Idaho History January 28, 2018

Big Creek Ranger Station

source: Payette NF
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Big Creek Ranger Station History

The Payette National Forest has undergone a series of boundary changes, decreasing and increasing in acreage. On July 1,1908 the Idaho National Forest was created from the northern part of the Payette National Forest, but rejoined the Payette again on April 1,1944. The Big Creek Ranger Station was constructed as one of the many administrative sites of the then remote backcountry.

This site represents one of the “log cabin era” buildings built by the Forest Service. The early use of local materials – lodgepole pine and Douglas fir shakes – denotes the ingenuity required of Forest Service personnel in the establishment of these early administrative sites. The remoteness of the site precluded the use of milled lumber and manufactured materials to a great degree.

The 1911,1912, and 1919 maps of the Idaho and Payette National Forests show vast, unsurveyed mountainous areas with very little definition of forest service activity besides some trails. Today, it requires three and one-half-hours to drive from McCall, Idaho to the Big Creek Commissary. In 1924, it took approximately the whole day to travel the same distance. Julian Rothery who was Supervisor on the Forest from 1910-1912 expressed it this way.

In the early days, the Idaho [National Forest] was the last frontier, a rocky snow-buried land,.. Perhaps the most significant development in my time was the awakening to the necessity of roads, trails and telephone lines. The fires of 1910 generally were so remote and inaccessible that no substantial effort could be made to control them; and in some cases were never discovered and only the next year would a Ranger find the old scar.

If one has not visited this area of central Idaho, the remoteness of this rugged country now, and then, can only be imagined and be somewhat envisioned by comparing the development on the forest through historic maps. Specifically, the 1920 Payette National Forest map shows the road from the west deadending at the town of Edwardsburg (see map). Only the major drainages and mountain peaks were designated.

1920 Payette National Forest Map

1920PNFmap-a(click image for much larger size)

By 1924, however, numerous roads, trails, and administrative sites had developed. As an administrative site, the 1924 Payette National Forest map indicates the forest service site was called “Big Ck Hdqts” (see map). This map indicates telephone lines leading to other ranger stations and surrounding lookouts.

1924 Payette National Forest Map

1924PNFmap-a(click image for much larger size)

By 1936, the Idaho National Forest Map indicates the landing strip had been developed. The next Idaho National Forest map in 1938 shows the Big Creek Ranger Station had been designated as a District Office.

1938 Payette National Forest Map

1940BigCreekMap-a(click image for much larger size)

Historic Function

The vicinity of the Big Creek site was first used in the early 1920s as ranger headquarters. Fred Williams tells of his experience.

The next season, 1922, headquarters was established in a set of old mining cabins on Smith Creek [two miles north of the present site] – the Station headquarters had been moved from Ramey Ridge – said cabin had been used as a barn, no floor or windows – it was quite a classy place. That fall we moved to Edwardsburg [one half mile south of the present site]…. In 1923 we established headquarters at what is now Big Creek headquarters – the Ranger Station was a 7′ x 9′ tent, the warehouse and office consisted of two 14′ x 20′ tents and the cook shack was made of whatever old canvas we could find.

Development of the Big Creek Ranger Station complex occurred over the next two years. The Commissary was first used in 1926 as an administrative building with multiple functions. It has three separate rooms on the ground level and two rooms on the second level. On the ground level, the west room was the commissary, which contained canned and dried foods, and other domestic supplies.

1940BigCreekRangerStation-a(click image for larger size)

The middle section was the office where the Ranger had the use of a telephone switchboard for dispatching duties. As a District Office, this main telephone switchboard operated the backcountry telephone lines. The system was phased out in the late 1940s and early 50s with the advent of the 2-way radio. Above this room were the sleeping quarters for USDA Forest Service personnel.

caption: Big Creek Ranger Station Switchboard (Kellogg Switchboard)
[h/t CG]

The eastern end of the building was used for the storage of livestock tack. Above this tack room was where the fire fighting tools were stored. This multifunctional building was unique to the administration of the former Idaho National Forest, and for the management of the former Idaho Primitive Area.

These early administrative sites would have had a ranger stationed at the site. As the site map, drawn in 1996 indicates, other structures were associated with the complex, including a dwelling, woodshed, outhouse, and tent platforms.

In the early 1940s the complex was upgraded and new buildings were constructed across the road and west of the airfield. At this time the functions of the commissary changed. The switchboard operations and ranger’s office moved to the newer facility. The commissary building continued to be used for storage of livestock feed and repair of tack.

source: National Register of Historic Places
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Big Creek Commissary


The Big Creek Commissary was constructed in 1924 – 25 during the initial development of the Big Creek Ranger Station. Of the original complex of buildings only the commissary remains. This structure is unique in its construction and represents one of the few remaining log cabin” era buildings on the Payette National Forest.

General Characteristics

The Big Creek Commissary is situated at 5,710 feet above mean sea level one half mile from the western border of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness in Valley County, Idaho. The site is located thirty-eight air miles from McCall, Idaho, the headquarters for the Payette National Forest. The historic townsite of Edwardsburg is less than one-half mile to the south.


The site is accessed via Forest Service Road 340 which follows the Big Creek drainage northward. The Commissary is located within the minor drainage of Logon Creek which joins Big Creek one mile north. The mile-long meadow parallels Hogback Ridge which divides the Big Creek drainage from the minor drainage. The surrounding environment consists of a lodgepole pine forest interspersed with open, wet, grassy areas. The site was selected because of the abundance of straight, tall lodgepole pine trees that were used in the construction of the commissary and other structures.

The historic setting of the Big Creek Commissary has remained essentially unchanged since the completion of the building in 1925. The commissary is accessible by Forest Service road 371, pack trail, and the grass-covered airfield, constructed in circa 1935. A corral to the north of the commissary is used for the containment of horses and mules. Irrigation water for these pastures is derived from water lines extending from Logon Creek. The pastures provide for the grazing of horses and mules used for transporting people and equipment into and out of the wilderness.

Big Creek Commissary



The construction of the Commissary occurred in 1924 – 25, during the development of the Big Creek Ranger Station. Of the original complex of buildings and features, only the commissary and a non-historic corral immediately to the north remains. Other fence lines around the site are also non-historic.
The commissary building measures 56 feet east to west by 24 feet north to south with a six-foot overhang at the south. The structure is one-and-a-half stories in height. The foundation consists of a combination of formed concrete footings and concrete piers. The continuous concrete footing, located under the west half of the building, appears to have been added later as the sill log is completely enveloped. The east half is supported by concrete piers. The pier at the northeast corner is inscribed with the following information.
“Sept. 7,1930, Emmit Routson, Walter Hinkley, and Don Park.”

Log Construction

A sill log spans the irregularly placed piers at the east end and extends beyond the north and south walls. Exterior walls are composed of logs 10″ – 14″ in diameter. Logs used in the superstructure are smaller, averaging 7″ – 10″ in diameter. The primary daubing consists of tree lichen covered with concrete and the chinking is small poles of 2″ – 3″ in diameter. The exterior of the building has been stained a reddish-brown.
The log walls have been left in their natural round profile. The ends have been hewn and square notched. The intersection of the two interior log partitions is visible at the north and south elevations. Again the logs are square notched at these junctures creating a neat seam of hewn log ends. The overall effect is very uniform in materials and craftsmanship.
At the south elevation the roof extends over the south wall and is supported by five log posts. This deep overhang provides a sheltered area for the transfer of equipment and supplies. At the west end of the south wall is a sliding door which accesses the commissary space. At the center of the south wall is a single passage door of slab construction with one light that leads to an office space. At the east end of the south wall is a pair of doors of slab construction with one light each that open into the tack room. There are no windows on the south elevation.
The east elevation features a triple set of six-pane fixed windows that is offset to the north. The opening is finished with painted casings. Centered in the gable end above is another triple set of six-pane fixed windows. The shakes overlap the window frame and no casing was installed.
The north elevation features a modern sliding door accessing the tack room. At the center of the north wall is another triple set of six-pane fixed windows with painted casings. At the west end of the north wall is a pair of doors of slab construction opening into the commissary.
The west elevation features a triple set of six-pane fixed windows that is offset to the north. The opening is finished with painted casings. Centered in the gable end above is another triple set of six-pane fixed windows. The shakes overlap the window frame and no casing was installed.
The steep-pitched gable roof was originally finished with shakes. It is now covered with corrugated metal roofing. The ridge pole and purlins extend beyond the end walls creating a deep shadow. The gable ends are finished with six rows of hand-split Douglas fir shakes.

Big Creek Commissary



The interior of the building is divided into three bays separated by log partitions. At the first floor is the commissary at the west, tack room at the east, and office at the center.
The commissary space is open to the roof structure. Walls are logs with pole chinking. Flooring is composed of wood planks 6″ – 8″ in width.
The office space at the center of the building is finished with painted plywood paneling. Butt joints at panels are covered with battens, flooring is composed of wood planks 6″ – 8″ in width with wide baseboards. The old telephone switchboard remains in this space.
The tack room walls are logs with pole chinking. The flooring and ceiling are composed of wood planks. Workbenches and equipment for repairing tack are present.
At the east wall of the tack room is a stairway leading to the second level. This second level spans the office and tack room areas. This area historically served as sleeping quarters for crews and was used for storage. Flooring is composed of wood planks 6″ – 8″ in width.
There are no trusses supporting the roof of this massive log building. Three structural diaphragms, each constructed of sixteen horizontal logs spanning from north to south, support the purlins. This diaphragm system stiffens and strengthens the roof structure. USDA Forest Service engineers no longer use this structural feature; trusses are used in contemporary construction.
The history of the Big Creek Commissary as associated with the Big Creek Ranger Station forms an important link with the early development of Forest Service administrative sites in the back country.

… This property reflects the establishment of the United States Forest Service in 1905 and the reliance upon early Forest Service craftsmanship in constructing vernacular “log cabin” style buildings using local materials. This building period predates the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 which initiated a major building boom for the Forest Service. Standardization of building plans ended the “log cabin” era of Forest Service rustic architecture. The 1935 Building Construction Manual for Region Four of the Forest Service does not illustrate log construction as found at Big Creek Commissary. Plans in this handbook are wood frame construction with logs used only for site features – benches, signposts, and fences. This verifies that by the mid 1930s the Forest Service had abandoned the use of logs in construction of their buildings. …

Seasonal Use Today

The Idaho Primitive Area, established in 1931, was renamed the River of No Return Wilderness in 1980. The name was legislatively changed to the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness in 1984. The historic commissary building remains a part of the Big Creek Ranger Station today as a livestock facility serving the wilderness area. It’s continued use is maintained through Forest Service facilities funding. The fencing and corrals have been replaced over the years. Evidence of earlier fence posts can be observed in the ground dose to the alignment of the existing fence. The ranger’s dwelling burned down in 1986. The woodshed was removed in 1990 after Section 106 review. It is unknown when the other structures were removed.

The Big Creek Commissary represents the oldest and largest, multi-room, multi-functional, log building related to wilderness management on the Payette National Forest today. This building and associated corrals are seasonally used today by livestock packers. Livestock tack, feed, and maintenance tools are stored in this building.

Architectural Context

Architecturally, the Big Creek Commissary exhibits a continuity of design, materials, construction techniques, color, and details. The use of locally available lodgepole pine, and Douglas fir trees for the building reveals the resourceful abilities of the USDA Idaho National Forest personnel. A circa 1929 photograph reveals that there was an adequate supply of tall, straight timber for the construction of the Commissary. Logs were carefully chosen in the forest for the construction of the buildings. Logs were selected for diameter, length, and straightness. All the logs used in the commissary building were peeled. It is likely that the logs were cut and left to dry prior to construction. The trees were felled with crosscut saws and axe. Mules were used to drag the logs to the building site. Many weeks, days, and hours were spent in preparation of the logs, Bark on each log had to be removed with drawknives. Logs were cut to length and shaped with adzes, and handsaws.

What is unusual about the Big Creek Commissary is the size of the log building, and the internal supporting horizontal log diaphragm system used to strengthen and stiffen the roof. The internal log diaphragm is a feature no longer used in construction of USDA Forest Service buildings. This type of log construction originated with the Scandinavian design tradition.

The origin of the plan for the commissary is unknown. The rustic design was used out of necessity, based upon the availability of materials, skilled craftsman, and the isolation of the setting from towns with sawmills. Logs were the only available building material and the construction techniques were known to the builders and acceptable by the agency directed to manage the forest resources.

The Big Creek Commissary is representative of the “log cabin era” of construction. USDA Forest Service personnel no longer construct buildings of logs. Inventories of other administrative sites on the Payette National Forest and on other forests south of the Salmon River yield on other log building of this scale or design. Only two other sites on the Payette have structures of this era; a log cabin at Cold Meadows Guard Station, circa 1925, and a cabin at Hays Ranger Station built in 1913. The last log structure built on the Payette National Forest was at Krassel Work Center in the early 1970s.

source: National Register of Historic Places
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Photos: Interior of the Forest Service Big Creek Commissary built in 1924-25, and first used in 1926.

link to photo gallery on Payette NF Facebook:

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1969 Big Creek Ranger’s House

(click image for larger size)
“The Ranger’s Cabin where I lived at Big Creek – 1969.” – Earl Dodds
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Billy Owens and His Banty Hen

One of the more time-consuming parts of my job as the Big Creek Ranger was that of providing for the everyday needs of the district employees. At the peak of the summer season there were about 25 employees working on the district. All of these people lived full-time on the district, and the Forest Service had to provide quarters and see that they received groceries and mail on a regular basis. If there were problems with any of these needs, they often became my problems. This situation was not entirely unique to the Big Creek District, as the old Krassel and Warren Districts on the Payette National Forest were faced with similar situations and I’m sure that there were other backcountry districts throughout the Forest Service that had similar concerns. In many ways, these situations are throwbacks to earlier days in the Forest Service when such arrangements were normal throughout most of the national forests in the West. …

The area of greatest concern I had with the needs of the district personnel was making sure that the employees manning the lookout stations had enough food supplies to last for about a month when they initially went to their stations. For a season or two, there were eight manned lookouts on the district, all of them remote from roads and somewhat difficult to access. Some of the young people that we hired as lookouts had little idea as to what they were in for in being so far from the grocery store. In my first year as ranger, I had experienced trouble with employees going up on lookout duty with an insufficient supply of food. I remember one young lad in particular who was just hired and told to go down to the local supermarket, open an account and assemble enough food to last for a month or so. When we picked up his supplies, they consisted of a bag of potato chips, a loaf of bread, a few cans of this and that and a half dozen boxes of instant-pudding mix – as if he were going on a picnic for the weekend. The instant-pudding mix was about the extent of his cooking skills and experience in preparing anything to eat.

In subsequent years we got on top of this problem and made up a suggested list of groceries and furnished each lookout with a copy of the Forest Service Lookout Cookbook that has special allowances for cooking at high altitude. It takes longer to do such things as boil spuds and cook beans on a lookout. In addition to this, I also developed a standard little talk that I gave to the employees who were going up on lookout at the time they were hired in an attempt to impress upon them how isolated and far removed from the grocery store they would be. Also, I emphasized that it was best to take the majority of their summer supplies with them when they initially went up rather than relying on someone at the grocery store to select their resupplies. …

Back in those days, the late 1950s, the ranger districts did their own hiring, usually from the pool of people who came to the winter office seeking summer employment. Most of us tried to hire local, or at least Idaho people, where possible, as we felt that they had had some contact with the Forest Service and had some idea of what they would be in for in working for the outfit. …

One spring, a nice, clean-cut young fellow named Billy Owens came into the office in McCall seeking a job as a fire lookout. He was a native of Riggins, Idaho, and impressed me as being a little on the serious side and likely to do a good job. So I hired him for summer employment … Billy had a rural background, and his mother must have helped him with his groceries. When he reported for work toward the end of June he had a large pile of stuff that included jars of home-canned fruits and vegetables and a live little banty hen in a special little homemade box, sort of like a bird cage. Billy was considerably smarter than the average bear and intended to have fresh eggs for the summer. …

The Payette National Forest had a helicopter on contract for fire control purposes – chiefly for retrieving smokejumpers from remote hard-to-get-to locations. The staff officer in the Supervisor’s Office, who was in charge of fire control activities on the forest, had previous experience in the backcountry and knew how much of a task it would be to man eight lookouts using horses and mules. He sent the helicopter out to the Big Creek District with instructions that this would be a one-day-only thing and that we should get all the stuff going to each lookout organized so that there was little down time for the chopper.

Four of the lookouts were to be flown up from the Chamberlain side of the district and four from the Big Creek side. At Big Creek, we carted everything out on the airfield and made four well- separated piles with the idea that the chopper could land right beside each pile to facilitate loading. The largest pile belonged to Billy Owen and was headed for the Rush Creek Point Lookout. Right on top of this pile was the homemade chicken cage with Billy’s little banty hen in it.

Things went pretty well with the first lookout, Acorn Butte, and then it was Rush Creek’s turn. The chopper made a neat landing right beside the pile of supplies, only the blast from rotor blades blew the chicken cage off the top of the pile. When it hit the ground, the cage popped open and out flew the little banty hen. For all the world, it looked like she went right through the whirling rotor blades but probably not. But for sure, she took off down the airfield at a fast clip – a lot like the Roadrunner in the comic strip. And the entire complement of the Big Creek Ranger Station, including the chopper pilot, dropped what they were doing and took off after her. It took quite some time with a lot of running around and hollering before someone was able to throw his shirt over the poor bird and we got her back in the cage and on her way to Rush Creek.

Most of us laughed about this for the rest of the day and even Jack Higby, who often was a little shy in the sense of humor department, managed a little grin and said “I hope no one took a picture of that!”

“The Rest of the Story” is that Billy Owens reported that the poor little chicken was so scared that it was weeks before she laid any eggs.

excerpted from: “Tales from the Last of the Big Creek Rangers Payette National Forest, Idaho” by Earl Dodds, pages 27-29 (33 megs)
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Lookout Cookbook

[This is probably the same cookbook Mr. Dodds mentions in his story.]

link to: LookoutCookbook.pdf

page updated October 6, 2020