St. Maries—Spotlight

Loggers at Loggerheads

By George Currier

Back in October 2002, IDAHO magazine published a Spotlight City feature on the northern town of St. Maries. This revisit includes the author’s take on a seminal loggers’ strike of the early 20th Century.

Bud’s Drive In was a nondescript restaurant of one story with what appeared to be a kitchen window cut head-high into the street-side wall. The purpose of this window was to serve patrons who didn’t come inside but instead pulled up in automobiles via the short driveway parallel to the street.

They would drive up and holler their order to a server, who would lean out to take it and eventually hand the food out to them. This kitchen window qualified the establishment, which closed in 2016, to be called a drive-in.

The location of the eatery was its charm for me, as it was smack-dab in the middle of an area of much importance to St. Maries history. Bud’s stood where the old Kootenai Bank had been in 1906—one of the first banks in town. Less than a stone’s throw away was where one of the founders of the community, Joseph Fisher, established his home and boarding house in 1887.

The town’s first lumber mill and wharf built by the Fishers was located less than a block away from it, on the riverfront. Sitting in Bud’s and looking toward the river, I could see a half-dozen lonely creosoted pilings: remnants of the old wharf that had served as the platform for twenty bustling stores, saloons, cafés, and tourist hotels located there.

Every passenger steamboat that ever plied the waters of the St. Joe River passed this very spot, where the St. Joe meets the St. Maries River. The primary method of travel to St. Maries was by water until the railroad arrived in 1908. The city was incorporated five years later, and when Benewah County was formed in 1915, St Maries became the county seat.

After I moved to St. Maries in 1970, I became interested in the area’s history and one result of my research was my 2001 St. Maries Scrapbook, a revised and expanded version of which was published last year by the Museum of North Idaho. As it turned out, my career in industry and local government in St. Maries was long, and then we moved to Lewiston for retirement.

This longtime interest in the city’s history is why I know that before Bud expanded his place, right next door to it uphill was an early-1900s building that had served as home for a variety of establishments during its nearly ninety years of existence. It was razed for the expansion. For the last years of its life, the building had been used as a barbershop.

Running along the front, an old wooden sidewalk continued to serve passersby, keeping us out of the mud as we parked and walked to Bud’s. Inside the barbershop was the most unusual antique porcelain pedestal hair-washing basin I’ve ever seen. I often thought it could have sold, along with the antique barber chairs, for a tidy sum.

I could visualize earlier generations tying up their horses in front of the shop and patronizing whatever business it housed at the time, maybe even some that used the basin.

From the front door of Bud’s, I could see the backside of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Hall and the Mountain View Hotel. Both still stand today. Jack Buell is using the hall for storage and I would not be surprised that the only reason he bought the dilapidated building was nostalgia.

Jack told me that when he was of high school age he lived in Calder but there was no high school there, so he attended St. Maries High. The road from Calder was so bad in those days that it was simply better to stay in town and bypass the daily trip. So his folks rented a room for him in the Mountain View Hotel for use during school days.

I can imagine him looking from his room at the IOOF building and beyond it east toward his home in Calder.

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Firefighters in St. Maries commemorate the Big Burn of 1910. USFS.
Colfax Steamer at St. Maries, circa 1910. Steve Shook Collection.
Early downtown St. Maries. Courtesy of George Currier.
The old IOOF Hall. George Currier.
Little Falls near St. Maries. Steve Shook Collection.
Historical view of Main Ave. Courtesy George Currier.
Contemporary Main Ave. Google Maps.
Milwaukee Lumber Company, St. Maries. Steve Shook Collection.
Mountain View Hotel in its heyday. Steve Shook Collection.
A pack train fords the St. Joe River. Steve Shook Collection.
St. Maries orchard, 1912. Water Archives.
Boat on the St. Joe, 1908. Steve Shook Collection.
Lumber on St. Joe River, 1940 Water Archives.
Where vigilantes gathered to confront the strikers. George Currier.


From Bud’s back door, I could see the Blue Ribbon Creamery, or at least the part of it left that Bud sold to “Buttermilk” Nelson, who used it when loading up his milk truck for the home delivery route. Farther back in the view was an undeveloped area that itinerants used as an encampment site or, as they called it, “the Jungle.”

That was early in the 20th Century, when another important part of St. Maries history was unfolding. At the time, the U.S. Army exercised overwhelming force to control much of the city. Bud’s Drive In was smack dab in the middle of that, too—as was the Jungle, which was used for encampment by the union members called the International Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies, whose hall was a block away, near the Mountain View Hotel.

The Wobblies were why the Army was in town. Throughout the early 1900s, the local loggers were getting a raw deal from the lumbermen who ran the camps: six-day weeks, ten-hour days, poor pay, miserable living conditions, and dangerous work. Some said that the draft animals lived better than the loggers, and they seldom had more than ten years of usefulness before getting crippled-up and put down or out to pasture.

Both then and today, logging has been the mainstay of the town’s industry. The Saint Maries River Valley was said to have the largest single stand of white pine in the world, and homesteaders also found huge areas of fir, tamarack, and cedar.

History tells us the loggers decided they’d had enough of the harsh working conditions when the Wobblies came to St. Maries and started talking at the logging camps. The loggers listened, and eighty percent of them joined up. The government—both federal and state—did their best to hinder the IWW, and the loggers didn’t appreciate this interference.

The ghosts of these old union organizers must have paid it forward in some mysterious way, because as I sat in Bud’s and drank coffee and chatted over the years, it was obvious there was one thing you never did in these parts, and that was talk up the idea of the government running things.

The IWW was considered by the government to be a hostile and subversive outfit, both socialistic and anti-government. Bud himself had strong ideas about such matters. There was always chatter at Bud’s about serious things.

In 1917-18, government officials tried to shut down all union activities in St. Maries. But rather than focusing on retaliation, the rank-and-file members had other fish to fry. One of the most influential of the local Wobblies organizers, Ern Hanson, told local oral historian Bert Russell for his 1978 book Hardships and Happy Times that the local loggers had no interest in IWW ideology. “They were after the improvements that solidarity could achieve.” 

Three days before Christmas of 1917, county and city law enforcement raided the St. Maries IWW headquarters. It was their second raid. The first one was in July, following IWW’s “big labor strike” that shut down the woods and idled thousands of loggers. During that raid, Benewah County Sheriff E.B. Noland had arrested Neil Guiney, who was then secretary of the IWW.

Perhaps the sheriff was stung by the acquittal in November of Guiney. In any case, this time he zeroed in on the new secretary, W.F. (Bill) Nelson, charging him with “criminal syndicalism” and with advocating sabotage. For the second time, all records and literature were confiscated and the hall was closed down.

Sheriff Noland had become a nemesis to both the IWW and the loggers. He arrested around ninety of them in a period spanning less than a year. He had so many men under lock and key that a stockade had to be constructed to house them. Bill Nelson was bound over to district court and held in the St. Maries jail for three months before a judge decided on a change of venue for his trial.

This greatly upset the union members, who wanted the trial held in St. Maries, but the judge did not trust the locals to empanel an unbiased jury.

The dispute came to a head during the week of March 10 to 15, 1918, when a steady stream of Wobblies arrived in town from Spokane, Portland, and Seattle. They were there for mischief. Most had come via “an armful of boxcars,” their way of saying they hopped freight trains, on either the main Milwaukee line or the Bovill branch line.

They then “jungled” on the open space behind Bud’s. By Friday morning, the Wobblies numbered more than three hundred, including locals and newcomers. They massed at the encampment site and took a vote on whether they should storm the jail and free their secretary.

The motion to storm carried. Alerted, Sheriff Noland attempted to break up the assemblage but was pounced upon by some of the Wobblies, who knocked him down and roughed him up. He suffered minor injuries and the city fire alert was sounded to signal a riot to townspeople who were monitoring the situation.

Shortly, more than one hundred local vigilantes gathered near Second and College in present-day St. Maries, just two blocks from the Wobblies. About half of the vigilantes were armed with a variety of guns.

A Dr. Platt had a drug store with a hospital upstairs at the gathering site. The building was two stories high and from its roof it offered a clear view of the Wobblies assemblage. Later anecdotal reports were that a vigilante sniper was stationed atop that building. In any case, bloodshed appeared imminent.

A St. Maries Gazette Record account said one of the IWW leaders, George Taylor, asked the group of vigilantes to defer action until he could speak to his companions to avert a clash between the opposing groups. He was successful, and they dispersed from the area.

The authorities then attempted to locate and arrest the Wobblies who had assaulted the sheriff. Outgoing trains were halted by the lawmen and searched. All routes were monitored, and all conveyances stopped and checked. Scores were questioned and detained but no arrests were made.

IWW members were prevented from leaving the area without a passport from the sheriff, and even in town the freedom to move about was strictly curtailed.

A few hours after the skirmish was avoided, Nelson was snuck down to the wharf and whisked to a jail in Coeur d’Alene on the afternoon steamboat.

On Tuesday, March 19, the threatening situation continued, as the Wobblies were still in town and armed townspeople were patrolling the streets to keep an eye on them. Hoping to avert serious clashes, Idaho Governor Moses Alexander requested fifty United States soldiers from Fort Wright and fifty-two Idaho State Home Guard members from Sandpoint.

By Saturday the soldiers had arrived. They set up their camp at City Park and immediately got busy breaking up Wobblie gatherings. When the commanding officer of the federal troops was asked if the city was under martial law, he said no, although he acknowledged that the troops did represent the United States.

There are no written accounts of any harassment of armed vigilantes, but the Idaho State Home Guard troops arrested forty IWW members. Even as events started settling back to normal, some local folks felt the government was overstepping. For the Wobblies, it must have seemed akin to being in an occupied territory: forbidden to congregate, passports required for travel, and threatened by both the military and by armed citizens.

Within twenty years, the business heart of St. Maries had moved up to around Sixth Street, where there was more space, and the old town area declined. Nowadays, the whistles of the steamboats arriving and departing have long been silent. The Milwaukee Line is gone, and memories of the Wobblies have faded away.

But the smell of woodsmoke is still in the air and if I stand on First Street near where the old Jungle was and squint my eyes, I can easily imagine the history that played out here—even though both Bud and Bud’s Drive In are missing, and the chatter has moved uptown to another cafe.

My interest in St. Maries history leads me to ask if the uprising of the Wobblies was worth it. One answer came from “Russian Alec,” an immigrant from Kiev who worked as a river hog (or log-driver) on the Marble and St. Joe waterways and lived through these events. In an interview he gave to Bert Russell for his 1979 book, Swiftwater People, Russian Alec said:

“Before the (Wobblies) strike, you sleep on straw on floor, like cows and pigs. Everybody sleep in one bed with canvas over them. Full of lice and bedbugs. In a tent…After strike they built a camp with shower baths and better grub. After this, eight hours, seven dollars a day if you stay through the winter. Six dollars if you don’t.”

The loggers are now paid much better than then, are covered by health insurance, live in neat houses in town, and travel in upholstered pickup trucks to the woods for their day’s work. They still work hard and are often in dangerous situations, but I wonder if they realize that their lives are better because of what other men endured in St. Maries so many years ago.

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George Currier

About George Currier

George Currier lives in Lewiston, where he and wife Betty moved to retire. Before that, he lived in St. Maries for more than thirty years, where he worked for Pacific Telephone as an electronic technician, served on the city council for eleven years, was Benewah County Civil Defense Director, and was executive director of the non-profit Greater Saint Joe Development Foundation.

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