Not long ago, this magazine received a missive from John Mock, president of the nonprofit First Territorial Capitol of Idaho Revitalization Project, whose volunteers reconstructed Idaho’s first territorial capitol building in Lewiston as a walk-through museum, using 155-year-old
On September 30, 1950, I was an eight-year-old University of Idaho football junkie, living in Lewiston, bleeding, bleeding Vandal silver and gold. September 30 was to be my day. There would be no bleeding whatsoever, only excitement. Five days earlier, Mom had told me I would be going with my father Stan to my first college game. Dad usually went with Bill, Curly, or Louie—sometimes all of them, sometimes only one or two—but today it was just me.
Television had not yet arrived in the Idaho Panhandle, so I listened to every Vandal game on the radio, and the next morning I read the recap in the Sunday paper. Bob Curtis was the voice of the Vandals, who I figured had announced and would announce every one of the team’s football games from the beginning of time until the end of the world. Through him I knew the Vandal colors, their fight song, their record, who coached, who played where and when. On this day, Idaho was to play Montana State University, a team we were on even terms with. Back then, the Vandals were members of the old Pacific Coast Conference. They played a full schedule in basketball, but in football they played only the teams from the Northwest, the two Washington schools and the two Oregon schools. Winning against the conference schools was tough to do, and I bled plenty, but against the Montana schools the odds were about fifty-fifty.
Mom spent most of Friday preparing food for Saturday. Southern fried chicken topped the menu, cooked the way only Mom knew, dipped in bread crumbs, flour, and egg, and then slowly fried and seasoned as the day moved along. At our house, fried chicken was always served with potato salad made of Idaho russets, free-range eggs, mayo, onion, greens, olives, pickles, and a dash of mustard. I knew this was where the phrase, “finger lickin’ good” must have originated. We ate plenty on Friday night, when the chicken was still warm. Early Saturday morning, Mom filled the cooler with ice, chicken, potato salad, beer, soft drinks, potato chips, dip, chocolate chip cookies, and some candy. And then it was nine o’clock. Continue reading →
When Jimmy Farris was in the fifth grade in the mill town of Lewiston, which has a population of about 32,000 strung along a stretch of Snake River slackwater, his teacher provided each student with a sheet of paper displaying an empty picture frame. The kids were instructed to envision and illustrate their future within it.
“I drew a stick figure of a football player,” Jimmy told me. “I believe it was Lawrence Taylor. I believed that in ten or fifteen years, I would be a linebacker for the New York Giants. So when I look back, I say, ‘Wow, this was a lifelong dream.’”
I first met Jimmy in 2000, shortly after my arrival in Missoula to begin working as a sports beat writer at a local newspaper. One of my first stories was his game-winning catch in the semi-finals of the Division I-AA national championships for the University of Montana, where he had accepted a football scholarship. His grab catapulted the Grizzlies into the national championship game, and the celebration reverberated throughout the city. I remember a group of college kids spray painted, “Who Let Jimmy Farris Out?” on the front door of one of the rentals next door to me. Jimmy went on to become a Division I-AA All-American at wide receiver.
Missoula and Lewiston are separated by one of the slowest, most decelerated four-hour driving stretches in the United States. Since the Lewiston Tribune doesn’t cover western Montana and the Grizzlies’ games aren’t televised in Idaho, the people of Lewiston were surprised when the undrafted Farris signed a free-agent contract in the National Football League. He was invited to attend the San Francisco 49er’s pre-season camp for the longest of shots of making the roster of an NFL team.
“Grizzly fans saw me play for the last five years, and they expected me to get a real legitimate shot. The people in Lewiston were more surprised that I’d made it. The reaction was, ‘Wow, really?’ A lot of people in Montana were more like, ‘Danged right he made it.’”
Nobody outside his family and closest friends in Lewiston, or his fans in Missoula, figured Jimmy had a shot at making the San Francisco 49ers’ final cut. Well, nobody except for Jimmy. His stay was brief. But being released by the 49ers turned into a stroke of good fortune. During the playoffs a few months later, he signed with the Tom Brady-led 2001 New England Patriots, and his rookie campaign ended with a Super Bowl XXXVI championship ring.
One year earlier, Jimmy had been sitting in his apartment in Missoula wondering if he was ever going to make it to the NFL.
His wildly ambitious aspirations had been nurtured early by his hardworking parents in Lewiston. “There is no question about it, I have a pair of really good parents,” said Jimmy, who is now thirty-five. “I’ve kind of lived the American Dream from the very beginning. And a lot of that is because I’ve had a strong sense of family, a strong support system, and a strong community in Lewiston.”
Sharon and Bob Farris have been married for forty years. Bob’s background is in education. He served as a teacher, principal and superintendent for three decades. Jimmy, the youngest of the couple’s five children—three boys and two girls—was born on April 13, 1978.
“My dad was always right there,” said Jimmy. “From a young age, I appreciated the influences of my teachers and coaches. And it’s amazing that growing up in a small town, I was afforded every benefit of having great people who molded and shaped me.”
One of his earliest memories is of Sharon instructing tap and jazz dance classes out of a makeshift studio in the basement level of the family home. Bob laid down a hardwood floor and Sharon tutored until she settled into a lengthy career at a large health insurance company.
Jimmy’s parents did their best to provide their tightly-knit brood with clothing, food, and, whenever possible, the extras, like cleats and basketball shoes.
“It was definitely a challenge to raise five kids on a teacher’s salary,” Jimmy told me. “There were times when Grandma would go down to the community center to pick up our cheese, peanut butter, and powdered milk. It was memorable seeing both of my parents doing everything they could do to provide what we needed. Still, there was a need for assistance.”
Jimmy’s life has been a slugfest from the opening bell. At Lewiston High School, he lettered in football, basketball, and track. In his sophomore year, he helped to lead the Lewiston Bengals to their first Idaho High School Football State Championship. As a senior, the team again made it all the way to the state championship game, and on the basketball team, he was named most valuable player.
“I would like to make sure people have the same opportunities that I’ve had,” he said. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a ladder to climb like I did. It’s hard to pull up your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots. I was able to accomplish some really cool things, and I overcame a lot of odds. But I also had so many things go right for me. Nick Menegas influenced me more than any other person ever has. He was the one who provided me with the work ethic necessary to go to the pros.”
Menegas coached the high school football team from 1986 to 2009. “I first remember Jimmy when he was a ball boy with my son, Michael, back in 1986,” he told me. “He has always felt like an adopted son, and he has been like a son from day one. It’s been great watching him evolve through the years, athletically, spiritually, and physically. One thing about Jimmy is that he is a self-made individual, and when I coached him, he never missed a weight session. He was dedicated in his physical and mental preparation, and he was always asking, ‘How can I get better?’”
Throughout his tenure as a coach, Menegas had heard many kids tell him that one day they would play in the National Football League. When Jimmy was in the ninth grade, before he had even played a single down, the youngster told his coach he had that very same plan.
“I believed him,” said Menegas. “The difference was the look in his eyes. It was a look that told me not to count him out of anything.”
Farris said that the Patriots 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl happened so fast it was all a bit of a haze. On February 3 that year, he stood on the sidelines of the New Orleans Superdome field, part of a dynasty-to-be team, full of emotion as he watched the lovely Mariah Carey sing the national anthem.
“We didn’t have the two weeks off before the Super Bowl that year,” he recalled. “I remember that we won the [conference] championship game, we flew home, and the next morning, we watched some film. We then flew to New Orleans, and immediately we were into Super Bowl week. I didn’t have time to do much of anything. I changed voice mail to something like, ‘If you are calling to say congrats on the Super Bowl, and if you are not a blood relative, and are calling for tickets, they are fifteen hundred bucks.’ I barely had time to talk to my parents.”
He spent six seasons in the NFL, including three with the Atlanta Falcons and two with the Washington Redskins. His family kept close tabs on his career. His mother Sharon even once called Atlanta Falcons’ head coach Jim L. Mora and pleaded with him to give her son more playing time. Continue reading →
“Oh yes!” he says wistfully, “They have a distinctive sound, and they talk to you. That steam would go into the cylinders and dissipate out through the stack, and that was a sound that you never forget.”
That is how Harlan “Toad” Turner describes running a steam engine when he was a young man working on the legendary Camas Prairie Railroad. Now eighty-four, he still has the frame of a big, strong man. As he reminisces, he waves his brawny hands in the air as though he were still moving the Johnson bar and adjusting the dampers.
Harlan earned his nickname as a youngster. After hopping through a barbed-wire fence with a bunch of his friends, one of them said, “Why, you jumped through that just like an old toad.” The name stuck, he says, and his wife Neva says she has to use the nickname in the phone book or his friends can’t find him.
Now retired, Toad loves to talk about his “railroadin’ days.” He started out in 1944 as a young man shoveling cinders out of the pits at the roundhouse in Lewiston. From there he moved up to clerk in the station at Spokane. A fellow had to wait for an opening in those days, as the ones with seniority got their pick first. Finally there was an opening for a switcher, then for a fireman, and Toad moved up. But he wanted to run those engines. Continue reading →
Graveyards are traditionally permanent, inviolate resting places deserving of community care. For various reasons, however, some cemeteries have needed to be exhumed and transferred to new land. In 1888, Lewiston found itself in just such a predicament as the town began to stress its original boundaries along the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, the spring floods of which repeatedly destroyed property and hindered business growth.
Lewiston’s cemetery was the stereotypical “Boot Hill,” a plateau above the town where interments had been performed since the early 1860s. Regrettably, the eight-acre site was increasingly perceived as an impediment to civic “progress,” its proximity to the future neighborhood of the town’s wealthiest families considered undesirable. The cemetery’s disturbing lack of upkeep and state of disrepair aggravated the situation. Cows roamed freely among the graves, trampling wooden and stone markers. The stately, whitewashed fencing installed at great expense in 1879 was now drab, decayed, and falling down. The cemetery had become an eyesore, not what one would expect of an emerging shipping center and the site of the Pacific Northwest’s first telephone service.
After several proposals were debated and discarded by the city fathers, a new forty-acre site was selected in an area deemed to be distant enough from the town’s center to pose few problems for city developers. In December 1888, the city council officially banned any further burials in the old cemetery, and in the spring exhumations began. The platting records were woefully inadequate. Indeed, no map of the original cemetery has ever surfaced. By May 1893, the city council was obligated to “devise ways and take necessary steps” for removing the remaining graves and quickly passed an exhumation ordinance, contracting with Dudley Gilman “for the removal of the dead from the old city cemetery.” His costs were to be passed on to the surviving family members. Since he was related to a popular former mayor, no one openly questioned Gilman when it came time to pay his bill—$752.30 for no more than a few days’ work. Later that year, he was authorized to plow and harrow the grounds, taking the more than seventeen hundred feet of cemetery fencing as payment.
However, apparently the city council was not satisfied that every body had been removed. A brief notation in the city council minutes of the May 6, 1895, proclaimed: “It appearing to the satisfaction of the Council that certain persons were buried upon lands owned by the City…the Marshal was ordered to notify the interested persons to remove such bodies at once to the new Cemetery of the City.” The “interested persons” were none other than long-time residents and influential Jewish businessmen Abraham Binnard and Robert Grostein, who had been resisting the exhumation ordinance for nearly two years. But more about that later.
That same year surveyors divided the old cemetery property into four lots for potential sale, but plans for a new hospital, church, and Masonic Temple came to nothing. By 1900 a major portion of the grounds had been dedicated for use as Lewiston’s first municipal park. In 1905 a new Carnegie Library opened, and the Idaho Supreme Court Library was erected. Trees were planted throughout the park. In 1911 a local women’s group spearheaded the construction of a large fountain—complete with a statue of Sacajawea—in time for a speech by President Howard Taft from the park’s band shell, the only time a sitting president has visited Lewiston. The site of the old cemetery had been transformed, its legacy obscured by the circuitous paths of community development.
Adding to the usual graveyard mystique, a persistent story circulated that a mass grave had been dug in the new cemetery (now known as Normal Hill Cemetery) when the unidentified remains from the old burial lots had been gathered and transferred to the out-of-the-way unmarked site. A current lot map shows most of an entire row with the penciled annotation “NR,” which has long been assumed to mean “no room” or “no record.” It would take a group of dedicated students and some space age technology to unmask a truth more interesting than anyone imagined.
As a consultant for gifted programs, and a cartographer for the Lewis-Clark Rediscovery Project, I decided this forgotten cemetery would be a perfect puzzle for my class of seventh-grade students at Jenifer Junior High School. Using geographic information systems (GIS) with the popular software ArcView, we set out to uncover the truth behind the mass-grave rumor. Continue reading →