Mackay is one of those small Idaho towns where everyone waves to one another when passing by. It can actually make it a bit challenging for locals to drive, seeing as how they always have to be ready to wave.
That’s because to not return a wave is about the most egregious thing you can do. It’s almost as bad as simply nodding, but still better than the wave usually offered to people with 5B or California license plates.
Mackay is an old mining town, nestled at the “Top of Idaho,” as their motto goes. Tucked beneath the state’s highest point, Borah Peak (12,662 ft.), the town of Mackay (5,891 ft.) has a rich Western history as deep as the Lost River Valley it calls home.
Most of Mackay’s residents are as rugged as you’ll find in any Old West town, with good senses of humor, tough hides and deceptively soft hearts. And while the views of the surrounding mountains are as sweet as any you’ll ever find, Mackay’s future is as cloudy as a tailings pond.
Even though it’s only a short distance, as the crow flies, from the swank and sophistication of Sun Valley, Mackay is a world—or at least a half-century—away.
Digging into History
Left to right: Mouthwatering burger and tater tots at the Mine Hill Grill. Billie Sherwood tending bar at Perk’s Bar.
Settlers began inhabiting the valley between the Lost River Range and the White Knob Mountains in the late 1800s. Soon thereafter, copper, lead, zinc and silver deposits were found just southwest of town in the White Knobs. By the turn of the century, the settlement along the Big Lost River was booming. People came in droves to make their fortunes in “Copper City,” as the community was being called. By 1901, a new town was founded and named Mackay (pronounced Mac-key) after the primary owner of the White Knob Mining Company.
The dam that formed the Mackay Reservoir just north of town was completed the same year the Titanic sank, 1918, and was quickly—and “vigorously,” as the reports stated—filled with fish. Mackay soon earned a reputation it’s held on to pretty steadily ever since, as being one of the best places to fish for trout in the West.
Left to right: Amy Lou Krosch cooks up breakfastat her cafe and steakhouse; Steve Spengler, Sun Valley Magazine’s tour guide, shows off a beautiful rainbow trout he landed at the Big Lost River.
Thanks to the booming mines, the Oregon Short Line brought the railroad to town, including a Union Pacific run called the “Fishermen Special.” The end of World War II marked the beginning of the end of the mining boom. By the time Richard Nixon was sending his buddies into the Watergate Hotel in 1972, mining had essentially stopped in the area and the train no longer ran to Mackay.
Nowadays, the town’s biggest employer is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) outside of Arco, which produced the world’s first usable electricity from nuclear power in 1951. Ranching and farming for hay and barley have long been staples and continue to give the community a working-class Western feel.
Besides being a hub for fishermen and farmers, Mackay is a popular destination for big game hunters, hang gliders (launching off nearby King Mountain), ATV and snowmobile riders, mountaineers and mountain lovers. The town of around 600 now boasts the tagline: “Idaho’s Best Kept Secret.”
Floyd Deats serving up beer, wine and guns at the Sports Stop.
During Prohibition there wasn’t much of a secret about where some of the best spirits in the country were being made. “Mackay Moonshine” became famous and earned the town the title as the nation’s “Moonshine Capital.”
And it turns out that Mackay’s hard-drinking ways aren’t just part of its past. The town has a handful of watering holes, including one that’s been serving ‘em up for more than a century.
Located on south Main Street, smack dab in the heart of town, is Perk’s Bar. It’s been called Perk’s, after owner. I.T. Perkins, since 1916 but there’s been a saloon of some sort or another on the property since the town first became incorporated.
On an overcast Saturday afternoon, photographer Craig Wolfrom, our entertaining and popular local tour guide (and former Ketchum resident) Steve Spengler and I bellied up to the historic bar and talked about life in Mackay.
“Mackay is one of the last vestiges of America’s Old West culture. We still have ranchers and farmers and hunters here,” Steve said. Originally from Michigan, Steve moved to Mackay almost 20 years ago to help run his family’s ranch, the Crow’s Nest, just south of town.
Left to right: Anna Oxley of the Spice of Life Bakery serves up delicious donuts and sells huckleberry scone and pancake mix all over the Northwest, including locally at Country Cousin in Ketchum. Mackay still holds on to it’s Western roots like the remenants of an old clock and cigar store.
“The original Idaho Western subculture still exists. It exists in places like Mackay where real people live,” said Steve, who was greeted warmly everywhere we went during our two-day tour, from watering holes to grabbing donuts at the Spice of Life Bakery, to stopping for burgers at Mine Hill Grill or while casting flies down at the river.
“Mackay is full of a great collection of characters,” Steve said about his beloved community. “It’s a rich collection of people, which makes for a real character-rich environment … but everybody still actually cares about everybody else.”
Billie Sherwood was born and raised in Mackay and tends bar at Perk’s. And even though she’s left a few times, she keeps returning.
“I keep moving away and then I just keep moving back. There’s something about this place, about living in the mountains,” she said while serving us up a 7 and 7. “Most of the people around here are real nice and even the people you don’t like, if they’re in trouble, you’d drop everything to help them out.”
A couple of blocks away, on Custer Street, you can find Mackay’s newest bar. The Sports Stop opened in late January. The small beer and wine bar also serves as a sporting goods store that sells firearms and fishing tackle—which makes the place, in the eyes of some, heaven on earth.
“It’s great to be able to pick up your new gun and grab a drink at the same time,” Steve said with a big smile.
“Incorporating all that stuff makes the place more interesting,” owner and bartender Floyd Deats explained. Floyd and his wife Donavee are originally from Minnesota and moved to Mackay more than a dozen years ago.
After first visiting to do some elk hunting, the Vietnam veteran and his “right-hand man,” as he called his wife, began spending summers in the Lost River Valley before finally deciding to call the place home for good.
“It’s just a real nice community. You know everybody,” said Floyd, who’s also an avid golfer and spends many summer days playing the local nine-hole River Park Course.
Eating, (More) Drinking & Being Merry
Whether you’ve been hitting the links, the river or the hillsides in search of game, the best place in Mackay to grab dinner is the town’s other full bar, Ken’s Club, located a couple doors over from Perk’s. The “Pioneer Saloon of Mackay,” as Steve put it, is famous for their massive cuts of Prime Rib. Heck, their “Cowgirl Cut” is 16 ounces.
Much like its next-door neighbor, Ken’s is also steeped in history. Built in 1901, the building was home to a saloon downstairs while Madame Marty Lee ran a brothel on the second floor. Eventually local protests forced the Madame and her 30 or so “sporting girls” to move their merriment to just outside of town.
While we were taking in the history and tap beer at Ken’s, another group of guys hanging out at the bar chatted us up. They were from Hailey and Boise and were on one of their annual “boys weekends” to drink and fish (and drink some more) in Mackay.
After hearing we were there to shine a little spotlight on Mackay in Sun Valley Magazine, Hailey resident Mike Johnson called out a sentiment felt by many fans and locals of the town.
“Mackay’s awesome,” he said. “Keep the spotlight off it.”
A couple of hours later, just before the yellow light for “Last Call” came on from the signal behind the bar at Perk’s, we ran into each other again and Mike and his buddies—and several locals—bought us “Sun Valley Magazine boys” some drinks.
After extolling the hidden virtues of Mackay, talk eventually turned to the future of the place.
“I don’t know what the future of this town is,” Bill Green said. Bill owns Perk’s and first came to Mackay when his own future was pretty cloudy, too.
“I got drunk in college and I ended up here,” he said with an easy smile. “I liked it enough, so I decided to stay.”
Shake, Rattle and Roll
On the morning of October 28, 1983, the largest earthquake ever recorded in Idaho rocked the Lost River Valley.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Borah Peak earthquake is the largest (measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale) and most damaging (an estimated $12.5 million between Mackay and Challis) that Idaho has seen in recorded history.
Left to right: As long as the light is green, they’ll still serve ‘em up at Perk’s Bar; Frank Malkiewicz and Bill Jones (left to right) enjoying coffee at Sammy’s One Stop.
According to Amy Lou Krosch, who was serving up breakfast at her café and steakhouse in Mackay that morning, it was also pretty high on the scary factor, too. Bear, moose, mountain lions and elk are what they’ve long been used to dealing with. Earthquakes weren’t something they’d dealt with before—or pretty much since.
“We’d never been in one before. We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Amy Lou said, while pouring us cups of Sunday morning coffee. “It was shaky. You could see the earth roll and the dust got so bad you couldn’t see across the street.”
Nowadays, the streets of Mackay are being strolled more and more by retirees and second homeowners from places as far away as Alabama and Arizona, and as close as Pocatello, Blackfoot and Ketchum. People like Sun Valley’s world-renown Western photographer David Stoecklein, who owns a ranch north of town.
“It’s the most beautiful valley in the Western United States,” he said about the Lost River Valley and its community. “It’s peaceful. It’s just a wonderful little place. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it.”
Despite the fact that some locals might not be too excited about it, having more and more tourists, second homeowners and retirees like the place may very well be the key to the future for Mackay. But that’s okay with a lot of other folks, so long as Mackay can hold on to its rugged, Old West ways.
A native Idahoan, Amy Lou is a pretty good example of a true Mackay local. A great-grandmother who described herself as “ornery” and hit me for making the faux pas of inquiring about her age, Amy Lou still does everything from taking the orders to making and serving the meals at her café. While fishermen and farmers help keep her business humming along, her favorite patrons are motorcyclists.
“The bikers love me,” she said. “If I were younger, I’d be a biker bitch.”
For nearly three decades now, Amy Lou’s Steakhouse has been serving up “good old home cooking” for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Amy Lou’s also offers up a small bar with TVs and a jukebox in the back.
The Mine Hill Grill is a favorite lunch and dinner spot for both locals and visitors alike. Their burnt lemonade and Kit-n-Kaboodle burger always hit the spot. Open from 9am to 7pm every day except Sundays.
The Spice of Life Coffee House, Bakery and Gift Shop makes what are deemed by many as the “best donuts in the world.” Their maple bars and small breakfast menu are pretty tasty, too. Open Wednesdays through Saturdays starting at 5:30am.
Garden Patch Pizza is known for their homemade pies and their cabbage patch soup and is open from 3 to 9pm every day except Tuesdays.
Burger Time Express offers up a classic burger-stand style experience, open daily from 11am to 7pm, closed at 6pm on Sundays.
Ken’s Club is affectionately called the “Pio of Mackay.” The restaurant and full bar are famous for their Prime Rib and their simple motto: “Where good friends meet.” The bar opens at 4pm daily with dinners served from 5pm until closing (9pm), Monday thru Thursday, 10pm on weekends.
In the summer, the quickest way to get to Mackay from Sun Valley is by following Trail Creek Road, which leads over the summit and intersects with Highway 93 a few miles north of town. It’s primarily a dirt road that’s not for the weak of heart—or at least those willing to change a flat tire—that can be covered in around an hour. When Trail Creek Summit is closed (usually October through April), it takes just under two hours to take Highway 75 south to Highway 93 north, which runs right through town.
Surrounded by the highest mountains in Idaho, topped out by Borah Peak (12,667 ft.) just north of town, Mackay is a mountain lover’s paradise. Camping, hiking, fishing, boating on Mackay Reservoir, ATVing, golfing at the River Park Course and hang gliding off of King Mountain (just south of town, in Moore) are the big warm-weather draws for Mackay, which is also a popular spot for big game hunters in the fall. The Big Lost River and its tributaries offer some of the best fly fishing in the West. Pick up a copy of Angling Around Sun Valley: A year-round guide to fly fishing in South Central Idaho by Mike McKenna (on stands July 19th) for seasonal details of fishing in the area. For more information on recreation activities in and around Mackay, check out mackayidaho.com/recreation.asp or call the Lost River Ranger District at 208.588.2224.