When anyone asks me where home is, my answer is always “Ashton, Idaho.” Never mind I’ve been gone from the area longer than I lived there, it’s still home. When I mentioned that to Jane Daniels, Ashton’s Archivist, she said “You have no idea how many people have told me that!”
Roots go deep in the Ashton area. By the 1880’s, the small village of Marysville, established by Mormon settlers from Utah and southern Idaho, was thriving, and other pioneers were taking up land for farming, ranching, logging, opening businesses, building homes, and raising families in the upper half of what would become Fremont County in 1893. It was a remarkably diverse cross section of settlers. Swiss, German, Scandinavian, English, Scotch, Welsh, Russian, and others: Some direct from the “Old Country,” some who had settled in eastern and southern states until the drive to find the right spot moved them west again, some whose family members had already found the right spot and urged them westward.
Some families, like mine, lived outside Ashton but had strong family ties to the town. Many smaller settlements had grown up in rural areas of northern Fremont county, usually around the local school, which served as the educational, social and recreation center for residents. As roads and automobiles improved and the school district began closing rural schools, settlements such as Drummond, Lamont, Greentimber, Sarilda, Hugginsville, Farnum and Lillian faded or disappeared altogether. Ashton would replace them as a center of shopping, social and community life.
What's happening now?
Farming and ranching industries in the Ashton area continue to feed into the town's economy and remain as its real financial backbone. The ranching and farming industries, along with the tourist trade, and bolstered still by some alternative economic segments, provide a sound economic base. The railroad still has freight service to Ashton, and elevators along the tracks provide storage for area farmers waiting for good prices and shipping opportunities to transport their crops to world markets. As Fremont County farmers have diversified to meet changing market needs, the traditional staples of wheat, barley, and hay, have been joined by canola and other cash crops. Ashton is also home to the largest seed-potato growing area in the world. And Clen and Emma Atchley of the Flying A Ranch are recognized as leaders in the research, development, and growing of new varieties of disease-resistant Idaho potatoes.
Ashton-based Fall River Rural Electric Co-op, a member-owned utility company established in 1938, now has over eleven thousand members, and provides electric and other services to customers in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The electric cooperative now has more than 1,800 miles of distribution line. Since 1920 the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has operated a fish hatchery near Ashton, which still provides nine species of trout and salmon for streams around the state. The Ashton Memorial Hospital, which opened in 1950, was turned into a nursing home in 1988, and in 2002, was replaced by a new thirty-seven-bed nursing home on the west side of town. This bright, cheerful living center comes complete with several resident cats and a chorus line of birds to welcome visitors.
With ninety-nine years of history behind them, Ashton residents are already looking ahead to next year, when a weeklong celebration is scheduled to usher in the town’s second century. Ashton was incorporated July 11, 1906, but the city's unofficial birthday is in February - corresponding with a Valentine's Day town birthday celebration ninety-nine years ago. Ashton Chief of Police Tom Mattingly, also the chairman of the Centennial Committee, says the panel scheduled the town's centennial celebration to begin July 4, 2006, and culminate July 11-the 100th anniversary of Ashton's official incorporation date. Mattingly said, "We’re hoping families will plan their family reunions and gatherings around this celebration.” And, frosty February in Ashton seems better suited to sled dog racing than centennial celebrations anyway.
ASHTON BORN OF TURMOIL
Ashton owes its existence to a disagreement between the railroad and land speculators who sought to profit from buying up land along the projected right-of-way, then trying to sell it at what the railroad felt was an inflationary price. As the Oregon Short Line Railroad moved north, it had laid out a route into Teton County through Marysville. When landowners and the railroad failed to reach a compromise over prices, the railroad moved the right-of-way two miles west to get around the disputed land and a new town was platted. In 1904, H.G. “Fess” Fuller and Charles C. Moore, considered the “founding fathers” of Ashton, joined with 12 others to organize the Ashton Townsite Company, eventually purchasing 640 acres from early settlers, for the town. A survey of the town site, laying out streets and alleys, left ample room for the railroad, which bisected the town diagonally.
Fuller, a teacher from Pennsylvania, moved to St. Anthony in 1899 and then on to Ashton. He took an active part in civic, social and political activities, serving on the Ashton City Council, including several terms as mayor, and in 1915 was elected to the Idaho Senate.
Moore arrived in St. Anthony along with the Oregon Short Line Railroad in the fall of 1899. Born in Missouri in 1866, he, too, had been a teacher and taught in St. Anthony before opening a drug store, then went into real estate with Fuller in 1903, a partnership that would last 51 years, until Fuller’s death in 1954. Like Fuller, he was active in Republican politics and went on to be elected lt. governor and then two-term governor of Idaho.
Ashton's name, however, came not from the founding fathers, but from Bill Ashton, Chief Engineer of the Harriman system as the railroad began its plans for expansion into Teton Valley.
Ashton celebrated its unofficial birthday with a christening party on February 14, 1906. Special trains brought hundreds of people for the opening of the Millers Brothers elevator. And other people came from miles around for the Ashton launch. There was a non-stop dance, along with along with other festivities at the grain elevator. Refreshments were provided by local saloons,
The new settlement didn’t waste any time growing. Residents, led by Moore and Fuller, raised $15,000 to build a new school which opened in 1906. Housing grades one through twelve, the Ashton schoolhouse was visible evidence of the value residents placed on education.
On March 20, 1906, the Oregon Short Line Railroad began daily train service to Ashton. A few weeks later, a public notice stated that the Yellowstone Coach Line would begin running its horse-drawn coaches from the end of the rail line at Ashton, to Yellowstone Park. The notice also indicated that officials would be coming to Ashton to contract for several million pounds of grain and build stables to support their operation.
By 1911 Ashton boasted among its businesses four grain elevators, a farm implement company, several lumber and hardware stores, a Studebaker dealer, three blacksmiths, several plumbers, an electric shop, a grocery store, meat market, two department stores, one clothing store, a millinery shop, two jewelry stores, a photography studio, two livery barns, a cafe, 3 boarding houses, and the Ashton Hotel. In addition to Dr. Hargis and his Ashton sanatorium, there was a dentist, pharmacy and undertaker.
There were also two banks, two phone companies, a municipal water works and light plant, several barbershops and pool halls, and the Ashton Opera House and Electric Theater. For all the news, H.H. Hartvigsen had begun publishing the Ashton Enterprise in 1906.
In 1908, under legislation signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Targhee National Forest was created. The new national forest was a combination of the previously established Henry’s Lake Forest Preserve and part of the Yellowstone Forest Preserve . Since Targhee's inception, ranger district headquarters have been located in Ashton.
The railroad continued to extend its lines north to West Yellowstone and southeast into Teton Valley, and on June 11, 1908, the first “Yellowstone Special” passenger train ushered in fifty-two years of passenger service to Yellowstone Park. By 1913, the railroad line had reached Victor, and Union Pacific began advertising passenger service on this route into the dude ranches of Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, transporting passengers by bus from Victor over Teton Pass into Jackson Hole. The railroad also provided daily mail and freight service to all the small communities along the way, with all services running through Ashton.
IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?
Local legend says the new town permanently “borrowed” its first doctor in its first year, 1906.
Edward L. Hargis, fresh from medical school in the eastern United States, was scheduled to open an office in St. Anthony. He came on the train, and for some reason decided to ride to the end of the line in Ashton. Word got around that a doctor had arrived but was scheduled to leave on the next train. “Quick, somebody find somebody that’s sick so’s we can keep him here,” somebody hollered. Unable to find anyone really sick in such a short time, another Ashton resident volunteered to take to his bed with moans and groans. The doctor was summoned. By the time the doctor diagnosed his case, enough legitimately sick people had been found to make him forget about moving on. The three dollars Dr. Hargis charged for the first visit was well worth the investment.
Doc Hargis, who brought his parents, two brothers and a sister to join him in Ashton, spent the rest of his life in the community. While he and his wife, Verta Lowe, had no children of their own, he could rightfully claim the title “father of Ashton,” with the delivery of more than 4,300 babies during his several decades of medical practice Ashton.
OFF TO THE RACES
By 1917, Ashton had grown enough that residents were looking for ways to help pass the long winter months, when days were short and the snow was deep. Their idea of holding organized sled dog races would bring world attention to this little town for over thirty years.
The first Ashton Dog Derby, in March of 1917, was the first organized dog sled race in Idaho, and one of only three held in the United States at that time. That first Ashton dog sled race was run in a blizzard. It took the five entered teams three days to cover fifty-five miles from West Yellowstone to Ashton. Later, race-courses would be laid out around the Ashton area, allowing spectators more opportunities to view the competing teams.
The Union Pacific Railroad promoted the races, running special trains to bring in spectators. They used a local girl, Lydia Hutchinson, as a part of their publicity campaign after she became, in 1922, the first woman musher to enter the races. Competing despite a wrenched knee suffered several days before the race, Hutchinson won hearts in the crowd, even if she didn’t win the race. “Whistlin’ Lyd” would be featured in tours, newspapers, magazines and public appearances worldwide
As the races grew in popularity, the single sled dog race on George Washington’s birthday grew into a three day winter carnival spanning the third weekend in February. The 1921 crowd was estimated at ten thousand, many of whom were brought to Ashton on two special Union Pacific trains.
The last sled dog race in Ashton, until a revival of the event more than forty years later, was held in 1951. After that, the event was moved to West Yellowstone, and was eventually discontinued as snowmobile races and other winter activities replaced sled dog racing. In 1993, a group of Ashton volunteers decided the time was right to bring the American Dog Derby back to Ashton. Still held during the third week in February, the events again have proven to be a popular draw for participants and spectators alike.
Change, inevitably, came to Ashton, and the community would have its economic ups and downs. By 1965, there was no longer rail passenger service to Teton Valley, and freight service was discontinued in 1990. The railroad line to West Yellowstone was abandoned in the late 70’s.
In 1959, U.S. Highway 20, which had run through downtown Ashton to Island Park was relocated, skirting the town on the west side, and diverting tourist traffic and dollars away from downtown businesses.
In recent years, however, area attractions such as Harriman State Park and Mesa Falls Scenic Byway have grown more popular as year-round recreation destinations, bringing more tourist dollars back into the community. The Bechler area in the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, often referred to as "Cascade Corner" because of numerous spectacular waterfalls, has only one road to the area, accessible off State highway 47 from Ashton, twenty-six miles away.
The Henry's Fork Foundation, founded in 1984 with a mission of protecting the qualities of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, has its headquarters in Ashton, along with the Henrys Fork Watershed Council, a grassroots community forum. The latter organization, chartered by the Idaho Legislature in 1994, brought together diverse groups which recognized the importance of working together to resolve problems in the watershed and finding mutually beneficial solutions. They maintain the Henry's Fork Watershed Center, a center library and research facility for participants, which also serves as a public source for watershed information.
A new high school opened its doors to students in the fall of 2004, and has the potential to become a focal point of community activities, just as the old high school was for more than fifty years. Ashton residents hope this will finally put to rest occasional efforts to merge the high schools in Ashton and St. Anthony.
An area visitor’s center, complete with a picnic area and dump station, sits along U.S. Highway 20 on the west side of Ashton. Filled with displays and staffed by local volunteers in the summer, it offers a wide variety of area information for visitors. Next door is the White Pines truck stop and restaurant where visitors can fill up their vehicles, and test their appetites on one of Big Jud’s famous one pound hamburgers with all the trimmings.
In 1997, Ashton began sponsoring the Mesa Falls Run, a 26.2-mile race from the Mesa Falls area to Ashton, and a half marathon (13.1 miles) beginning at Bear Gulch- with both ending in Ashton. From seven finishers in the first race, the field grew to 264 runners in 2004, and now is a qualifying race for the Boston Marathon.
Scheduled Ashton centennial activities in 2006 include a centennial ball with period dress from 1906, a parade, fireworks, Dutch Oven cook-off, a buffalo dinner at the city park, including a Centennial cake for dessert, an original operetta being written by Ashton residents Tammy Cikaitoga and JoAnne Richardson Anderson, an antique sale and family soccer games.
Additionally, during the centennial festivities, the Fort Henry Buckskinners will host a Mountain Man Rendezvous. And a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council and Idaho Heritage Foundation provided funds for a railroad display. Meredith Mattingly is doing research on older homes in Ashton and has identified about thirty such structures dating back to 1898-1906. Ashton home researchers hope to receive a grant to provide plaques for these homes, showing their histories and owners. Other centennial projects are still in the works, and Centennial Committee chairman Tom Mattingly promises something of interest and fun for everyone during that week.
While no one knows what the second century will bring for Ashton, its citizens look forward to a rousing start with next year's centennial celebration. After that, the annual American Dog Derby and Mesa Falls Marathon will remind the outside world that Ashton is more than just a dot on the map. Between events, residents will continue their lives of hard work, raising families, and enjoying the life that brought the community this far; secure in the knowledge that come what may, Ashton will stay rooted, and will eventually usher in a third century.
By Helen McMullin as appeared in IDAHO magazine, February 2005 Vol.4, No. 5. Helen McMullin lives in Idaho Falls. Jane Daniels, manager of the Ashton Archives contributed to this story.