Stibnite, Idaho 1940s
1943 Stibnite Recreation Hall and School
Stibnite showing recreation hall (under construction) on left and school.
Copyright Idaho state Historical Society
source: Idaho state Historical Society
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(probably mid 1940s)
Rec Hall (completed) on the left
source : The Mike Fritz Collection courtesy Heather Heber Callahan
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Mining Camp Memories
of Patty Anderson Herbel
Just where is Stibnite? Most people living in Idaho do not know, or have never even heard of this town, and it probably will not appear on your map, unless you have an older one. Few, if any buildings remain. Yet sixty years ago this tungsten and antimony mining town tucked deep within the mountains of Central Idaho at an elevation of about 6,500 feet was home to well over a thousand individuals. “Stibnite” is the common name for antimony sulfide.
Bradley Mining Company began mining and milling gold here about 1927. At least as late as the mid 1930’s mail was still delivered by dog sled to the miners and their families during the winter months. About a dozen families wintered over each year. Old timers told us that one advantage of being snowed in was that no one caught colds after the road closed. There simply were not enough people to keep the germs circulating. However when the road opened in spring, everyone came down with a cold. The winter of 1941-1942 was the first year the road into Stibnite was plowed open in winter.
My father, Jim Anderson, a carpenter, went to Stibnite in October of 1941 seeking work because in Caldwell, where we lived, house building was ending for the winter. Several events had created a need for more workers in Stibnite, and consequently more houses. A couple of years earlier, antimony and tungsten had been listed as strategic metals for national defense. About the same time, high-grade tungsten and antimony ore were discovered in Stibnite, and a workable method was developed for refining antimony. In December, after Pearl Harbor was bombed, it became nearly impossible to import tungsten and antimony, both used in making steel. Stibnite became the prime source of both in the United States. This made the work in Stibnite vital to the war effort.
Dad was immediately hired to do carpenter work, first, finish in houses being built near Midnight Creek. He was given living space in a tent-house with three other men. Its floor was made of raw boards. A 2×4 was nailed upright up at each corner and one in the center of each side. To these a few boards were nailed around for low walls, and three pair of 2x4s nailed to the end of the uprights, in a V-shape to hold the roof. A tent was thrown over that and tied down. A rough wooden door attached to an equally rough frame provided access. Furnishings, beside the four cots, included a wood heating stove, and a chopping block, with some wood stacked inside for the stove. Tent-houses were quick to erect when immediate housing was needed. That winter some families even with babies lived in tent-houses.
The four men in Dad’s tent-house all needed overalls. The store received a shipment, but every one had extremely long legs that fit no one. So the men folded them up and wore them anyway. One day Dad had had enough of that, so he rolled his two overall legs together lengthwise, went over to the chopping block, and chopped off the extra length. The others all watched and laughed, and then each in turn stood up from his cot and did the same with his.
Meanwhile, Mother and my ten-year-old sister, Pauline and I continued to live in our home in Caldwell until Dad felt sure he would be staying on for some time. To provide a livable home for us, evenings after work he nailed boards and bats around a tent-house frame, installed a small window in each side, and a tarpaper covered roof above. A light hung from the ceiling on a cord.
At home in Caldwell, Mother listened intently to the radio reports of the war. Blackout practice was required, and Mother went to great lengths to be sure our windows were adequately covered, the lights out, and the radio dial covered. I was highly fearful of the war. I watched anxiously as the block warden walked his beat and checked that no house had visible light. Even though the block warden was our neighbor and a family friend, it didn’t help my feelings of concern, especially with Dad far away (180 miles) at a time like this.
On February 5, 1942 with some of our household items loaded into a small utility trailer, the same friend who served as block warden hauled them to Cascade, 100 miles away. We followed in our 1928 model one-seated Whippet, with our kitty in a wooden box with slats nailed over the top, and the box nailed to the running board of our car. At Cascade, our household goods were loaded onto an ore truck to go the last eighty miles to Stibnite. Kitty and our family of four spent the night in the hotel before continuing the rest of the journey the next morning.
The eighty-mile trip to the mine was quite an adventure for us girls. The Whippet’s top speed was 35 miles per hour, but Dad said that was too fast for the car, and would damage it, so we drove much slower. We had never been back on narrow snowy mountain roads. The windshield wiper ran by compression, so it slowed down or stopped when we climbed a hill. Since most of the trip meant going either up and down, the windshield wipers rested frequently. In addition, the radiator tended to boil over when we drove up steep hills. This happened a little way up the long climb to Warm Lake Summit. We needed water for that radiator. A small creek flowed near the road, however there was deep snow, and our only container was a slop jar. (This was a bucket with sloped rim and a lid, used at night for a potty to avoid going outside to the privy.) So Dad took the slop jar and waded through snow up to his waist to get down to the creek where he could find water for the radiator. Coming back he held the slop jar full of water over his head to keep it out of the snow while he waded back. There sat Mother, watching him and laughing until the tears rolled, saying she just wished she had a camera with her!
Just before we reached Stibnite, we came to guard gates and were met by an inspector who made sure we had a legitimate reason to be there. Bradley Mining Company didn’t keep guards there very long, but it was comforting to me at the time, afraid as I was of war.
The items we brought included a bed for our parents, a drop-leaf type cot for us girls, a wood-burning cook stove, plus warm wool quilts and spreads, flannel sheets, a few clothes, dish cloths, towels, and wash cloths, minimal dishes, silverware, and pans, a broom and dustpan, a copper boiler to heat water for washing clothes, a pounder, a scrub board, and a rinse tub. The tub hung outside on a nail by the front door. We also brought our tent, which was pitched outside to protect the two steamer trunks that would not fit in the small cabin. A man gave us an old card table, and Dad brought home four dynamite boxes to sit on to eat. The latches on the table legs were pretty useless, so each of us was assigned to one leg during a meal to keep the table upright while we ate. An orange crate held the washbasin. Mother nailed a few boards on the front wall for a cupboard. That was our only furniture. She made curtains for the cupboard and for the orange-crate washstand out of green checked material. For the windows she made princess style curtains from flour sacks, with a ruffled edge and tiebacks from the green checked material. She braided a small rug for the floor. It was a cozy little place. The cook stove provided sufficient heat to keep the little cabin warm. Added to that was the fun of curling up on our bed with Kitty purring between us and listening to our parents tell us stories about their childhood. At night Dad hung a double length blanket between our beds to provide privacy.
I celebrated my eighth birthday two days after our arrival. I loved the frequent snowfalls, the pure white world around us, and the softly falling snowflakes. The snow muffled the sounds, and it was so peaceful and still. The lights would go out often, too, but not from air raid drills. At first our only electricity came from a generator at the mill. It often failed. When Idaho Power later put in a power line, every major snowstorm would knock it down. We used a candle then. I loved the flickering, subdued light. This was a perfect environment for listening to our father tell us stories, and our mother recite poems.
The road closed once for eight weeks that winter. In the last mail before it closed Mother received her order of a 100-pound sack of flour and a 5-pound block of yeast. That kept us supplied with bread during the closure. (The store always ran out of milk and bread within a day or two after the road closed, and within a few days, also ran out of yeast.) When the road finally opened after that long closure, there was so much mail the tiny post office room could not hold it, so they took it over to the schoolhouse to sort.
In 1942 for some months the men worked about 70 hours a week. The government had frozen the wages, but it was impossible to keep most people staying and working in the harsh and isolated conditions unless they could earn more money than an eight-hour day would provide. Eventually the mining company received government permission to raise the wages, and the workweek was reduced to 48 hours. Every night when Dad came home from work he would chop down a dead lodgepole pine tree, cut it into stove lengths, and chop it into cook-stove size pieces for fuel. The cook-stove also provided the heat for our cabin. That winter Dad was the only one in our family to bring water from the well across the road because the ice was very slippery around the well, and we might fall in. I never heard him complain about any of his work. He took it all in stride. In spring, he and the neighbors that used the same well cleaned out the dead frogs and other objects in the well, boxed it up, and added a hand pump. After that it was Pauline’s and my job to bring water to the house.
That first winter we were in Stibnite the snow reached a depth of eight feet on the level. At one point our thermometer dropped to minus 42 degrees. The snow depth was about five feet in average winters, however, with the addition of the snow sliding off the metal roofs, the windows would be completely covered unless the snow was shoveled away from them. Below zero temperature was a special treat to us girls. At about ten or twenty below, we could take our sleds, which would normally sink into the soft snow, and glide easily over the top crust. That usually meant getting up before school to go sledding, as the sun would soften the snow later in the day. We also enjoyed blowing soap bubbles in zero and colder weather, as the bubbles would freeze and fall to the ground, where they continued to hold their frozen shape.
There were a number of log houses in Stibnite, apparently built in the 1930’s or before. By the time we arrived, only frame houses were being built. However the log houses lasted many years after the mine closed and any remaining frame houses had collapsed from the weight of winter snow.
A nurse, Bea Green, provided medical care in 1942. People held great respect for Bea. A doctor did come in from Emmett one day a month to see patients, weather permitting, which it often didn’t. But Bea handled a wide assortment of problems, including casting the arm of a four-year-old after she caught it in the wringer on their washing machine, and caring for a lady who cut the artery at the base of her thumb when she was trying to cut up some hard brown sugar. By the following year a 16-bed hospital had been built, and a physician, Dr. Haliday, hired. He was the first of a succession of physicians who came and went. Between doctors, the nurses took care of the needs, or sent people out by plane, if the weather allowed it.
An old building served as a two-room schoolhouse when we arrived. We girls finished out the school year there. The following school year, Mother decided to teach us girls at home. She did this through a church school system. She was required to be state certified, which was no problem as she was already a teacher. The length of our class days and recitation periods, as well as the subjects and required number of days in the year was regulated like any other school. I would be in the third grade, and Pauline in the fifth. During the summer we added on a second room to the back of our cabin. I say “we” because Dad was so busy he would lay out the work for us and we three at home would nail the boards during the day. A small section of the room was partitioned off for a classroom. Meanwhile a new three-room schoolhouse was completed in town, but by fall it was overfilled, so a third and fourth grade classroom was set up in the basement. Down there, there were only tiny windows high over the children’s heads. In spring the water flooded in, so the children had to walk on boards laid down to try to keep their shoes dry. We heard the teacher finally became so distraught that one day she went back behind the stove and started screaming.
Until about 1945, we had never heard of trick-or-treating. On Halloween in 1942, some kiddies came and knocked on our door. They were wearing masks. We happened to be popping corn, so offered some to them. They all took some and went on their way. Years later we wondered if they might have said “Trick or Treat!” but if they did, we didn’t know.
When people started flooding into Stibnite, the Company purchased prefabricated houses, or “prefabs” as we all called them, which could be erected quickly. They were walled inside and out with plywood. The nails were all double headed so they could be easily removed. The prefabs were put up along the banks of Fiddle Creek. They each had a kitchen cupboard and sink, but no bathroom. As the first people moved into the prefabs, they attached shelves to the trees to keep their food cold, but the bears soon found those handy pantries. In February we moved to a prefab with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and laundry room. With coils in our cook-stove firebox, we had hot and cold running water at the kitchen sink. By morning the stove and water tank were cold, so Mother started the kitchen fire early. We also bought an oil-stove to heat the house. These seemed like marvelous advancements. Someone moved out of town and sold us their couch. New furniture was not available during the war. This couch had flat springs that were forced up to a rounded shape. When a person sat down on it, the springs reversed, rounding down. Many a visitor jumped up in surprise after sitting down on our couch for the first time, and experiencing an unexpected drop.
Dad and we girls enjoyed living in Stibnite very much. Mother, Violet Anderson, however, did not share our enthusiasm. Once one of her friends wrote to her that it must inspire her to write poetry, living, as we did in “Nature’s Winter Wonderland”. Mother immediately composed and sent her this poem:
Nature’s Winter Wonderland
by Violet Anderson
We wonder, when we rise at dawn
If it’s six below or twenty-one.
We wonder why the stove won’t heat
Beyond a sphere of seven feet –
In Nature’s winter wonderland.
We wonder, too, just what mishap
Has rendered dead the water tap.
We start to work before the sun
And wonder why the car won’t run –
In nature’s winter wonderland.
All day at work we freeze our toes,
And wonder where our money goes.
Then home again at close of day,
We wonder why we even stay –
In nature’s winter wonderland.
In the winter of 1945-1946, we moved once more. Dad built a sleigh to fasten to the Whippet and haul our furniture. This house included a large kitchen and living room, two bedrooms, and a small bathroom. There were also a couple woodsheds and a garage on the place. The Company did not charge rent for housing. In later years, with so much damage done to some houses, they started charging a monthly maintenance fee for painting and repairs inside the houses. This monthly charge built up to a certain level, and then stopped until some was used and the fund needed to be replenished.
Laundry drying was always a problem in Stibnite. In the later years two or three families moved in with a dryer. Then the Company had to forbid anyone else from getting a dryer. There wasn’t enough electric power available for that. With little to spend money on, about anyone could afford one, so that idea would have caught on quickly. Dad joined three pieces of pipe together with elbows and attached them to the wall close to the ceiling around the kitchen stove. He also put hooks up in the kitchen, so in the evening before bedtime he would string clothesline back across the kitchen. The sheets, pillowcases, and towels were hung on those lines, and pants and dresses went on hangers that hung on the pipe around the stove. We also had a reel clothesline to use on sunny days. It stretched from the front porch, across the driveway, to the top of a pole above the garage. We could stand on the front porch and hang out the laundry, pulling on the line to draw the washing out over the driveway.
As we girls grew, the little one-seated Whippet was too small to hold all of us, so Dad built a bench that fit in the trunk and Mother padded it with a quilt. Dad took the trunk lid off its hinges, and tied it on the back bumper. We girls rode back there in the trunk, and loved it. In 1945, Dad was able to buy a 1941 model two-seated Studebaker. We hated having to be quiet inside the car. The Studebaker had leaf springs. One of them had a habit of turning sideways and puncturing the gas tank. He was not able to get a replacement, so when we headed down to the valley from Stibnite, we took along a good supply of chewing gum, And sure enough, the leaf turned again and punctured the gas tank, so Dad turned the spring around while we three chewed mightily. He then plugged the hole in the tank with our prepared gum.
The axle broke on one man’s car. Andy Anderson, who owned the service station and garage, welded it for him, but warned him that the weld would not hold indefinitely, so ordered a new axle for him. When it arrived, the weld was still holding, so the man put it in the trunk of his car. Later he took a trip out to Boise. On the way, while still in the high mountains, the weld gave way, so he stopped by the roadside and replaced the broken axle with the new one. Telling about it afterward, he said it took more time to explain to all the people who came by why he happened to be carrying a spare axle in his trunk than it did to install the new axle.
The town had a 50% population turnover per year, as many came for work, but couldn’t handle the winters, cabin fever, and the isolation. Mail sorting time provided a source of socialization. Every evening when the mail came in, the post office window was closed so the two ladies could sort the mail without interruption. It was usually late in the day, and many people were getting off work. Some came, checked their mail, and left, while quite a few stood against the walls, talking joking, and watching everyone that came and went. It was a chance to observe who was in town. Each person kept an eye on his mailbox, and every time a piece of mail was slipped in, would go to see what he was getting. That mail was our one link with the outside world. As soon as the mail was sorted, the windows were again opened, and there was a rush for the package window, each person with a package slip in hand. Sears in Seattle and Wards in Portland were the chief sources of the packages.
Stibnite had an interesting social structure. The kind of house you could live in was based on how long you had been there rather than your social status. All the men had jobs, with no huge pay differences. So everyone was pretty much on the same level. Once sufficient houses were built, there was no longer anyone living in tent-houses or cabins, and eventually the prefab houses were also vacated. There were a few houses in one small area designated for some of the main managers, but they weren’t especially nicer than other houses. Since the mining company owned all the houses, there were no retired people living in town. Everyone considered somewhere else as “home”.
During the years we were in high school, all the students had to room and board out of town. There had been a high school in Stibnite a short time, but not when we were that age. To come home from school we took a bus to Boise from Caldwell, and then transferred to another bus to go to Cascade, then caught the mail stage in to Stibnite. We could do that in one day. But going back was a different story as the stage reached Cascade too late to catch a bus to Boise until the next day, and that bus arrived in Boise too late to transfer to a bus to Caldwell. So we would take a bus in to Stibnite and then on our return, fly out to Bradley Field in Boise. The flight cost a whole $10.
One day we were supposed to catch the flight out, and it was minus 40° Fahrenheit. Mother was going to take us to the airport, but the car wouldn’t start. So she called the office to ask for Dad, as he’d driven the old Whippet to work earlier. He wasn’t there. In just a bit he called back, but Mom had called the neighbors by then, and they were going to take us, so she told Dad don’t bother. But the neighbors couldn’t get their car started either. By then Dad was gone again. Finally he received the message and came. We had a full load on the seven-passenger Curtis Robin plane; all were students returning to high school after Christmas vacation. There was snow on the runway, which kept us from picking up speed, so about half way down the runway, the pilot cut the speed and taxied the rest of the way to try to pack a trail. He did that a couple times. By then the windshield was getting fogged up, so he sent us over to the post office to warm up while he cleaned the windshield. But when he started warming it, the oil line broke. He hadn’t realized it was frozen. So someone took us all home while he sent to Boise for repairs. We were home no more than half an hour when they called and said a four-passenger plane was going out, and we girls could go on it. We figured we’d have to walk the two miles to the airport. It had warmed up to minus 10 or 20 by then. But someone came after us. We would have preferred to stay home one more day.
There were 63 phones listed in the mimeographed phone book in Stibnite. They were scattered in homes around town with the understanding that others could use them if needed. There was a telephone in our house. It was an old hand-crank party line type. Pauline, being older, went out to Caldwell to school at Gem State Academy before I did. In May of her second year there, the creeks flooded from the spring snow melt, and blocked the road. Pauline was due to come home by bus in a day or two, so Mother called her to tell her she would need to fly home. Otherwise she would find herself stranded in Cascade with no money for a hotel room. Mother reached her, delivered the message, and then chatted for a few seconds when suddenly there was a terrible noise on the line. I could hear it clear across the room. Mother dropped the phone in alarm. Lightning struck the line. It was dead, and stayed that way for quite a few days. The roads were closed a couple weeks or so, too. We praised God that the call went through in time.
One time Melvina Bishop, who was attending the same boarding school with us, needed to call her mother. However when the operator asked for her Mother’s phone number in Stibnite, Melvina made the mistake of saying her mother didn’t have a telephone. She didn’t know whether her mother was at home or work, so expected the lady in the Company telephone office to locate her. However she had a difficult time convincing the operator to put the call through to someone who didn’t have a phone. Her mother happened to be at work, and the call went through promptly. Another time I had mumps and was placed in the dormitory infirmary in isolation. My sister called home to tell Mother. The lines were bad, so an operator somewhere between had to relay the message. Mother said, “Just leave her at school.” The operator exclaimed, “Leave her in school when she has the mumps?”
We moved out of Stibnite in June of 1951. Both my sister and I look back on our time there as a delightful experience. The following year the mine closed.
(via personal correspondence 2004)
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Summer of 1942 housing and families in Stibnite
Photos from the Mike Fritz collection
source : The Mike Fritz Collection courtesy Heather Heber Callahan
page updated September 4, 2020