Memorial Day weekend kicks off the tourist season in Chesterfield, founded in the 1880s by Mormon pioneers and abandoned as a settlement in the 1940s.
Thank to public-private partnerships, including decades of effort by the Chesterfield Foundation and $300,000 secured in 2007 by former Sen. Larry Craig, with help form Congressman Mike Simpson, under the Save America’s Treasures program. The Caribou County town has been lovingly restored, including the 1892 Meeting House.
A new attraction this year is the home of James Henry Davids and his Paiute wife, Ruth. Another must-see is the Muir-Butterfield home, which preservationists are working to secure. That’s where accordionist Ferrebee Butterfield lived. The town’s history is full of such marvelous names, including musician Theron Davids and curveball king Homer Cooper.
Saturday night offers a free dance celebrating Idaho’s territorial sesquicentennial, with live music, beginning at 8 p.m. in the Amusement Hall. Sunday is worship day, so there are no planned events, but it’s a great time to look around. Monday is full of activities from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., including a 5K run/walk, foot, building tours and a $6 meal. The full schedule appears below.
If you haven’t been there, you haven’t seen one of the West’s best examples of the immigrant experience and one of the most memorable places I’ve ever been. The setting is achingly beautiful, on high ground in the Upper Portneuf Valley east of Pocatello and north of Lava Hot Springs.
Whether visiting on lonely day midweek or during the Memorial Day season from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Chesterfield is not to be missed.
Randy Smith, now a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was raised 25 miles away in Thatcher. When I wrote about Chesterfield in 2007, he told me his visits make him feel near his ancestors. “They grew up beating the ground to death and making grain and making hay and raising cows. It brings tears to your eyes to go out there and see and what they did, and know that they gave it all for you.”
Pictured above, at left, is the tithing house, restored by the late Clyde Knight. At right is a view of the townsite, platted in 1885. By 1900, more than 400 people lived there, but economic changes and a new rail line prompted the abandonment of the town.
Chesterfield, an Idaho gem
Clyde Knight’s got Alzheimer’s now. He apologizes for his halting speech.
He need not beg pardon. His story is in his hands — hands that restored a rare LDS tithing office. The brick structure, and the toil that built and rebuilt it, speak more eloquently than any pile of words.
Knight’s work stands at Chesterfield, a Mormon ghost town on the Oregon Trail near Soda Springs. He’s one of hundreds of volunteers who have spent 30 years preserving a piece of high ground in the Upper Portneuf Valley. They do it because they’re moved by the stories of the Mormon pioneers who built and then quit the town.
Though few Idahoans know of it, Chesterfield is a true treasure. Lovers of the town just got fabulous news: Sen. Larry Craig is seeking $450,000 for restoration of another fine building, the 1902 Chesterfield School. Craig, working with Rep. Mike Simpson, still must get the appropriation through Congress, but he cleared a big hurdle June 19, when his provision was approved by the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
Like me, Knight discovered this gem in the 1990s. Raised in Burley, he’d never been to Chesterfield. Founded in the 1880s, it became a ghost town in the 1940s after the railroad drew folks south, the farm economy changed and schools consolidated at Bancroft.
“What makes Chesterfield unique is it was abandoned as it stood, ” said Christine Knox, who wrote the application for the $450,000 grant under the Save America’s Treasures program. “It was not built over. It was not destroyed. It was not plowed under. It was just there, and so we were able to restore it. It looks today the same way it looked.”
Knight and his wife, Eleanor, first saw Chesterfield in 1994 on the advice of a friend in Shelton, Wash., where they live. They saw the 1892 Meetinghouse, the 1896 Tolman/Loveland House and the 1903 Brick Store.
But there was something haunting about a sad brick building held up by three steel cables. It was the tithing office, reported to be the last remaining original brick structure of its kind in LDS country.
“I could have forgotten everything we’d seen that day, except for some reason that little tithing office, ” Knight told me. “It drew me.”
Returning home, Knight couldn’t shed the memory. He’d wake at 2 a.m., wondering what his hands, trained for carpentry, could do with brick. “Every night I’d wake up. I couldn’t think of anything else.”
The Knights returned two months later, welcomed by Jay and Shirley Simons, part of an army of loyalists who spend summers on restoration and giving tours to 10,000 visitors. Did they remember the Knights? Oh yes, said Mrs. Simons, they’d been praying for their return.
Knight looked over the building and took measurements, realizing it was in worse shape than he thought. He could see why others had said it must be torn down and rebuilt. But at 2 the following morning, he woke again, a blueprint for restoration spinning in his head.
“It all came to me, just as if somebody had handed me a little book and said, ‘Read this. This is the way you do it.’”
In 1995, the Knights spent the summer in Chesterfield, living in a log cabin populated by birds and mice, and burning coal shoveled from the basement of another building. The next year, the tithing office was completed. But like others who catch the bug, they kept returning. Clyde Knight salvaged bricks from the old Topance school and began the restoration of the 1895 Amusement Hall. Knight calculated its height by studying an historic photo and counting the bricks. All told, the Knights spent nine summers at Chesterfield.
Eleanor Knight said her husband believes he was visited by the Holy Ghost. She agrees. “It had to be. I’d never seen him like that before or since. This was a mission he had to complete.”
The folks I interviewed for this column are all LDS. For them, Chesterfield pulls at the deepest emotions. As a non-Mormon, I find the place compelling because it captures such an important thread of Western history. It’s also expressive of the broader immigrant experience.
Randy Smith, now a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, grew up 25 miles away in Thatcher. Chesterfield makes him feel near his ancestors. “They grew up beating the ground to death and making grain and making hay and raising cows. It brings tears to your eyes to go out there and see and what they did, and know that they gave it all for you.”
Rhoda Bennett was born in Chesterfield in 1932. She lived in a house with 10 siblings and 10 cousins, sleeping four or five to a bed. What she cherishes most is the memory of family. “We called the old people ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ even though they weren’t. We were all just one family.”
Bennett’s father, Ferrebee Butterfield, was part of Chesterfield’s rich musical tradition. He played the accordion, accompanied by celebrated bonesman Theron Davids. Memorial Day dances now highlight the tourist season.
Mike Hatch reported his LDS mission in the 1892 Meetinghouse. Now 76, he still plays the dances. “Chesterfield is our heritage, ” Hatch said.
That heritage includes play. “Every Saturday was baseball day, ” Hatch said. “Work stopped and all the people got together and played ball. There was no grass, really, except the native stuff. If you hit a home run, you were out in the sagebrush.”
There were no age limits. Hatch remembers Homer Cooper, an old farmer with a wicked curve. “He pitched until he was really an old man. If you weren’t watching, you’d swing and the ball would be somewhere else.”
Now that the school looks to be restored, plans also include rebuilding the ballpark nearby. They might want to name it for old Homer Cooper.
Visit Chesterfield this summer
Chesterfield is owned by the nonprofit Chesterfield Foundation, which formed in 1979 to preserve the town. In 1980, Chesterfield was added to the National Register of Historic Places. With a $125,000 grant from the Idaho Heritage Trust, the foundation acquired the townsite. Restoration efforts have been funded by small grants and volunteer labor.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Chesterfield is open for tours, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On weekends, Mormon youth groups re-enact the hand-cart treks that brought the faithful west. Free entertainment includes a performance by celebrated cowboy poet Paul Ferron Bliss on July 21 and organist Erik Olson on the old pump organ in the Meetinghouse on Aug. 11. Both events are at 7 p.m.
Among those playing key roles have been Craig Call, a member of Chesterfield’s first family; former state historians Merle Wells and Arthur Hart; author Leonard Arrington; foundation leaders Gary Hatch, Val Roberts and Ada Smith; and Idaho Heritage Trust Director Gaetha Pace.
For more information, go to Chester fieldfoundation.org or call 648-7177.