Idaho Yesterdays, Vol 51, No 1

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Review of Weston, /The Good Times Are All Gone Now/, IY 51, no. 1 (Spring 2010)

The Good Times Are All Gone Now: Life, Death, and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town.

By Julie Whitesel Weston. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009. 248 pp. Illustrations, bibliography. Paper, $19.95.

Cover ImageJulie Whitesel Weston begins her book about Kellogg not with Noah Kellogg’s 1885 discovery of the galena outcropping that sparked a mining boom but rather with the 1996 demolition of two giant smokestacks that towered over the western edge of her hometown. At the time, the stacks’ destruction symbolized for many in Kellogg that the smelting and refining plants that defined the town for decades were gone forever. Once the stacks were toppled and the industrial complex they anchored razed, no one could reopen the Bunker Hill lead smelter and zinc plant that had closed more than a decade earlier. While underground mining would continue in fits and spurts as the price of silver fluctuated, the ore would be shipped elsewhere to be turned into metal. For Kellogg, that meant no going back to the “good times” of earlier decades that Weston describes in this book.

“Kellogg and the people who lived there had raised me,” Weston writes in the opening chapter. “I felt as if this event marked the destruction of some part of me that I could never recover. Who knew if the town would recover?” (3). For nearly one hundred years, Kellogg was a company town: from its namesake’s silver-lead strike through the industrialization of the early-twentieth century to a Texas conglomerate’s decision to shut down mining and smelting in 1981. Without “Uncle Bunker,” many residents of Shoshone County’s “Silver Valley” wondered whether the town would survive. More than a decade after the smokestacks came tumbling down, Kellogg is tentatively moving toward an economy based on tourism, recreation, and one huge truck and automobile dealer. While the “rebirth” portion of Kellogg’s story is touched on in Weston’s brief epilogue, the book focuses on the boom years of the 1950s when, as Weston describes, “Kellogg [was] such a vibrant place with stores crowded by customers, trains sagging under the weight of valuable cargos rumbling through town, men going on and off shift at the mine, a daily newspaper reporting on prices of lead, silver, and zinc, and a thriving penny mining stock market” (8-9).

Born in 1943, Weston is the daughter of a hard-working physician and a talented artist. (Her mother’s 1960 painting of the smelter spewing fumes above a row of tiny cottages and the stumps of the scarred river valley decorates the book’s cover.) Part memoir and part oral-history compilation, the book is an extended reflection on what it is like to be from a place that evokes conflicting emotions from those who left (as Weston did in 1961, after she finished high school) and those who stayed. Kellogg’s good times and tragedies come to life in the reminiscing of people who made a strong impression on young Julie Whitesel and in many cases, were still alive to be interviewed when she returned to Kellogg decades later. Readers meet Charles and Jessie Rinaldi, brother and sister, who were part of a wave of immigrants from northern Italy early in the twentieth Century; Eulah Chilcott and Dora Tatham, who worked at boarding houses that catered to miners; Spanish and Latin teacher Elizabeth Fee, whose son died in the 1972 Sunshine Mine fire; and Glenn Exum, the legendary high school band director who urged his musicians to “strive for perfection! Play with feeling!” (152).

The Bunker Hill strike of 1960 was a pivotal event in Kellogg’s history and in the author’s coming of age. While other labor histories, notably Katherine Aiken’s Idaho’s Bunker Hill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), describe the events leading up to the Mine-Mill union’s vote in April of 1960 to strike, Weston provides the perspective of a somewhat naïve, high school senior and a member of a family that was neither union nor management. She gives a firsthand account of her involvement in the “I Am an American Youth Movement,” which organized a huge parade aimed at calling attention to the Communist influences on the national Mine-Mill union. Weston worked part-time in the law office of Robert Robson, who helped organize an independent union, the Northwest Metalworkers, which eventually ousted Mine-Mill and negotiated a five-year contract with Bunker Hill just before Christmas. She offers a nuanced view of the labor dispute that divided the town.

After the author graduated from high school and moved to Seattle, she returned to Kellogg regularly until her father’s death in 1978. Her chapters about the last two decades of Bunker Hill lack the colorful characters and direct observations that make the rest of the book so compelling. Rather than reciting the decline and fall of Bunker Hill under Houston-based Gulf Resources and Chemical, Weston’s story turns personal, describing her complicated relationship with her strong-willed physician-father, who at one point ordered her to stop seeing her boyfriend. Her confrontations with her father played out against the Bunker Hill strike and the larger divisions in the community. Decades later, she struggles to explain the 1960 conflict: “When I think back on that time of obsession, for me and for the town, I am somewhat at a loss to understand it, but ultimately it had far-reaching consequences” (176). For Weston, it meant a decision to leave Kellogg and never return except as a visitor; for Kellogg, it meant working under an absentee corporate owner that abandoned the paternalistic role the company had played for its first seventy-five years. Thus, by Memorial Day weekend in 1996, Bunker Hill had been dead for fifteen years. The explosions that brought down the smokestacks were anti-climatic. While many spectators cheered when the stacks collapsed, the author mourned the loss of the community in which she had grown up.

Kenton Bird was born in 1954 in the Wardner Hospital in Kellogg (where Dr. Glenn Whitesel practiced), and he graduated from Kellogg High School in 1972, eleven years after Julie Whitesel. He teaches journalism and mass media at the University of Idaho.