For the most part, there’s nothing particularly special about Preston, Idaho. But the pretty and predominantly Mormon town of 5,204 found its own 15 minutes of fame thanks to a hit Hollywood movie; a fame that appears to be lingering. Even though the locals may be a bit tired of it all, being home to “Napoleon Dynamite” will long be Preston’s biggest claim to fame.
It’s been a decade since “Napoleon Dynamite” found surprising success at theaters nationwide. Written and directed by former Preston residents Jared Hess and his brother Jerusha, the film’s quirky humor, memorable one-liners and odd but endearing characters instantly resonated with audiences. The movie has become a cult classic. Its 10th anniversary celebration last summer received loads of press and even included the unveiling of a Napoleon Dynamite statue, wearing a “Vote for Pedro” shirt, of course, in Los Angeles.
The film’s widespread popularity instantly made Preston a tourist destination. The town even held a “Napoleon Dynamite Festival” for a few years before interest died down.
While the tetherball may be missing from its post, and Big J Burger has had a facelift, Preston doesn’t look much different from the way it did in the movie. So when the odd tourists, like journalists from Sun Valley, still come in search of Napoleon’s house or the old bowling alley, they don’t leave disappointed. For the most part, locals are still tolerant, if not overly welcoming, about it all. There’s even a sign that reads “Heck Yeah, Napoleon Dynamite’s House” in the front yard of the brick, ranch-style landmark. The house and dirt road look pretty much the same way they did when Uncle Rico threw a steak like a football at Napoleon’s head and a llama named Tina lived in the pasture next door.
The Pop’n Pins Bowling Alley is one place in town that still celebrates its legacy. Movie posters, a guest book for fans and photos from the shoot still adorn the well-maintained, retro bowling alley. But the walls of the Pop’n Pins seem to be more nostalgic for the movie than most of the town folks.
“A lot of people came here for a while because of the movie, so it was a good plus for the town for a while, but it’s starting to die down,” said Chris Pitkin, who was born, raised and is now raising his own family in Preston, and whose grandfather owns the alley. “But everyone here is pretty much over it. I know I am.”
One of the first things visitors to Preston notice is how pretty the Cache Valley is. The sweeping valley is awash in lush farm fields, sprinkled with deciduous trees and surrounded by mountains—the Bear River Mountains to the east, and the Wellsville and Bannock ranges to the west.
The Pioneer Historic Byway (Highway 34) slices through the Cache Valley, following the Oregon-California Trail for a spell and passing by what the region had been most famous for—before “Napoleon Dynamite” came to town—the Bear River Massacre site. In late January 1863, shortly after Idaho’s first permanent settlement was formed in nearby Franklin, U.S. soldiers killed more than 250 Shoshone men, women and children in one of the worst slaughters of Native Americans in the history of the West.
Later that same year, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. While Lincoln was extolling that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth” in Pennsylvania, scores of Mormons were following similar advice from Brigham Young and starting communities throughout the Intermountain West. The Cache Valley to the north of the Great Salt Lake became a popular destination, especially after Young declared, “No other valley in the territory is equal to this.”
The Bear River meanders through the northern section of Cache Valley and where it crosses Highway 34 is where you can find the Riverdale Resort. The heated mineral springs resort opened in 1984, after the rancher who owned the property finally figured out why the snow was always melting in one section of his property. The natural hot springs resort is a popular spot for families and is open year-round.
Even though Riverdale wasn’t in “Napoleon Dynamite,” the director of the film does come for a soak every now and again, according to Sara Argyle, who owns the resort.
“A lot of locals will roll their eyes when you ask them about it,” Argyle said of the film, as she gave photographer Craig Wolfrom and me a tour of the property. “But you’re in Preston and it’s part of the attraction. People definitely still come here because of the movie.”
‘Whatever I feel like I wanna do, gosh!’
One thing people definitely do not come to Preston for is the party scene. Liquor laws in Franklin County, Idaho, are very strict. Most places, like the bowling alley or the most popular restaurant in town, New York Deli, don’t sell alcohol.
The town offers two bars for the general public. Both bars offer beer that’s 4 percent alcohol by volume or below. Last year, after jumping through numerous hoops with the town and county, the Owl Club started selling wine as well.
Located in the heart of Main Street, the Owl Club has been a staple of Preston since 1934, although women weren’t allowed in the place until 1975, earning the club the nickname “man’s last hangout.” The pool hall and watering hole is, like many old Western bars, long and narrow. But unlike most, it’s exceptionally clean and uncluttered.
Rose and Steve “Buck-O” Berquist have owned the place for close to two decades now.
“It’s the ‘Cheers’ of Preston,” Steve Berquist said, and his words were prophetic. As soon as photographer Wolfrom and I entered the bar, all eyes were on us. Several folks even leaned out of their barstools to see what Wolfrom was doing once he began taking photos. Almost instantly, a woman at the bar yelled out, “It’s not nice to take pictures of people without their permission!”
By the time we’d finished our first round of beers, explained that we were doing a story for Sun Valley Magazine and would be happy to delete any photos of people unwilling to take part, the bar had basically emptied out. We’d ruined the Saturday night of nearly 20 locals.
Among the handful who remained, one transplanted local offered up some commentary on life in the heavily Mormon community, but asked to remain anonymous. “This is the type of place where they don’t ask you your religion, they ask you which ward. Everyone is pretty much LDS around here. Some of us just don’t practice it as hard. But if pictures of people drinking showed up in a magazine, it could hurt their businesses or jobs.”
The folks over at Preston’s other bar, Tattles, take on more of a Napoleon Dynamite approach to their lives and do what they want to do. Catering to a younger crowd and popular with the non-Mormon residents of the area, it has a fun and festive atmosphere.
Tattles offers a breakfast and lunch restaurant on one side and an A-framed bar on the other. Joyce Pitcher has owned Tattles since 1999. She renamed the former Al Joes Bar “Tattles” because she thought the name was a perfect fit for the community. “It’s a small town,” she said before returning to the kitchen to cook up another breakfast order. “Everybody talks.”
Pitcher is certainly right. A decade later, people are still talking about “Napoleon Dynamite” and making pilgrimages to the little Western town where it was made. The local paper, The Preston Citizen, even offers a map of sites from the film and sells related merchandise.
Sure, most people in Preston may be over the town’s 15 minutes of fame, but loaded with funny catch phrases and ultimately heart-warming humor, there’s no doubt high school kids in Idaho and across the country will be watching and quoting “Napoleon Dynamite” for decades to come. There are, of course, worse claims to fame than being the home of a character about whom movie posters announced: “From rural Idaho comes a new kind of hero!”