From the McCall Historic Preservation Committee:
The history of McCall is entwined in the ebb and flow of four overlapping elements: recreation, mining, forestry and agriculture. Mining had an early and direct influence on the development of the area for settlement. With the discovery of gold in the Salmon River mountains, miners hurried along the hazardous Packer John and Warren trails that followed the west side of Payette Lake two miles north of the river outlet. At that time there was no permanent settlement on the south shore of the lake, however the area near the outlet of the river had long been a communal fishing and hunting ground for Native American tribes in the summer months. For them the lake was a sacred and spiritual place where they could peacefully rendezvous with others.
In 1874, N.B. Willey, correspondent with the Warren Times, created broad interest in the area when he wrote: “This piece of country is worth looking after. The lakes and streams abound with fish at this time of the year and the game is plentiful…. The Payette Lake, a beautiful sheet of water 12 miles long, in places is dotted with richly wooded inlets set like emerald gems on the bosom of the liquid mirror.” (Mr. Willey later became Idaho’s second governor.)
Four years later the only cabin was at the north end of the lake where the mail carrier could stop overnight. However the Chinook red and white fish were so abundant that several commercial fisheries operated above the lake at the time, sending fresh, salted and dried fish to the mining camps and south to the Boise-Weiser areas.
This Meadows-to-Warren trail connection to the promising mining areas prompted the construction of the Warren Wagon Road. At the time, officials were anticipating a future highway linking southern and northern Idaho, and in 1891 the road was completed to Warren. This may have prompted Charles Clifford to build the Statehouse Hotel, complete with a U.S. Post Office “Eugene” at the junction of the road with the lakeshore, (current site of the home of Mugs Davies,) to accommodate freight wagons and stage coaches. Providing a southwest approach from Meadows to Payette Lake and the Salmon River mining communities set the stage for the role of the southern lakeshore as a vital mining, recreational, forestry and agricultural center for central Idaho. These four elements became the basis for the creation and continuing development and expansion of the unique community that is McCall.
Following in the tradition of the tribal rendezvous, the lake has been a recreational destination from the beginning. Several families, the first tourist campers on record, came to the southwest shore in 1883 from Emmett and the nearby Marsh-Ireton Ranch. Fourteen people in all, they came in several covered wagons with four horse teams and saddle horses. One lady insisted on having her “buggy” and driver along also.
According to Nettie Ireton Mills in her book, All Along the River, “They followed the first road into Long Valley… It went up the five-mile hill above Ola, across High Valley, down Tripod Creek to the river’s ford, thence over the steep hill beyond, to the Round Valley. When too steep for brakes, trees dragged behind the wagons held them back. Through Long Valley they followed the route of a company of Cavalry sent out from Fort Boise. Camp was made on the west side of the lake near the present Hays’ property (The current site of “Elevation 5000″ condominiums). They had no boats, but built a raft from which to fish – a great sport for the young people. All enjoyed many red fish from the upper lake.” They returned home by way of Meadows Valley, crossing the Weiser River 36 times, stopping in Meadows for a dance and in Salubria for a chicken dinner with friends.
In the following two decades, several commercial camps, hotels, private clubs, and church camps provided recreational opportunities for visitors, enhanced by scenic tours of the lake on “Jewsharp” Jack Wyatt’s 30-foot steamboat. The Club Division (500 building sites), Ontario Club, Sylvan Beach, Pilgrim’s Cove, Shady Beach, Lakeview and Newcomb’s beaches all had their beginnings then, along with the construction of individual cabins along the lakeshore. The recreational aspect of McCall has since ballooned into the four-season resort community of today.
The catalyst for creating the town of McCall was an emigrant family from Ohio and Missouri. Tom and Louisa McCall were nearing their 50s when they decided to strike out West for a new life. They knew farm life in all its hardships and harvests and were looking forward to beginning again. Louisa had borne nine children, three of whom had died. Their son Homer had been in ill health most of his life and the western climate seemed to hold hope for improvement. Arriving in Boise in 1888 they stopped for several months at the Marsh-Ireton Ranch near Emmett to gather equipment and supplies for the trek to Long Valley. Homer died at the ranch during this time and Tom and Louisa and three sons, Ben, Dawson, and Ted set off in the spring of 1889 for Long Valley with two wagons and teams plus 25 head of cattle, numerous chickens, and household supplies for their new home. Pulling in at the south end of Payette Lake in June they discovered a single resident, Sam Devers, who had squatter’s rights to 160 acres of prime shoreline property. He was eager to move on and agreed to trade his rights and cabin to Tom for a wagon, team and harness. (The current site is the Hotel McCall.) Other settlers soon proved up their land hugging the south shore and Tom plotted a town site of four blocks out of his original homestead.
In the early days Tom McCall appropriated the abandoned Lardo U.S. Post Office, originally located ten miles south of the lake, and the area was briefly known as “Lardo.” W.B. Boydstun acquired the Lardo Post Office in 1903, and moved it and the name to his homestead west of the river. Honoring Tom as the father of the town, citizens changed the name to “McCall.” The Town of McCall was officially incorporated on July 19, 1911.
The 40 years following 1890 were a time of rapid growth and the McCalls and their colleagues established a firm basis for the town’s character. Tom bought the Warren Gold Dredging Company sawmill and established his lumber business a block west of his home on the lakeshore. This and subsequent mills supplied lumber for the burgeoning homes, hotels and business buildings.
According to the Idaho Magazine, “The shore of the lake…is thickly gemmed with the grandest spots for building purposes around the entire lakes – sites equally adapted for the use of a summer cottage – or business enterprise, and the Messrs McCall will hold out exceptional inducements to those who will build on their lake sites next spring and summer. The Idaho Magazine suggests that all prospective builders confer with these gentlemen before building, as it would probably be to their decided advantage so to do.”
Tom was a landowner, realtor, hotel owner, postmaster, sawmill owner, merchant, and councilman as well as the respected “father” of the town. With the coming of the railroad in 1914 McCall was established as a commercial center for the surrounding area.
Forestry became an important influence in McCall when Tom recognized the value of the new Payette Forest Reserve created in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The headquarters were then at Meadows, but Tom managed to have it moved to McCall in 1908 by providing office space in his new building (current site Lake Street Station) and paying the $80 moving expenses for the supervisor and his family. Tom’s son Daws became the ranger for what is now the McCall Ranger District. Daw’s younger brother Ted was appointed deputy ranger for the Chamberlain Ranger District. The Forest Service and its Smokejumper Base has maintained a prominent place throughout the history of McCall and continues to be a major contributor to its life. The addition of an airport in 1930 not only served the smokejumper program but also provided easier access to backcountry landing strips.
The McCalls experienced more sadness when Ted passed away in 1911 at the age of 28. When Louisa was asked whether she was discouraged by the hard life, she replied: “Why no, of course not. I had my family with me. Besides, there was always the lake and the mountains, the grand trees and the sunshine. And when I got a little discouraged, I used to walk out to a place just above the lake and look across that glorious beauty – that was all I needed.”
Tom and Louisa laid the foundation for the next generation of leadership. Carl and Ida Brown and their family managed to build the sawmill industry into a major contributor to the economy of the town and central Idaho. Originally from New England where his family owned an important sawmill and lumber business, and armed with a degree in business, Carl extended his reach beyond the community to serve as state senator for Valley County in the Idaho Legislature and later as an Idaho Democratic National Committeeman.
The Boise-Cascade Company acquired the mill in 1964 and closed operations in 1977, removing the “backbone” of McCall’s economy. The lumber business ceased to exist in McCall, and the sawmill burned to the ground in 1984.
In 1905 several private lumber companies started a cooperative venture to protect the forests from fire and disease. Over the next ten years this developed into a formal organization, The Southern Idaho Timber Protective Association (SITPA). Members included private timber companies, the State of Idaho, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the 1930s SITPA managed some of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in the McCall area. Among many building projects by the CCC was the headquarters compound for SITPA on State Street in McCall. Finn craftsmen from the valley supervised the construction of these log buildings following the Finnish techniques for construction. These buildings are on the National Historic Register and currently house the Central Idaho Historical Museum.
The ebb and flow of events in McCall until now have all been leveling influences on the growth and development of the area. It has maintained its village charm through the good times of progress, the excitement of MGM filming “Northwest Passage”, the addition of the Shore Lodge and the Yacht Club to an already interesting town center, the discovery of a deep water creature in the lake named “Sharlie”, and a magic that touches all who come to its forests and shores. If a positive spin can be attributed to fire, many of the hotels, stores, and businesses were leveled only to be rebuilt or replaced by modern facilities.
After decades of fairly moderate growth, McCall has been “discovered” as a desirable resort destination by private investors and the development industry. The increasing growth rate of Boise’s Treasure Valley, 100-miles to the south, has also resulted in more focus on McCall for resort and vacation home developments in recent years.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of McCall and Valley County, we invite you to visit the Central Idaho Historical Museum. Built in 1936-37 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, this 4-acre Historic Campus has eight vintage log board and batten buildings. Located on Highway 55, two blocks from downtown McCall, the center is open Wednesday through Saturday, June to August. A Guided Tour is scheduled at 1:00 pm daily. Heritage Tours of Warren are also available and can be arranged by contacting the Museum.
Please visit www.centralidahohistoricalmuseum.com.