by Mike Corrigan
It's a quiet resort community now, but at one time, Spirit Lake, Idaho, was the hub of one of the biggest timber empires in the Western United States. A new, locally produced documentary traces the history of the town and the lake the Kootenai Indians called "Tesemeni" or, "Lake of the Spirits." With the help of local historians and long-time Spirit Lake residents, the video production team of Jim Bolser and Robin Briley pieced together a visual history rich with first-hand accounts of the events that created a town and influenced an entire region. The documentary airs on KXLY television this Sunday afternoon at 4 pm.
Idaho's Lake of the Spirits: A Visual History of Spirit Lake, Idaho is narrated by Robin's father, Bob Briley, a familiar face and voice in local television journalism. The Brileys personal connection with lake proved to be the catalyst for the genesis of the project.
"It started out as a small project," explains Robin Briley. "My family has had a cabin out there for 40 years. Jim and I had a week off, and we were going to do a video for my dad kind of as a present. But as we started interviewing people, everybody wanted to buy it. So we decided if we were actually going to sell it, we would do this full-blown."
Producer Briley and photographer/videographer Bolser began to dig into the history of the lake and the town, a history (they soon discovered) that had been dominated by the exploitation of the region's once great old growth timber stands.
"It's amazing to see what that area was then as compared to now," Briley says. "It's a little sleepy town now. But it was a boomtown then."
Briley and Bolser worked together for 13 years at KXLY before starting their own independent video production company, Peak Video Productions. They've produced video segments for virtually everyone in the business, including ABC, CBS, FOX, CNN and ESPN.
"We've been working for about two years outside of KXLY," says Bolser. "This is the first full show we've produced ourselves, on our own without any big TV station behind us. It was a project to test out our new editing system, basically. We thought we'd take a couple weeks and we'd be done."
A couple of weeks soon stretched into months.
"What happened was, as soon as we got into the Spirit Lake project [last July], the fires started happening in Idaho and Montana, and we got called by the network to cover them. That took a month. Then we were busy basically until this March, so it sat on the shelf for nine months. We kept getting calls from people from Spirit Lake asking us if it was done and when it was coming out. So we decided we had to put some other things aside and just do it. We set a deadline of Memorial Day weekend."
Briley and Bolser made their deadline, but the project had grown into something much larger than initially conceived. With the help of local historians and authors, Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, the production team uncovered little known facts about the lake, the town and the economy that supported its people.
Spirit Lake was essentially isolated until the early-1900s when an eastern lumberman, Frederick Blackwell moved into the area with the dream of building a timber empire. He purchased 20,000 acres of old growth timberland around the lake and built a colossal sawmill, the Panhandle Lumber Company. The mill created 1,000 new jobs -- and the town of Spirit Lake -- almost overnight. Big timber kept the town prosperous and growing for 32 years until a 1939 fire swept down Mt Spokane, claiming trees, lumber, the sawmill and the town's lifeblood. The documentary concludes with snapshots of the Spirit Lake community as it exists today.
"It's kind of a narrow focus, but it's amazing how many people have some kind of a connection to either the lake or the timber industry or the railroads," says Bolser.
Briley agrees: "I was surprised because we've received calls from people in California and various other parts of the country who've heard about it who either grew up in Spirit Lake or worked for Blackwell or had some kind of connection and wanted to see it. So the reach was a lot farther than I had originally thought."
"The pictures are the cool thing," adds Bolser. "I mean, we have a motherlode of old pictures. It's beautiful."
Idaho's Lake of the Spirits: A Visual History of Spirit Lake, Idaho airs Sunday, July 22, on KXLY-4 at 4 pm.