By Diane Josephy Peavey
Editor's Note: Idaho writer Diane Josephy Peavey, contributed this piece for Silver Creek's 30th anniversary celebration. As we prepare for the preserve's 35th anniversary, we think you'll agree that her words are still as true as ever.
This celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Nature Conservancy Preserve at Silver Creek made me curious about the history of this place. For many of us, it is our stories of the land and its people that are inspiring, the stories of creating, evolving, preserving and surviving. So I am curious. What was life like along this amazing creek 25, 50 years ago? I go in search of its stories.
First the place. Silver Creek runs through a high desert landscape mysteriously filled with springs that feed the creeks and keep the land green, even marshy during the driest summer months.
I understood this best visiting John and Elizabeth Stevenson at their Ranch just this side of Timmerman Hill. Theirs was the first Nature Conservancy easement and it included a huge marsh area in the middle of their ranch. This land is now a lake filled with water fowl and surrounded by wildlife.
In 1980 Guy Bonnivier, first approached the Stevenson’s with the then unusual idea of a conservation easement across this land. It became a reality in 1982. “The Nature Conservancy wanted to protect Silver Creek,” John remembers, “and where else would you start but upstream.”
Elizabeth explains, “the old timers remember draining this marsh for farm and pasture land. Ditches still run through it. “But working with the Nature Conservancy,” she continues, “we brought it back to its original wetlands. It is now a lake that catches the sediment from upsteam farmers keeping it out of Silver Creek. And at the same time we’re creating wildlife habitat, she points around her with a sweeping gesture that takes in the lush landscape filled with marsh grasses and cattails.
John adds enthusiastically, “Oh, this is great habitat.” And with great exuberance the two itemize their sightings. “I saw a moose out here, says Elizabeth and there are elk all the time, John adds. Then Elizabeth, “but especially in the fall when the hunters are out. They seem to know and come here for refuge.”
She stops suddenly pointing to the water. “Ducks, look at the baby ducks,” she says excitedly. We move slowly through the tall grasses to the water’s edge for a better look. But within seconds, John refocuses our attention, “look at the bird in the goose box. It looks like a crane.” There are goose boxes across the landscape especially on the islands in the lake.
The air is still, the afternoon quiet, the Stevenson’s small canoes inviting. I can imagine drifting across the tranquil scene, the bottom of the boat brushing the underwater grasses that sprung to life after the lake was created. I scan the land, the lower portion that is the Nature Conservancy easement filled with springs. There is no trace of its former ranching activity here and yet the Stevenson’s still use the surrounding high ground, a scene of farming activity. It is the perfect balance and use of this land, honoring its environmental uniqueness and its farming potential, open space treasured by people of the land like John and Elizabeth.
Verda O’Crowley now of Carey, lived and worked on Bud Purdy’s K bar K Ranch in Picabo for 42 years. She knows life along Silver Creek intimately and is way ahead of me gathering its stories from old timers over the years. Although she claims she might have trouble putting her hands on those interviews, when she does, her book “How the Creek Flows By,” as she hopes to call it, will be rich with history.
Verda was raised in Muldoon on the ranch our family now owns – the old Laidlaw place. After high school in Carey and a few years in Boise she took a job at the K bar K Picabo ranch in 1947 to help with the cooking. But like all ranches, everyone did what needed doing. She was no exception even running the combine.
But her days were mainly filled with cooking the full breakfasts and the large mid-day meals. She recites the offerings: there was a roast, steaks or fried chicken, with mashed or baked potatoes, vegetables, a fresh green salad, hot rolls and pie. These were memorable meals (even Bud Purdy mentioned them affectionately). They were large, home cooked and provided a time for comraderie for the ranch crew.
She married Harry O’Crowley two years after she began working at the ranch and all five of their children were born into this busy life. Harry ultimately became ranch foreman and all the while Silver Creek threaded through their lives.
There the kids swam, fished and camped. During an overnight outing on one of the Creek’s islands, the older boys pushed Verda’s youngest into the water in the dark of night. She found out about this only later and claims it still gives her nightmares to think about it. But then the kids were mischievous she remembers, once throwing a headless rattlesnake into her bathwater which sent her shrieking out the door.
“It was fun around the ranch,” Verda remembers of her hard work and days along Silver Creek. “We always had fun.”
Maybe it was the nature of ranch hands as Bud Purdy remembers it. “The work crews were really nice guys,” he explains. In 1928 at age 10, he spent his first of many summers at his grandfather’s Picabo ranch.
“I did everything you know, like you do on a ranch,” he tells me. “I remember pitching hay and running the derrick with a team. We put everything up with horses. I couldn’t harness my team so the guys did it for me.”
Those days they’d swim in the creek and fish using the bamboo poles the owner of the old store kept around. “It was bait fishing then,” Bud remembers. Only railroad baron Jay Gould and a few easterners ever fished with flies and there was no catch and release. That came when Jack Hemingway was on the Fish and Game Commission. “Silver Creek wasn’t well-known then. There was no pressures on it like today.”
But for Bud who has lived and worked the ranch since 1938 when he graduated from college, his memories move between long work days and fishing and duck hunting along the creek with Sun Valley celebrities and friends like Ernest Hemingway.
“Then there was nothing between Picabo and Ketchum except farms and lots of sheep,” he remembers. “The K bar K ran about 8,500 head. I used to love my days at the sheep camps in the mountains every summer. Almost all the sheep are gone.” Bud speculates that there were at least 20 sheep outfits in those early years and “there was a great sense of community here too,” he adds a bit wistfully.
Today the Silver Creek area is experiencing an influx of newcomers building second homes in this ranch country. But easements, like the one generously donated by Bud and his family and those of many new homeowners are saving the creek and landscape from serious development. And Bud has only good things to say about his new neighbors.
So to complete the picture, I ask him about his perfect day and he replies. “I’d be out working. I’d check the cattle, the fences, the water. I’d get on my horse and help move cattle. Then about six o’clock in the summertime, I’d get home and jump into the creek for a swim. That’s a perfect day, keeping busy and spending time in Silver Creek,” Bud concludes and a big smile fills his lean, handsome, weathered face.
These are only three of the many stories of Silver Creek. The history is everywhere around us still to be gathered and retold. It gives us the voices of the creek, like those of the Stevensons, the O’Crowleys, the Purdys, the Molyneux, the Struthers, the Sherbines, the Gardners, the Grays, the Rogers and so many others. The history of Silver Creek - what it is, how it was protected and how it remains cherished by local people gives the landscape meaning and life.
Writer Diane Josephy Peavey’s weekly essays on ranch life in southcentral Idaho were popular for years on Boise State Radio. Her collection of essays, Bitterbrush Country, is published by Fulcrum.