Friday, July 24, 2009

11 Cool Things About Wallace, Idaho

Wallace, Idaho. A tiny town with big dreams. It's been called the most interesting small town in Idaho and it certainly must rank up there with the weirdest. At the very least, it's way cooler than Athol (sorry Atholites, don't send angry emails).

Here are a few interesting tidbits you may or may not know about this oddly charming historic village. If you can't get there this year or the next (or the next), no worries. It's a town stuck in time and everything will be the same ten years from now as it was twenty years ago. Except for the prostitutes.

1. 1.2 billion ounces of silver have been produced in the Wallace area since 1884, placing it near the very top of "Most Silver Rich Places" in all of world history, along with Liz Taylor's jewelry hutch.

2. Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was born in Wallace. She was known as "Judy" until she went to Hollywood at age 16 and changed her name to Lana, becoming one of the era's most famous and glamorous movie stars. During her long career she was known as "the Sweater Girl" and was nominated for an Best Actress Academy award for "Peyton Place". She had a recurring role in the cheesy 80's prime-time soap "Falcon Crest".

3. Literally every building in downtown Wallace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Certain residents worked tirelessly back in the 70's for to make this happen after discovering tentative plans for the new improved Interstate 90 threatened to raze much of the historic area and run right through the middle of town. This is why I-90 now runs "over" the town instead.

4. In 2004, Wallace mayor Ron Garitone issued an official proclamation declaring the town to be the "Center of the Universe." The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Welfare backed up this notion under the newly discovered science of "Probalism" and it was peer-reviewed by La Cosa Nostra and the Flat Earth Society. Yeah, I'm not sure what it means, either. The exact "center" is at the intersection of 6th and Bank St., which is marked exactly by a specially designed manhole cover and a couple of street signs.

5. Hookers! Until the late 1980's, Wallace had a thriving prostitution industry. the local police chose to ignore the brothels for over 100 years and it wasn't until the feds got involved that they were forced to shut down. The Oasis Bordello Museum gives $5 tours of an old whorehouse, left exactly how it was when the ladies had to scramble. A copy of People magazine is among the exhibits, its cover featuring Baby Jessica, the girl who had the whole country freaking out after falling down a well.

6. Wallace used to be famous as the home of the only stoplight on I-90, until uncaring road builders finished the overpass around town, and finished the town's claim to fame. But the town was not so easily dissuaded. They had a grand funeral for the stoplight, putting it in a coffin, and had a horse-drawn hearse carry it as a bagpipe band played. Now, a sign at the old site gives directions to the Wallace Mining Museum, where the light can still be seen, resting in its coffin.

7. Wallace proudly has nine bars in an approximately four block zone. With a population of 960, this means there is one bar for every 106.66 people in town. In theory, the entire town could be out getting sozzled at the same time, and this likely actually happens from time to time. Yet mysteriously there is nowhere in town to buy underwear.

8. After the great Wallace fire of 1910, the Pulaski was invented there. What's a Pulaski, you asky? It's a mattock-axe tool used in fire fighting.

9. Fans of classic retro signage come from all over the country to admire and take photos of Wallace's iconic Stardust Motel sign. I'm thinking it must have been restored not too long ago, because I seem to remember it being pretty beat up for a while and now it looks clean and new, with all the bulbs working and everything (I think).

10. The slightly less-than-classic volcano disaster flick "Dante's Peak" was filmed in Wallace in 1996, with the actual volcano added via computer graphics. Stars Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton created quite a high-profile buzz in North Idaho. They stayed at the Coeur d'Alene Resort and were frequently spotted at various locations in the area, dining and schmoozing. I had the opportunity to encounter both celebs and Brosnan was super nice and down to earth. Can't quite say the same thing about Miss Linda Too-Much-Of-A-Big-Hollywood-Star-To-Even-Smile Pants. Too bad "Dante's Peak" effectively ended her career.

11. Teddy Fest. It won't happen again for another 94 years, but if science invents a way to live that long, I'll be there. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt came though Wallace with much frou-frou and fanfare. The event at the time was marked with a parade and gathering for Roosevelt's speech at the Wallace City Park. 100 years later in 2003, Wallace threw together a little commemorative festival which I found myself unwittingly part of.

It was a sunny May day so a friend and I had decided to check out Wallace just for something to do. The town did seem a bit livelier than usual, but we didn't really clue in until the woman behind the counter at the old corner store asked us "You going to the parade?" She explained to us it was the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's big visit and the parade was starting in two hours. What exciting news!

We wandered around Wallace, noticing the buzz in the air for "Teddy Fest" as we nicknamed it. We decided to come a bit early and found a nice wide window ledge across from the old depot to sit on and enjoy the parade. Gradually, the old timers started coming, waddling in from the other side of town six blocks away, lawn chairs in tow. Moms with a dozen toddlers, lumberjacks, the town drunk(s), pretty much everyone in town was there, lining the street along with us looking at their watches and murmuring to each other in suspense. The Teddy Fest Parade crowd went for five blocks or so on both sides, a surprisingly large turnout for such a wee berg.

Finally, from around the corner it came: a horse-drawn carriage driven by some guy with a big walrus moustache and one of those pairs of glasses with the long chain balanced on his nose a la Teddy himself, waving stoically to the crowd. This was followed by a flatbed truck with four old coots playing some kind of squawky, primitive Oompah music. The end. People clapped appreciatively for a moment as these two rather sad happenings went by and as soon as they passed the lawn chairs were folded up, the kids gathered and it was homeward bound.

The whole thing happened so fast, we were left sitting there almost in shock. As soon as we realized that was it for the big parade we almost cried ourselves to death with laughter. We finally gathered ourselves and headed for the car but started laughing uncontrollably again when a woman ran up in a panic asking "Oh no, am I too late, did I miss it?!?" and when we told her "Sorry" she frowned and stamped her foot in disappointment. "Damn it!" she griped. As if she missed something truly beautiful and inspirational and would never have the chance to see such a divine spectacle again.


k said...

Very nice otv. You had me laughing out loud!!

Isn't there something going on in Wallace this weekend? Didn't they used to have some big plastic ball that they rolled down the river or something?

raymond pert said...

Yes, this weekend is the Wallace All Class High School Reunion.

Gyro Days features the Lead Creek Derby. A beach ball is put in the Cd'A River near Mullan and floats to a designated spot in Wallace. Gamblers buy time chances and the person with the right time wins something. I hope I have that right.

Gyro Days were June 18-20.

If you are jonesin' for a Wallace festival still to come, Huckleberry Heritage Festival will be held Aug. 14-15.

I'll be stuck in Eugene. Drats!

Anonymous said...

Wallace has good beer now. One of the bars is a brew pub with delightful local libations.-

Unknown said...

Normally, I'm the kind of guy that wouldn't walk across the street for a parade. However, as I'm reading your column on Wallace and making my way through “Lana Turner - the Sweater Girl” and the tradition of Hookers and the Oasis Bordello; I come to “The Teddy Fest Parade”.

Immediately, visions of dozens of scantily clad women wearing nothing but nighties, skipping along and tossing rose petals in the air like a procession to a Roman bacchanalian festival or a remake of the movie Cleopatra come to mind.
Dude, I'm soooo there!

Instead we find out that it's a five minute commemoration of a 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt trip through Wallace.
No girls, no rose petals, no fun - no fair!

Disappointment and depression set in.

But wait, this is the age of “yes we can”; this dream cannot be allowed to die. If not Wallace, then who? Step up to the plate people, this could be the plum of your “small town daze” festival. You could have a T.R. look-a-like contest and throw in some guys in bear costumes. Heck, you could even have your T.R. look-a-like, parade through as Grand Marshall - wearing a Teddy!

Well, maybe not.

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scott reynolds said...

I've lived in many parts of the country, but my time near Wallace in the Silver Valley was amazing. It is some of the most beautiful land in the nation. Great people. I worked at KWAL radio...620 AM! Couldn't have picked a better place for my first job in broadcasting.

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Anonymous said...

In 1969 I worked for the bakery in Spokane that made Twinkies and Wonder Bread. Often I would ride with the delivery truck that went all the way to Montana. We would ALWAYS stop in Wallace to visit the safe, friendly and cheap prostitutes when heading east and returning west. Sometimes we would stop in both directions. Pre-Aids era. Wonderful experiences! That was 50-plus years ago so I don't have that much stamina!!

Anonymous said...

The ladies don't have that much stamina anymore either. LOL!

Unknown said...

Is it true they have a Blues Festival that goes on all over the streets of town every second weekend of July? That sure sounds fun!

graham and colleen said...

we found Wallace by accident driving thru to Canada and was thrilled by this little town and tell everyone we can that they have to visit although thousands of miles from our home we will make another trip to spend more time visiting

kieryn said...

Please, don't leak this tidbit to the national media, but we locals recognize that Wallace is "Aspen gone wayward and reckless." This list barely scratches the surface of how very cool we are.

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Wild Bill Gelbke said...

Interesting article except for one huge omission. In 1979 United Artists bankrolled Academy Award winning director Michael Camino to make the epic Hollywood western Heavens Gate which used Wallace as a set as Cheyenne Wyoming in 1890s. The whole downtown was transformed to erase and steam locomotive and cars were brought in for Kris Kristophersons arrival scene. A couple hundred extras were hired and wardrobed in fine attire. Bordello employees were seen mingling in the crowds and extras were passed cold beers through the window of a streetside tavern.

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Unknown said...

I'm considering moving to Wallace Idaho or around that area. Any suggestion. Thanks