My Downtown Coeur d’Alene in the 80’s

There’s really no point in even trying to gloss it up. Compared to now, Coeur d’Alene in the early 80’s was a rat hole. A handful of now long-gone troublemakers who smeared our beautiful town with an ugly reputation were just beginning their public antics with a bang, actually a series of bangs as bombs were detonated throughout town in the name of hate. The economy reeked like a dead, lead-poisoned Rainbow Trout after the glory days of the local logging and mining industries fizzled out, leaving behind loads of unemployed workers and major environmental disasters to clean up. Playland Pier had gone into disrepair and burned down, leaving the local tourism industry with nothing much to promote but the lovely polluted lake itself. Downtown was full of vacant storefronts and was being taken over each night by wild gangs of mullet-sporting, Jack Daniels-chugging youth cruising up and down Sherman and parking their El Caminos long enough to blare some AC/DC, smash some bottles, and pick up hair-sprayed members of the opposite sex. A newspaper headline at the time announced urgently “Businesses Seek to Halt Rowdy Youth.”


Despite the hard times, it was the Coeur d’Alene in which I came of age, growing from a geeky pre-teen to a high-school graduate, and I have nothing but fond memories of our fair berg in the 80’s. It might have been a dump, but it was the only dump I knew.

I have to chuckle at those who express fear these days at the idea of venturing east of 15th on Sherman, claiming it to be a “bad neighborhood”. Truth is, that end of town is fabulously posh now next to its shoddy state 25 years ago, when I-90 zoomed right through the gas shanties, trailer parks and fire-trap motels that cluttered the area. The once-proud Cove Bowl was breathing its last puff of second-hand Kool smoke, run down to the point that even Greyhound at one point relocated their bus stop away from there out of fear for the safety of their waiting passengers.

Perhaps a smidge higher on the classiness scale was neighboring Peabody’s Lounge, a dark, busy place where one could get tipsy on cheap Mai-Tais and have Pat Benatar moments with ladies in legwarmers. No need to name names, but rumors abound in regards to Beta’s Place, where apparently many of the local big-wigs often went to do a late-night little slumming and sometimes found themselves in conveniently unpublicized tangles with Johnny Law. Roughest of all was the biker-bar double whammy of cave-like East Sherman saloons Powder River and Lake City. I grew up in the neighborhood just north of these taverns, and my mother put the fear in me from an early age: don’t ride your bike anywhere near those places or you’ll be kidnapped and killed by the Hells Angels. To this day, I get slightly nervous when I drive by there even though the Lake City Saloon is long closed and the Powder River is now so proper you have to pay a quarter to the swear jar if you get caught cussing.

Obviously, I was too young to actually be in on the bar scene, but I never found myself with a shortage of places to hang out and absorb the glory of the 80’s era. The historic Wilma Theater was still operational, but it hadn’t been kept up well at all and to survive, they began showing second-run discount flicks and midnight movies. In fact, the last movie I remember seeing at the Wilma the very year it was shuttered forever was “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, our toast and toilet paper flying through an otherwise empty theater.


Everyone was way into roller disco, and Skate Plaza was home base during the first few years of the neon decade. I often wonder how deep the place impacted me; a practice run for the manic club scene I would bury myself in later in life with its social dramas, trippy lights and DJ worship. A few years later, I had graduated to an all-ages pizza-and-soda night club called Fad’s, located in the dilapidated building which had formerly housed the legendary Rathskellar. Then it was on to Hollywood Nights, another 16-and-over dance club that must have been the first place in town to play rap and hip-hop. I liked their “progressive night” where some unknown DJ unwittingly planted the seed for my lifetime love of underground club music. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous “Sheep House”, which wasn’t actually a business, but someone’s home (no-one seemed to know whose), right off Sherman Ave., that was party central every weekend for a few years. How this continuous, booze-soaked keg party managed to fly under the friendly policeman’s radar for so long, I have no idea.


Certainly there was no shortage of places to sit for hours, drinking coffee and annoying the underpaid wait staff. My own favorite haunt was Frontier Pies on 5th and Sherman, a cobwebby wooden labyrinth where they had fresh Pike Street tea, incredible thick home fries with ranch dressing, and deep-fried scones I still long for twenty years later, served with butter, cinnamon and sugar. Another hangout was Jax, a family-style restaurant which was quite fine but became even better when Rustler’s Roost took over the place and created a social sub-culture all of its own.


Mainly, I just enjoyed hanging around downtown, poking through the shelves at the Bookseller, looking at comic books at Wilson’s Pharmacy, or watching folks ride by on the big red double-decker London bus. I was a record geek from an early age, and I spent many formulative years at Total Eclipse Record Shop, which had an amazing selection for such a small town and was home to Coeur d’Alene’s only “head shop”, a roped off area in the back with “18 and over” signs everywhere. Similarly, there was a curious, cluttered little shop named simply “Oriental Gifts” run a by a delightfully eccentric, chatty little lady who in addition to trading in Asian food, Oriental kitsch, and Duran Duran keychains, also sold various deadly weapons and smoking paraphernalia. She seemed to get away with it by labeling them as decorative items and playing dumb. She’d snap at customers, “Ah! No bong, flower vase!”

The latter part of the 80’s would see the Coeur d’Alene Resort rise phoenix-like from the depths of the lake to replace the old North Shore hotel. A year later, Silverwood Theme Park was hatched into existence out on the Rathdrum prairie. These two entities would serve as magnets drawing people to the area from near and far, gradually putting our town on the national tourist radar and transforming it into a world class destination. The empty downtown shops would soon fill up with Art Galleries and Boutiques and places like Pioneer Pies would be replaced by gourmet bistros and wine bars. Honestly, as much as I do approve of the overall upgrade, there are times when I still miss the personality and quirkiness of the downtown I grew up in during the 80’s, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

17 comments:

OrangeTV said...

Comments from Spokesman-Review Huckleberries Online link to this column:

The late 1970's and early 80's in CdA were definitely not all bad. We purchased a gorgeous brand new Parade of Homes house on a huge lot in Pinegrove Park for a little over $40,000. Tom Emerson at First Federal S&L loaned us the money. Back in those days you worked directly with the bank president, and it took him about 5 minutes to approve the loan. Tom was a real gentleman.

Traffic was non-existent, 7 minutes tops from Pinegrove to downtown. Taxes were low. 45 minutes to the Spokane airport. Then for a few years Gem State Airlines flew out of CdA, so it was a piece of cake to get to Boise for business or a connecting flight.

That said, it's better here now. Better restaurants, a more robust economy, more jobs, better pay, more educational opportunities, first class medical and shopping. It's almost all good.

I've spent most of my adult life in CdA and have no regrets about that.
Posted by Howard Martinson | 24 Feb 10:57 AM

Crap! I loved Coeur d'Alene back in the 80s. Spent a lot of time wandering the streets with what I call a "bi-level" haircut; sort of punk, sort of redneck. Also had those jungle print Vans that came in handy for those spontaneous moments where you'd decide to jump off the cliffs at Tubbs Hill. It was smaller, and there were economic troubles up there caused by the closure of the mines in the early 1980s, but it was still a great place.
Posted by James Bond | 24 Feb 1:38 PM

I hardly remember ever visiting CDA in the 80s. It was a fun city to hit in the 70s when I was in high school as the girls there were so excited to see the cool boys from Spokane they could scarcely restrain themselves.

You know, it wasn't until the LCDC cleaned up and revitalized CDA that I even bothered to come back and visit.
Posted by Bob | 24 Feb 2:09 PM

I loved playing in the City Park on the rocket ship and huge curly slide. They had 2 different playgrounds in those days. Going to the dime store on Sherman used to be a major treat and if we were really good we got to see their fish. I think it burned down sometime in the late 80s. I remember going to Cloud 9 for my first "fancy" family dinner with linen napkins. I remember going to the JC Penney when it was where the Plaza Shops are now and always being scared of the picture of JC Penney that hung above the stairs.
Posted by Shannon | 24 Feb 2:26 PM

Yep. Cruising Sherman, Skate Plaza, double features at the Showboat, cliff jumping at Tubbs Hill, days at Sander's beach, buying the record of the week at the Long Ear, CDA High football/basketball games... Good times. Good times. :)

(I graduated in 1990 from CDA High. Any other Vikings out there?)
Posted by Jen | 24 Feb 4:46 PM

I remember that picture of J.C. Penney! It didn't scare me, though. That's where I bought a lot of the then-current 45's for 88 cents each. It was a big deal, back then, to get in the elevator, ride up to the top floor and then back down to the main level. I'd say, the last 5 or 6 years I was in CDA, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the city, the traffic, the sprawl, and the people. It just got too much. CDA has grown, yes, but something in the soul, the character of the town has been lost in the process. Either that, or I just couldn't keep up with everything anymore.
Posted by Idaho EscapeE | 24 Feb 9:22 PM

Oh, Jen, you make me feel so old. I'm a '72 Viking...
Posted by Idaho EscapeE | 24 Feb 9:24 PM

Idaho EscapeE-I'll make you feel even older! I'm a '92 Viking, the last class that graduated together before they opened Lake City High School.
Posted by Shannon | 24 Feb 10:50 PM

I'm a Viking from 1984! I definitely miss the Cd'a from the 70's - 80's. Clearly, it wasn't in great shape economically but it was home. It has such a different "feel" to it now. I don't bash on the Californians, some of my best friends and neighbors are from there and they add a lot to my life, but I do miss the old days!
Posted by ljh | 25 Feb 12:20 AM

As a native north Idahoan,the mid 80's were great in Cda but a 180 from today.I moved back here on a job relocation.Most important,the lake was still enjoyable,not overcrowded and its shores not overdeveloped.The Cda Resort had just opened and it was quite clear that everything was about to change.However I love downtown today.If the commercial entries would just be eliminated from the July 4th parade. I'll make all the above bloggers feel older.I remember when a relative of Orange TVs and her sidekick,the late Gina were GO GO dancers at the infamous Rathskellar Inn in the 60's.It was be there or be square.
Posted by Jorel | 25 Feb 8:24 AM

Kim_Norm said...

Such a good story and all of the comments hit home. I came in the mid 80's and loved it then, such a small town atmosphere. Much has changed since then, mostly for the good, but I do miss those days everyone on this thread is talking about. Thanks for the story, very good indeed. The Stickman

Anonymous said...

I was a young US Air Force Airman stationed at Spokane in 1949-50 51 52 and 53. Almost every weekend it was off to Coeue d' Alene and the lake.I being from Florida,CDA at that time was the most beautiful fun loving clean city I had ever visited. There was a place called the Cave with a tunnel entrance we would take our dates to dance and listen to the music. I really loved CDA and hated to leave the area when the AF presented me with orders to leave.I am now AF retired living in Florida and would like to visit CDA to see all the changes.J.D. Day

Kat Green said...

I'm a real oldie, Vikings class of 67. I lived across the street from the city park, and never quite believed my good fortune, living in what was to me an ideal paradise. Even so, we knew we were hicks compared to our sophisticated visitors from Spokane.

Sanders Beach Savior said...

Coeur d' Alene was great in the 1970's and 80's. In fact now more than ever we need a return to that era. We need new mines and a new Bunker Hill running up in Kellogg with brand new state of the art sawmills all along the Spokane River. Those days were employment and family wage jobs for everybody. The influx of outsiders has brought nothing but greed, punks, crime, drugs, pollution, and an overwelmed infastructure.
Coeur d' Alene is still the most beautiful city in the United States with the best opportunities in the world. For those inclined the University of Idaho is there for the USA's best available education. Live on Idaho!

Pasco Robert said...

Racing cars around Fernan Lake, drunk as Hades, after leaving Peabody's. Quality time 2:00 AM.

Many Coeur d' Alene chaps ended up in Wallace after the agonizing drive over Fernan Saddle.

Sherman Avenue, the IGA parking lot, and the Dike Road.

Anyone remember the Fernan Rifle Range?

Warren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Warren said...

The Wilma, The Dream Theater, The Bijou (which became an auto mechanics shop -- don't remember the owner but Harvey Dougall made the place work) around back from Western Auto. Dingles - that pretty much summed up C'dA. Everson's Jewelry, Wilson's Drug store, IXL Toggery, The Ball & Cue, The Manor House, remember the trampolines that were replaced by Robbie's In-N-Out? The Rathskeller first opened as the Chocolate Shoppe, and I owned the first Head Shop in Cd'A in 1969. It was two doors down from the Police Station and was called Pigments Unlimited. At least Huddie's is still there, isn't it? I haven't been back since '90. When asked where I grew up I answer, "Just outside the asshole of the universe, the hemorrhoid of the universe." I went back once in the 80's for a party. God, it was dismal. I've never loved so many stupid people so completely.

Anonymous said...

Owner here of Total Eclipse Records & Tapes and was so surprised to see our store still mentioned. Those were the days :-)
Bill, Jacqui, Gary, Marilee, Kelly and all of our customers for all those years!!!

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Anonymous said...

Just FYI, there were two Sheep Houses. The first one was on Emma or Davidson and the residents were Mark, Doug, Dave, and Bart. No last names to protect the "innocent." The second was on Sherman and Doug, Dave, and Bart were there and the new roomies were Robert and Jay and the pre-Black Happy band Sacrament rented the furnace room for a practice space. There were plenty of police raids on both of them including a full-on daylight bust. After that it became a more private affair.

Anonymous said...

Ya we use to play Peabody's in the 80's Band name was called "High Fever". Our guitaris was from there, Kirt Vanderwilt. those were some great days.

Pat Bratcher, Dallas, Tx

Anonymous said...

I remember in there early mid 80's we toured the northwest and Peabody's was one of our favorite club to play
being that were from Los Angeles it didn't seem dangerous or big town in any way downtown the seem like Main Street.
we had a semi truck big show they billed us as gigolo from Hawaii because we a played hawaii for 4 years and the name of the band was giggolo from hawsii and I remember Peabody's and the Bozeman Montana were ourtwo favorite places to play. especially on ladies night that was funI also remember we were invited to an ever clear party we said whats ever clear so the people had fun introducing us to ever clear

Me said...

I cut my teeth for surviving life in CDA in the 80's. I had an apt above First interstate typewriter on 4th and Sherman. I loved rustler roost's fried potatoes. and when I was at the lowest point in life I was living in a tent up fernan.

Amazing to read about it all.

William Jack said...

The Sheep House was my only taste of downtown. Didn't do the clubbing or the cruising. I lived in Dalton Gardens so there was lots of vacant land to party on. The woods up by Honeysuckle Beach which is now full of McMansions had many a party. We would grab pallets from various places and have big fires.

I remember the Bookseller and Hobbit Town (in the basement of the long-gone Interstate Typewriter building). Pre-Resort we would go to Cloud 9 for the Sunday chicken dinners.

Sam Crawford said...

Great article and thread Patrick