Community June 8, 2010

Bux’s Place, Challis, Idaho

This Idaho Town Vol. I
In the grit of a mountain town, the saloon is more than just a bar. It’s a community watering hole, and the regulars are family. Challis is less than eighty miles, but a world apart, from Sun Valley. Here in the high heart of central Idaho, Bux’s Place is keeper of the town spirit.

Bill Yacomella, the 53-year-old-manager of Bux’s Place, sat at the bar, pulled softly on a nearly expired Pall Mall and scanned his comfortably dim establishment and its midday clientele. His battered hat, virtually shapeless, rested lightly on his head with chaotic shafts of hair poking from beneath it. His eyes are a light, clear blue, and his face is surprisingly soft given his years of work on ranches, construction sites and in a deep mine (“I decided I didn’t want to stay in that hole the rest of my life”)—and now Bux’s.

The Yacomella family has been in Challis for nearly a century, and among its diversified interests are ranches, a commercial tax return company and Bux’s Place, Yacomella’s main responsibility. When he talks about construction, one senses his true passion is masonry, but small towns bristle with reality, and Coors Light has more economic traction in Custer County than a glowering stone gargoyle.

And this is a small town.

Main Street, Challis, Idaho, pop. 909, lies just outside the rectangular front window of Bux’s Place and near the junction of four mountain chains—the Lost River, White Cloud, Salmon River and Lemhi mountains—and on the great Salmon River itself. This is mining and ranching country and, aside from the occasional surge of invading hunters and fishermen, it is populated mainly by people who embrace the rhythms and demands of small-town life, close to the ground, in the majesty of a real Idaho.

What seems to last forever here are the stories—inflated, deflated, conflated—of a bar and its community.
They form a legacy that flows, or sloshes, from one year to the next, one decade to the next.

Clockwise from ABOVE The Yacomella family has nearly a century of history in Challis. Bar owners Tony and Madge relax with their son Bill, the manager, and his wife, Tami; Steve Wren sees an ocean of green on this shot; Stan Bell worked in Hollywood as a stunt man for years and said he was once fired by John Wayne himself. RIGHT Bux’s Place glows warm in the Challis night; Barfly and poet, Mike Church.Sun Valley is different. The best thing about the historic resort town, the saying goes, is how close it is to Idaho. In Sun Valley, I have witnessed a dinner party conversation lurch inexplicably and irretrievably out of control as the topics of real life were abandoned for some grave discourse on hot yoga and baby turnips. One listlessly moves the apricot-ginger-pear-parfait around a delicate plate and looks out soaring dining room windows to a vague moonlit profile of Bald Mountain. The honeyed life of Sun Valley? Presumably.

But where is the West? The dust and the drink? One pines for a worn leather stool in a small-town barroom, its windows festooned with sizzling neon signs, shouting onto empty windswept streets: Coors! Budweiser! And in the background, the crisp clicks from a contested pool table and the raucous laughter bouncing off a back bar as weathered as any patron saddled up to it.

“Our motto here in the bar,” Yacomella declared from his taproom, “is that we have an open heart, an open mind and a warm stove. That’s our philosophy of business.”

The late William Buxton, the founder of Bux’s, was partial to the phrase, “Where good friends meet,” so much that he put it on his swizzle sticks. Yacomella put it on his matches. One senses that matches have a broader reach in the local clientele than swizzle sticks. Bux’s Place is redolent with the rich aroma of smoke, strong enough to traumatize the fetishistic clean-air crowd, but just mellow enough to provoke a wave of nostalgia for those who gave up smokes years ago.

The Yacomellas bought out Buxton about the time a mining firm began extracting molybdenum (known to the locals as “molly”) from the vast, open-pit Thompson Creek Mine, about thirty miles from town. Molly has an array of industrial uses, such as improving the strength of steel at high temperatures, which makes it critical for missile and aircraft parts. The firm employs nearly 300 people, and the company recently estimated there was, at a minimum, about ten years of molly left in the site.

It is not uncommon for an isolated Western town to depend on a single-source economy, and not a lot of people want to dwell on an image of Challis without molly. But towns like Challis reek of resiliency. There is here a powerful survival instinct, a belief in continuity.

Tony Yacomella and his pal, Stubby; A late summer day draws to a close on Main Street, Challis, Idaho; Bill Yacomella, Tony’s son, mounted the head of the first buck he ever shot on the wall at Bux’s.

In the late 1800s, the building that now houses Bux’s was the Central Hotel. “To meet the great tide of travel,” an 1879 advertisement said,“the Central Hotel has been fitted up in first-class syle where comfortable and luxurious accommodations can’t be beat.” The Central was conveniently close to a stagecoach stop, and Arthur Baxter, a local carpenter who would live well into his nineties, recalled the grand spectacle of stages arriving “late and dark at night, with the horses sweating, sides heaving and icicles hanging from their nostrils.”

Nowadays there are more pickups than coaches, but Yacomella still relishes the legacy of the old bars in Western towns. “The saloon is one of the first to come to a small town and the last to leave,” he said. “People think there’s a river of money running out of a bar. There isn’t.” So Bux’s is open seven days a week, from noon to 2 a.m., with four full-time employees.

One of them is Jonne Fritts (pronounced “Johnny”), a bartender with a knowing smile and a sly joy in her job. To her, Bux’s is the community center, which might come as a surprise to the churches and public officials. But her theory has credibility: Bux’s is frequently used for community events, and among his clientele Bill has a “council of elders” he turns to for advice. When a popular golf course employee died last summer, the memorial service was held in Bux’s. For regulars who leave the earthly realm, a shrine of black licorice and black candles stands on a pool cue case never to open again.

Fritts has been at the bar for ten years and organizes its events, concerts, memorials, weddings and the widely celebrated Annual Testicle Festival, which feeds prairie oysters to a boisterous crowd. On a couple of major holidays, Bill’s mother, Madge, the true matriarch of Challis, cooks for the regulars, who participate with appropriate decorum. On those festive days they chuckle over familiar stories, like when unruly patrons drove Harleys or rode horses into Bux’s Place. There is a general acknowledgement that such tomfoolery doesn’t occur when Madge is around.

For Fritts, Bux’s is one of the best paying jobs she has had in years, and she relishes the small-town life. “No stop lights. And I have a great time. I can stay at home and take care of things. Or I can come in and spend my money, be on the other side of the bar. Play pool. Try to behave myself.” For those who don’t behave, there is banishment: no Bux’s for a month. “Not forever,” Yacomella said. “We don’t do that.”

What seems to last forever at Bux’s Place are the stories—inflated, deflated, conflated—of a bar and its community. They form a legacy that flows, or sloshes, from one year to the next, one decade to the next.

There is, for instance, the legendary imposter crosswalk, a prank so bold it made the late night talk shows. The Custer Saloon, a standup bar in its own right, is diagonally across Main Street from Bux’s. One night, some of the locals, with obvious preparation and no doubt some double-doubles as inspiration, put aside rivalry and boundaries and painted a real-life diagonal crosswalk across Main Street, connecting Bux’s and The Custer. Next morning, the mossy do-gooders were aghast, until the event was reported on network television. The phone calls flooded in from friends and relatives across the nation: “Saw that town of yours on the tube last night!” While the prissy community scolds fumed at the municipal transgression, Challis had something to talk about for months. The crosswalk is now fading, but one suspects that on a dry winter night the cell phones will cackle between the two bars, and the crosswalk will get a fresh coat of paint.

Tom van Kamper, a native Michigander, plays cribbage with Mike Church, a native of just about everywhere.

There are sad stories, too. In 1983, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, the largest in the continental U.S. in a quarter century, struck near the base of Borah Peak, the state’s highest mountain (which rose about six inches during the seismic event). In Challis, two children, Tara Leadon, 7, and Travis Franck, 6, were walking to school when the façade of one of the oldest buildings in town, a seventy-five-year-old stone ice house, collapsed on them, crushing them fatally under four feet of debris. The memory can still provoke, up and down the bar, a silent toast for the children.

And then there are the absurd: In the early 1980s, a grandson of Pat Garrett, the Old West lawman credited with killing Billy the Kid, was passing through town showing his dexterity with a bull whip. He awed the crowd gathered on Main Street by whipping a cigarette from the lips of Bill’s wife, Tami. While it is not known if he was in the employ of some federal anti-smoking cabal, the event is rich with symbolism.

The bar itself is a story. Built by Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, probably in Cincinnati, Ohio, it was shipped to the San Francisco ports via Tierra del Fuego, “around The Horn,” as Madge put it, before arriving in the Vienna, Idaho, mining camp in the mid-to-late 1880s.

After several mule-team hauls through the mountains, the bar was put on wagon road to storage in Blackfoot until 1942, when it came home to Challis. Madge Yacomella’s first-grade class went on a field trip that spring to watch the traveling muralist paint his scenes of America on the backbar. The murals are still evident, “but need to be cleaned.”

The stories at Bux’s Place pour forth, and those along the bar or leaning over the pool table nod knowingly at their favorite tales, tacitly confirming their importance and veracity.

A visitor realizes that while Challis is a town rich with commerce, government and spiritual life, the people on both sides of the bar at Bux’s are custodians of the town’s history. The perspective may be a little bit narrow, sometimes weighted through a double-double of Wild Turkey, but it is a critical component of the community chronicle.

Mike Church spent the first two years of his life in Bonanza, a ghost town along the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. By the time he graduated high school, his family had moved more than a dozen times throughout the West. “I’ve worn a cowboy hat since I was about a year old,” he said. In senior English class in Dillon, Montana, Church was caught writing his own poetry when he should have been minding The Bard. When he flunked the class, Church’s father confiscated the journal of poems. That was 1961, and he didn’t see his youthful verse again until 1994, the year his father died. He found the book among the dead man’s cherished things and with the help of a friend who worked at The Custer, Church turned his distant observations into a self-published book, Before the Days of Gasoline. He brings copies to Bux’s and over the years has sold more than 200. One poem goes like this:

So my spurs are getting rusty
And my rope is laid away
And the leather’s rotting on my saddle tree,
My chaps are getting musty
My hair is getting gray
For, stranger, times ain’t what they used to be.

Times ain’t what they used to be, he writes. But in Challis, they haven’t changed much.

Outside Bux’s Place, when the sun falls west across the still and foreboding national forest, Main Street settles in for the long night. Window signs throw a jumbled neon luster across the sidewalk. A few cars stop as men and women on their way home from work pause for a quick beer and a smoke. Challis falls back to what it has always been, a small fortification at the brink of the wilderness, a place where people cluster against the loneliness. Bux’s becomes the stronghold, a place of light in mountain darkness. The sound of laughter and camaraderie in carefree isolation. A place where nobody sneers at poor grammar or worn clothes or long silences. Bux’s Place is a home, perhaps the best some here have ever known.

For better or worse, critical decisions of the heart and career get made in bars. At least in Van Gordon Sauter’s lifetime. Whether the bar was 21 in Manhattan (executive vice president, CBS); Billy Goat’s Tavern in Chicago (reporter, Chicago Daily News); Weber’s Saloon in Middletown, Ohio (hod carrier and laborer); a nameless café on the rue Marbeuf (Paris bureau chief, CBS News); or the Danang Vietnam Press Center (correspondent, Detroit Free Press), Sauter knows that barroom decisions tilt to the ill advised, if not the catastrophic. But to men, bars are associated with freedom, camaraderie and a delusion that bad decisions can easily be corrected. Bux’s Place in Challis, Idaho, is a splendid setting for when those issues are settled. Simple rules of conduct are followed. Respect history. Buy a round for the house. Tip the bartender. And toddle with cheer into the bracing mountain night.

Craig Wolfrom is about as colorful and candid as his images. He has enthusiastically pursued his photography career since the 1990s covering editorial essays, applying a creative photojournalistic approach to weddings, and enjoying all of nature’s elements while capturing adventurous travel and sports images. Craig teaches a few workshops every year and also takes time to mentor high school students interested in photography. The Wood River Valley has been Craig’s home since 2002. He lives in Bellevue with his wife and two children.

All photos are property of Craig Wolfrom and Sun Valley Magazine and may not be copied, reproduced or distributed in any manner not pre-approved by the photographer and publisher.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.