earlier days, did you raise chickens and things?
HIRT: I had chickens, turkeys, rabbits. We had everything. We sold eggs. I'd have to go into the chicken coop and count the eggs, then come back to the store and I'd say "well, there's about a dozen eggs there, who wants eggs?" Then I'd divide them. I was baking pies and rolls and cakes and stuff like that for the miners.
SMITH: Where were the mines?
HIRT: They were mining all over the hills. Prospecting.
SMITH: During the depression there was a big flurry of mining. A lot of people went to the hills.
GLASS: I have heard that there were about two thousand people here on the river.
HIRT: And you know, we never had one minute's trouble. I sometimes think about that now: Why can't people be like they used to be? We never sold beer or cigarettes. People get mad and start to shoot off. During the depression people really worked, and they were kind.
SMITH: When there were so many people mining up here, where did they live?
HIRT: Oh, there's cabins all over. Up here at Birch Creek there was a little store right square on the creek. They never interferred with our business or nothin. And then they had a two-room apartment there, and a five-room house up against the hillk and then almost on the road there was a cellar and a room, and two old men camped in that cellar. They were mining. They used the front room for food and stuff. On this side there was another store. They tried to have beer and then they cut it out. There was four cabins on this side, right there at Birch Creek. Over here across from us there was a cabin over there. And there was three cabins down by the bridge. And there was a cabin below the bridge. And all over it was spotted with cabins of miners.
SMITH: You don't see them now. Have they fallen in, or been removed?
GLASS: Most of them were removed.
HIRT: And then they burned a lot of that stuff down. It got old and rats. And it's just as well they did burn them.
SMITH: Did you ever report any forest fires?
HIRT: Oh yes. I even hired people one year. Why, they were so busy there was nobody at the stations. And they were mostly man-made fires, weren't they?
GLASS: Yes, that year they were.
SMITH: Was that a long time ago?
GLASS: I think it was 1962.
HIRT: And since then too - this last time when you were all gone, and Elmer flew over, and I had to hire fire fighters - something I had never done before.
GLASS: That would have been about 1973. '72 or '73.
HIRT: I didn't know what to do. There was a fire at Lambing Creek. These boys were anxious to put it out, but they didn't have any shovels or anything. I told them, "You go back to Cottonwood, and there's a man and a dog and a pickup there. I'm sure he'll have something you can use." He did. He had shovels and stuff like that and they got it and were fighting fire. Then I was watching a smoke over across here and it would billow every once in awhile. Some women came and said "Did you know there was a fire across the river?" I said yes. I called Cottonwood. As luck would have it the assistant Ranger was coming up. He met these women. They got the boys down here. They went up there and the skip was locked and there was no key. I told them to drive as far as they could with their cars - across the bridge - and then walk to the fire.
SMITH: What do you mean, the skip was locked?
GLASS: Cable car across the river.
SMITH: I've never heard it called a skip. We always called them cages.
HIRT: I felt guilty because I hired about six fire fighters that day. I got their names, their social security numbers, the whole doggone thing. I didn't know what to do, but I had it all down. I think I gave you the names.
GLASS: Yes, I got the names from you. Do you know any miners who took out quite a bit of gold along here?
HIRT: My brother-in-law took quite a bit out, but that was up above Alexander Flats. He struck it rich. He got it right up on top. I had a jar of nuggets that he brought down for me to take care of. I was worried all the time for fear somebody would find out it was there and they'd try to hold us up. Then, when my brother-in-law went to Denver, he took that whole big jar and put it in a big pipe and put it on the back end of his truck and stuck rags in it, and went to Denver that way.
GLASS: Didn't you and Bill used to run a little sluice-box here?
HIRT: Bill used to run it. I used to take the dogs and we'd go down to the sluice-box, and there'd be gold getting away, and I'd pick it up. I put it in a little jar. I never showed it to him. He'd been wanting to buy something with gold, so finally one day I brought it and showed it to him and I says "That there run out of the sluice-box." I told him to fix a sluice-box for me at the house. We had a big cellar there, and this was right behind the cellar. They'd ran their sluicing too fast - that's where they lost the gold. I picked it up with a spoon. You should see the gold I got. We went to town and he wanted to buy something and didn't have enough gold to pay for it. When his back was turned I handed the fella the gold. "Oh gee" he says, "you know Bill, you got more gold than I thought you had." He bought what he wanted. When we got home he said, "I believe that was your gold." I said, "Forget about it. You got what you wanted. From now on when I get any gold, if I have time to, I'll keep it for myself." But I never had time for mining anymore.
SMITH: Was there much grazing in this country at that time?
HIRT: There wasn't at that time.
GLASS: There were sheep on this side, and cattle on the other side.
SMITH: Do you have any Basque sheepherders in this area?
HIRT: All Basques. They work for the Americans. Course the Americans were Basques too, but they've been here for years and are Americanized now.
GLASS: Did you ever go to town much when you and Bill lived here? On the old road? You did have a car didn't you?
HIRT: We had a real nice car - an expensive car. Then we sold it, and bought a pickup. We couldn't haul things in that nice car. I did most of the driving. The road went down to Lambing Creek and up Lambing Creek and then right over the hill. And then it struck that road right there by the dam. That was the great road. We enjoyed it. There was scenery and the road wasn't dangerous because it was wide and smooth. There were two places where there was water. You had to carry a shovel and fill that if there was water coming down. No one ever got hurt on that road. I'm scared of the road around the dam now.
GLASS: A lot of people go off every year.
HIRT: That place right there at the dam - where all those rocks are - when you took me home that time you had to move big boulders. The road was all right when we went down, but when we came back you had to move rocks.
GLASS: It was rainy, and had rained all day.
SMITH: How did you get the supplies for your store that you did not bring up in the pickup?
HIRT: On the stage. For a long time we paid two dollars for a hundred pounds. Then they cut it down to a dollar for a hundred pounds.
GLASS: Was that '64-65 flood about the biggest flood you've had here?
HIRT: I think so.
SMITH: How did it affect you here?
HIRT: Well, the Lord was good to us - that's all I can see. Because it didn't break through above here. It piled up a lot of logs and that kind of held it back. It got pretty close to the building here. The road was awful.
GLASS: Didn't it take part of cabin over here?
HIRT: The flood off of the hill there yes. We lost two rooms. My husband was going to repair them and I said no, that was too much work. I said, "Just pull them down - we'll have two left." We had a nice living room, dining room, bedroom, and a kitchen, and a walk-in cellar. It was real nice. But we still had two rooms, and the walk-in cellar. This building here is built with three C lumber after the CC's moved out and left everything. Frank Gray was the one who wanted us to have money to buy lumber, and windows and doors. When they were tearing down the three C camp at Cottonwood we got the material for the store. My husband built this. Frank said "I like this better than over there because now you will have a home over there [and the store here]."
GLASS: You didn't have a store over there, did you?
HIRT: I had to give my kitchen for the store.
SMITH: You started your store in your kitchen, across the road?
HIRT: Yes - I had to give up my kitchen, but I thought we just had to take things as they came. My husband was in between sicknesses. He got it all done. Built the store first. Frank says "Now put your apartment on there, Bill. That's too much for Nellie to go back and forth." So he went to work, and built the apartment. And he was mining all the time too, you know, and chopping wood. When the three C's came, they said, "Dad, you leave that wood alone. We'll chop the wood." They chopped it, and we had a big woodshed, and they piled it in that woodshed. We had a party for the boys that done that. I baked a cake. They had it at our place.
SMITH: Which camp were they from?
HIRT: Right here at Birch Creek. It was farther down to Cottonwood Camp and up at Alexander Flats was quite a ways. They were nice. Whenever they had a ball game they would come down and get us to come watch. We used to have a good time. Everyone was kind.
GLASS: Did you and Bill ever go to Atlanta much?
HIRT: No. Just occasionally. We knew all the people up there. They were awfully nice. But you see, we were tied down with the store. And Bill never went without me, because I did the driving. And I drove carefully, and slowed up for the curves. There was an accident down here not long ago. It was carelessness - not on the part of the sheepman, but whoever was coming toward him.
GLASS: It was a logger, took the curve too fast.
HIRT: I was disappointed in that. I had all the loggers' machinery here. One man was here all summer from the logging - he would soak the road way down to the dam. They were so nice to me. I looked after their machinery. The boss said, "I don't know when I had a nicer policeman around than you are." If anybody walked up there to that machinery without coming to tell me they were supposed to, I'd yell at them. One day the boss forgot and he went up there and I yelled at him, "Do you want a bullet through your head?" and I said it rough. He waved his hat and came down and said, "You're the best person to take care of anything!"
SMITH: When the flood was here, was that the same flood that hit the Boise Front?
GLASS: Yes. I believe it was the '64-65 flood. It was rain on snow. Weren't they going to fly you out in a helicopter? They came, landed, and were going to get you weren't they?
HIRT: The captain said, "I come to take you out." "No," I said, "I'm staying right here." It would be foolish to leave here and have somebody steal everything you've got.
SMITH: So you stayed here then.
HIRT: Yes. They landed right in the road here. I told him I was supposed to get groceries today and the stage didn't come, and I was really in need of groceries. He said, "Put your list on a slip of paper. I'll get them and send them up tomorrow." I put it all down, and the next day two helicopters came. He said, "We brought groceries, but we are in hopes you'll come to Boise with us." I said no, and explained it to them.
SMITH: You say the water came right up to the edge of your building?
HIRT: Just a little more and it would have burst in. This spring when the water was so high, they were flying over all the time.
GLASS: They were looking for two men who went in the river near Atlanta.
HIRT: Yes, but they were scared this was going to bust through right above us here. It did that once before, and flooded everything.
GLASS: Can you remember when they used to haul ore out of Atlanta?
HIRT: Oh, yes. Gold ore, and what else?
GLASS: Antimony from Swanholm. And silver, zinc, and lead.
SMITH: No copper?
HIRT: They are burning up everything up there now, and hauling the iron out.
GLASS: There are alot of people scrapping the iron out.
SMITH: What is your address here?
HIRT: Last Chance Grocery, care of Atlanta Stage, Boise, Idaho 83707.
GLASS: Was Twin Springs ever a major resort?
HIRT: They had a few buildings there. It wasn't much of a place. A house of ill fame was there.
SMITH: You've seen a lot of history here - good and bad.
HIRT: The CC boys never used cuss words around us. The officers said these were nice mannered boys. They arrived barefoot, most of them - they were that poor. And they got new shoes here [at CC Camp]. They carried a cloth in pockets, and were everlastingly cleaning their shoes. They took such good care of their clothes.
SMITH: Thank you for sharing a little history and old times with us.