History rests easy on the north central Idaho city of Cottonwood, high on the Camas Prairie. The bones of downtown reflect a consistency of architecture born of tragedy; only one building on Main Street predates the massive fire that consumed Cottonwood's commercial center in 1908. The buildings that arose in the years following the disaster are sturdy structures, built to last.
"The town went from an old wooden town, like you see in the movies, to all brick and concrete," says Deb Clark, a fourth-generation resident of Cottonwood and co-owner of Hoene Hardware. "The buildings here now were mostly built between 1908 and 1910."
Businesses like Hoene Hardware still welcome neighbors and visitors alike to this community of fewer than 1,000 residents. In the shadow of nearby grain elevators and a towering railroad trestle, a steady stream of cars and people move along the streets and sidewalks.
"My dad's grandfather, John Hoene, came to Cottonwood in 1899 from Greencreek, Illinios," Clark explains. "He bought a sawmill and threshing machine, then in 1907 he decided to build the hardware store on lots across the street. He opened for business in April 1908, and on July 20, 1908, fire destroyed downtown Cottonwood."
Her great-grandfather lost nearly everything, Clark says, but he bounced back selling building materials and hardware to help rebuild the town. In 1912, he moved the store to its current location, and Hoene Hardware has been a fixture on Main Street ever since. Visitors often comment as much on the building as on the inventory.
"We have a pressed tin ceiling, and we always get people from the East who come in and want to buy the ceiling," laughs Clark.
With the recent addition of Old West-style wood awnings, the storefronts along the south side of Main Street have regained some of their frontier-town flavor. Shoppers can browse under cover from Arnzen Drug at one end to the Royale Cafe at the other, with a quick stop at Coffee Mill Creations in the middle. At the Camas Bloom, a floral and gift shop, Starla Schumacher says business along Main Street is steady, although she's glad to have a delivery service to supplement the walk-ins. Between the retail outlets, residents can find accounting and insurance services, a real estate brokerage and even a tanning salon.
Hospital and Jail Beds -- The Camas Prairie has long been part of the traditional and customary lands of the Nez Perce people, and much of the Prairie lies within the Nez Perce reservation; Cottonwood sits just south of the tribal boundary. A small settlement on Cottonwood Creek grew up around a stage stop in 1862; in 1877, the town was used as a supply station for U.S. soldiers as they followed Chief Joseph and his people eastward. Cottonwood received its first post office in 1878, although the town didn't incorporate until 1901.
Starting in the 1890s, German Catholic immigrants flocked to the area, drawn by the rich farmland and surrounding mountains, and names like Uhlenkott, Seubert and Schumacher remain prominent in town even today. In 1906, the Benedictine sisters of St. Scholastica in Colton, Wash., moved their convent to Cottonwood and eventually established the Monastery of St. Gertrude. The sisters established the first local hospital (now St. Mary's Hospital and Clinics) and high school, and their retreat ministry continues to draw visitors to Cottonwood year-round.
"The sisters are a big part of the success of the hospital," says City Clerk Carol Altman. "The monastery is a real asset to the community."
In fact, one can argue that the presence of the monastery saved Cottonwood from the slow decline that plagues so many rural communities. The hospital, now part of the Benedictine Health System, employs 170 people and serves residents from Craigmont to Kamiah with a 28-bed hospital in Cottonwood and four satellite clinics. The former Academy of St. Gertrude, a Catholic school that educated the children of immigrants, is now the public high school for the Cottonwood Joint School District and draws students from neighboring Ferdinand, Greencreek and Keuterville. When schools consolidated several years ago, the newly formed school district chose Cottonwood as the site of the high school, largely because the school building was already there. The hospital and the school have helped keep Cottonwood vital and alive.
Cottonwood's other major employer -- the North Idaho Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison up on Cottonwood Butte -- doesn't trace its lineage to the monastery, although perhaps the two groups would have a thing or two to discuss about forgiveness. Still, incarceration is definitely a growth industry these days, and Altman says the prison has been a good fit for the area.
"A few local folks have jobs there," she says. "And it's a plus when they bring the prisoners down and do community service for the community."
Among the quirkier additions to Cottonwood is Dog Bark Park, the studio-shop-lodging establishment owned by wood artist Dennis Sullivan and his wife, Frances Conklin. Sitting at the entrance to Cottonwood from Highway 95, the 12-foot-tall beagle announcing their gift shop has become the city's most recognized landmark. The first monumental carving was joined this year by a 35-foot-tall companion.
"My husband's been carving dogs for more than 20 years, and the beagle has become his signature," says Conklin. "Because we have our gift shop and carving shop here, we also function as a travel information center for people traveling along Highway 95."
Last year, Sullivan and Conklin won the governor's "Take Pride In Idaho" cultural tourism award for their work interpreting the travels of Lewis and Clark through the story of Lewis' dog, Seaman.
"We think we have the best job in the world," Conklin says. "We're always working, but it's OK. Mostly the people who come here are adventuresome and have a great sense of humor. One of benefits of our work is that we're always around joyful people. We touch people in their hearts through their pets."
Infrastructure Needs -- Although the non-farm employment picture in Cottonwood is relatively rosy, the city is not without its struggles. In the last three years, city voters approved two bonds for long-needed upgrades to the city water system. The first improved the water distribution system and added a reservoir while the second covered the cost of a new well. The aging infrastructure could not keep up with rising demands, Altman explains, but with the improvements, residents should see their first summer in many years without rationing.
"Rising utility costs hit small towns hard," she says. "We still have to do all the basic work [to provide services], but we have fewer people to share the costs. The base rate [residents] pay went up from $12 to $21 per month. But the water system hadn't been upgraded on a regular schedule -- there were no real improvements for about 20 years. The sewer system is the same way. So when you look at catching up all at once, it can seem like a lot."
Public safety also presents challenges for the city. Cottonwood's only full-time police officer, Chief Terry Cochran, headed off to Iraq earlier this year with his U.S. Army Reserve unit, forcing city officials to come up with a creative solution. A sheriff's deputy from neighboring Lewis County now spends three days a week as Cottonwood's part-time police chief, and the city relies on patrols from Idaho County officers the rest of the time.
"The [Idaho County Sheriff's office] has been great," says Altman. "The county has always been good to us, whether we have a full-time person or not. It's a mutual thing -- they respond for us, and we respond for them."
Pitching In -- Despite the long roots of many Cottonwood residents, a few new faces can be seen on Main Street. Most newcomers are retired couples who come to Cottonwood for its reasonable property values and proximity to outdoor recreation. The draw of the great outdoors keeps lifelong residents around, too, and pulls back those who had wandered off to the city.
"We've got the Salmon River close by, so fishing is a big thing," says Altman. "And the view from up on the butte is awesome."
"This weekend, we rode the four-wheeler from Pittsburgh Landing on the Snake River up to some old homesteads and camps," adds Clark. "On the trip we saw bighorn sheep -- another privilege of living in the area."
To newcomers seeking to meet people, Clark recommends a healthy dose of volunteerism.
"By giving time to build a better community, you meet lifelong residents and people new to the area," she says. "The local paper is full of groups that have regular meetings -- the Lions Club, the Chamber [of Commerce], the 4-H group, church groups, school groups -- and I have yet to see any volunteer turned away."
Altman echoes the call to get involved, especially with the local churches and schools. She and Clark agree that the best part of living in Cottonwood is the feeling of closeness and the relationships that develop in a small town.
"I am proud of the way the history and stories seem to be passed on here," says Clark. "It's especially evident on Memorial Day, when you can walk the cemetery with the older community members who recall who almost everyone was. People who live here are seldom forgotten."
(from Idaho Dept. of Commerce Community Profiles)
Elevation: 3,950 feet
Zip Code: 83522
Median household income:
$34,167 (year 2000)
Median house value:
$79,500 (year 2000)
Form of Government: Mayor-Council
St. Mary's Hospital and Clinic
Cottonwood Joint School District 242
North Idaho Correctional Institution (prison)
Militec Defense Systems (manufacturing)
(wood products manufacturing)
The Cottonwood Joint School District 242 includes the communities of Ferdinand, Greencreek and Keuterville.
Inland Northwest Crossroads is a monthly feature. Watch for the next installment in early July.