Little kids dream of the ultimate tree house fort: one with a series of connected chambers, an elaborate secret trap-door entrance or a quick-escape exit. If you were a big dreamer, you planned for a fireman’s pole escape or zip line exit across a swimming hole. Big kids dream of other things.
If you are Dave Stone, founder and owner of Sun Valley Auto Club, you dreamed of having an Old West saloon in the middle of the Idaho wilderness. Stone, who, in his sprawling auto club facility in Hailey, probably has the coolest business concept and place to go to work of any guy in the Wood River Valley, began thinking of the saloon as a good way to house his growing collection of liquor bottles, donated by friends and family from exotic locales and gathered by Stone himself, one bottle at a time, during his travels since college.
“Friends would bring me bottles of different liquor from all over the world,” said Stone, pointing out a tequila from the state of Jalisco and a bottle of Cuban rum brought back from a trip there with his brother-in-law in 2009. Every bottle has a story. “But the collection was housed in an old cabinet that was starting to sag from all the weight.”
Stone’s solution: Build an authentic Old West saloon deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. And that is exactly what he did, far from any paved road, along a sweeping curve of river where a hodge-podge collection of cabins spreads beneath the pine- and sage-covered hillsides in a small community that stands as the only private property on the upper South Fork of the Boise River. There are little communities like this all over Idaho, hidden gems, tucked under the trees or beside a river, many of them known only to locals. The one along the upper South Fork probably isn’t even marked on many maps.
Authentic period-piece or replica details—lighting, hardwood, reclaimed oak flooring—were all sourced by Paul Conrad of Pioneer Cabin Company. Industrial wheels accent the saloon coffee table hand built by Terry Heneghan.
I bet he had a bitchin’ tree house as a kid.
The only rule of hospitality that the Stones impose: Come ready to have fun and bring one bottle of liquor to donate to the saloon’s bar. There are now more than 400 bottles lining the shelves.
“There isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be,” admitted Stone, who said he and his family, wife Lara and their two daughters, spend every weekend out there that they can. “My summers are filled with memories of sitting in front of the campfire outside the saloon, looking up at the stars, surrounded by good friends and family.”
The Stones’ cabin retreat harkens back to an earlier time. It is a modest compound, built in stages as time and resources allowed, and thoughtfully laid out, with the look and feel of an old pioneer settlement. The saloon itself was literally built around a full-scale Old West bar from a Hollywood set that Stone, miraculously, found on eBay (it was the set for The Hump Bar on the television series “Army Wives”). The measurements for the bar were sent to the builder, and the saloon, a simple square-log construction, was designed around the bar.
A rustic bunkhouse and small log guest cabin complement the Old West saloon, with stone-lined paths meandering down through the willows to the banks of the South Fork. The entire compound is more than 35 miles off the grid, reached only after traveling a little under an hour north from the Camas Prairie along a winding dirt road, up and over two summits, through high mountain meadows and beside the banks of tumbling creeks and rivers. Solar energy powers everything from hot water and showers to lights, refrigerators and the saloon sound system. It is completely self-sustaining, fueled by the abundant Idaho sunshine and equipped with a bank of batteries engineered by Site Based Energy that fully charges between visits.
“When you go out there, it is so far out that you have to bring everything you need with you,” said Stone, reflectively. “What you end up with is a few drinks, good food and a lot of laughs.”
Stone’s saloon and bunkhouse were no more than a pipe dream years ago when he and his wife Lara first found their property on the upper South Fork of the Boise. That was pre-kids, when the Stones were looking for the perfect getaway from the relative paradise of the Wood River Valley.
“We wanted it to be within a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Sun Valley,” stated Stone, “and we wanted to be near water.” They looked for more than two years before they found the property that would eventually house the “Mining Company Saloon,” as Stone dubbed his Old West outpost bar after finding an old sign with exactly that business name while traveling through Fairfield, many years ago. He added the sign to his growing collection of old mining equipment and trappings, although it would be many years, with even more planning and saving, before his saloon dreams materialized.
Along the way, Stone added to his collection of mining paraphernalia—with a wooden supply wagon, old mining cars, lanterns, picks and axes picked up at sales, auctions and garage sales around Idaho, with much of it coming from the estate sale of a retired doctor in Gooding (if cash was not readily available, his patients would pay the doctor in the old mining gear he loved to collect).
“I wanted it to look like it had been here for a hundred years,” declared Stone, who credits Paul Conrad of Pioneer Cabin Company with executing his dream. “He nailed it,” said Stone, “right down to every detail and trim.”
For his part, Conrad said it was a challenging building project because of the difficulty with access to the building location and the short construction window—less than three months from foundation to finished product for a saloon with guest room (every good saloon needs guest quarters for late-night stopovers) and a separate guest log cabin.
“We prebuilt as many of the aspects of construction as possible to help cut down on the field labor,” stated Conrad, “because it is the travel and the labor that will kill you on these remote building projects.”
Conrad and the Pioneer Cabin Company team also sourced reclaimed wood beams and fixtures, paying attention to the smallest details, such as the trim pieces, authentic period reclaimed oak flooring and even the hardware for the saloon’s trap door (there is a root cellar for storing wine and supplies below the saloon floor). No detail was missed, right down to the industrial steel construction of the coffee table handbuilt by Terry Heneghan of Bellevue or the “Brews 25¢” sign stenciled into the mirrored backdrop of the bar.
Stone’s dream materialized on August 28, 2010 when the Mining Company Saloon officially opened for business. It is invitation-only and the memories have been rolling ever since. But Stone, claiming he can’t pick a single favorite moment (it’s a bit like asking ‘what part of game seven in the World Series did you like best?’), declared that as unique as it is, some of his best memories are not even necessarily from nights spent in the saloon bar—although there was that time three years ago when he had a whole crew of wildland firefighters over for cocktails.
But what stands out in his mind is the story of an old miner named Terry that he stumbled upon while out exploring one weekend way up one of the smaller creek drainages. Over a beer, Terry, who was mining the same claim his father had staked years ago, told the story of how his parents had met. As the story goes, Terry’s dad, the miner, met his future bride when the supply hauler was bringing supplies to the miners, accompanied by his daughter this time. It took the supply hauler three days to turn around and get back down out of the drainage, during which time the miner and the supplier’s daughter met, only to marry later.
“They fell in love in three days,” said Stone, who now looks forward to growing old on his property. It has everything he needs, except for maybe future plans for a shop for working on the steel and barbed wire fly-fishing artwork that he twists and shapes in his spare time.
“Time just slows down there,” added Stone, laughing with the image of his growing old. “Getting old is going to be fun out there and I can’t wait until I am that grumpy old guy with a saloon in the middle of nowhere.”