On a typical weekday morning 18 miles west of Boise, Interstate 84 is choked with Detroit steel. At the busy Exit 35 on-ramp, a cramped line of commuters creeps out of the town of Nampa, a former railroad stop turned booming suburb, and awkwardly merges with a line that has crept over from Caldwell, another former whistlestop town. Once knotted together into gridlock that belies Idaho's rural reputation, the streams roll slowly toward Boise--directly into the rays of the rising sun. Later in the day, many of those same cars will drive back from Boise, again into the sun rather than with it.
Eighteen miles east of Boise on that same morning, the scene is very different. At Exit 71, one of just three stops over the approximately 40 miles between Boise and the Elmore County seat of Mountain Home, a thin but steady trickle of cars coast westward at 75 mph with the sun in their back windows. Most of the merging traffic is made up of tractor-trailers leaving the breakfast platters, showers and diesel pumps at the exit's only business, the Boise Stage Stop truck stop. The commuter force coming out of the two place names identified on the exit 71 sign, "Mayfield" and "Orchard," is virtually nonexistent. Except for a trio of windmills at a farm to the southeast, the landscape is visually devoid of development on all sides.
The reason for the discrepancy between these two images may seem obvious to anyone who has driven out of Boise in either direction: Traffic comes from the west because there's something over there, while there's nothing out along the eastern border of Ada and Elmore counties, right? Well, sort of.
On one hand, the few buildings that correspond to dots on maps signifying Mayfield and Orchard are little more than ruins. There's an abandoned school and three other crumbling structures in Mayfield, and another abandoned school and a defunct steam-engine water tower next to a few trailer homes in Orchard. The desert in Eastern Ada and Elmore counties is peppered with similar sites, with names like Mora, Owyhee, Regina and Dixie. They're each as old as towns in the Treasure Valley, but they've never had enough of an infrastructure to even be considered ghost towns.
On the other hand, the proximity of this rural area to Boise is no secret to housing developers and land speculators. Currently, three planned communities, a golf course, retail storefronts and even a motor raceway are all proposed for that arid landscape around exit 71.
If completed, these additions would pose strange new challenges and opportunities to the small community of people who call the desert home. But for the historic site of Mayfield, a little renewed attention would also, on some level, represent development coming full circle in southwest Idaho. After all, this tiny site was a regular commuter stop on the main road to Boise decades before anyone dreamt up Nampa or Caldwell.
Captain Benjamin Bonneville first came through the desert west of Mountain Home in 1833. After toiling his way up a scenic vista located just a few miles west of the future site of Mayfield, he famously looked out over the Boise River Valley and dubbed it "les Bois." The Hudson Bay Company established the Fort Boise trading post the following year, and emigrants began rumbling along the Oregon Trail, which followed Bonneville's path through the area, less than a decade later.
One of the earliest written references to permanent dwellings east of Fort Boise comes from the journal of Julius Merrill, an aspiring gold miner who meticulously chronicled his 1864 journey along the Oregon Trail from the Midwest to Idaho. Merrill wrote:
September 15: Quite warm and road hilly but smooth. No feed at noon and poor water. We again come in sight of Snake River Valley and that black desolate plain. Our road now strikes the Salt Lake Stage Road. On every little creek where there is sufficient water for irrigation there are ranches, most taken up this season, and a few vegetables are raised.
At a stage station we first heard of the fall of Atlanta and Fort Morgan, and that General Morgan had been killed. It has been a long time since we heard any war news and, as might be expected, were quite jolly over such good news.
The remnants of the station at which Merrill heard about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's conquest of Georgia are still standing, just six miles south from Exit 71 in an overgrown pasture next to where Indian Creek trickles out of the Danskin Mountains. A pair of settlers, originally intending to travel to Oregon, had stopped along the trail there earlier that same year and built the two-room brick structure. The couple sold the stage stop in 1865 to local cattleman James Corder, who had been running a herd contracted to the mining camps in Idaho City and Rocky Bar.
During the mid 1860s, "Corder Station" was an important stop along the Oregon Trail, being at that time the first stage stop east of Boise and the first west of where the popular alternate trail Goodale's Cutoff rejoined the main Oregon Trail after splitting off at Fort Hall. It was also a bit of safe haven in what could be a dangerous neighborhood. Just a few miles east of the station, Native Americans had reportedly attacked a wagon train at a creek crossing known as Soles Rest. Bandits were also known to inhabit a small valley nearby that locals still call "Robbers' Roost" or simply "The Roost," from which they would steal horses from some wagon trains and resell them to others.
When Union Pacific finished the Oregon Short Line Railroad through southwest Idaho in 1883, the need for a stage service through the desert vanished. By then, the former station contained a post office, and a school had been built next door to serve the growing community of homesteaders and ranchers in the area. The daughter of the area's first postmaster, Scottish immigrant John MacMillan, supposedly suggested the name Mayfield for the tiny outpost, a reference to a town (though some locals contend it was just a farm) in MacMillan's home country.
By 1915, Mayfield was busy enough that a community hall was built across the old Oregon Trail from the school in order to provide a venue for student performances, as well as occasional potluck dinners, fortnightly dances and meetings of the local women's club. This quaint auditorium, whose hardwood floors supposedly contained wide gaps that dancers had to waltz over, served what was increasingly looking like an actual town for almost half a century. In 1926, an unprecedented fourth building was even carted in from a neighboring community to serve as a home for the Mayfield schoolteacher.
However, as has been seen innumerable times in rural Idaho--and especially in Elmore County--small communities can pop out of existence as quickly as they appear. In the early 1950s and 60s, a few families left Mayfield for a more urban interpretation of civilization, and the population dropped precipitously over a matter of years. One by one, small farms sold out and consolidated into larger ranches, until in 1963, only four students remained at Mayfield school. It was shut down, and without a neighboring school, the community hall received little subsequent use. Mayfield drifted into disrepair.
By any interpretation but the historical, the Mayfield of today is a single white farmhouse located about two miles from the original townsite. This house is where the 100 or so registered voters in the area come to cast their ballots each Election Day. It's where the area's most comprehensive history was written, for the 1985 Elmore County history book Crossroads. It's where the idea was hatched--just six years ago-- to give individual addresses to nearby homes and a name to the area's main byway. It's also the home of the two remaining people who remember what it was like to dance, bring potluck dishes and watch student performances at the Mayfield community hall.
Erin and Carleen Lord, both 73, have lived in Elmore County since getting married 55 years ago. He was born in Boise, spent his early childhood in the Blacks Creek area, and moved to Mayfield in 1946--a four-mile eastward migration that he remembers feeling "like the end of the world." She moved to Boise from Los Angeles, graduated from Boise High and moved with Erin into a remote ranch bunkhouse right out of high school.
"It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me," Carleen recalls of the move, a sharp contrast to Erin's apocalyptic memories. Barring a short stint in Mountain Home, the pair has remained in Mayfield ever since.
For the record, Erin harbors no fantasy that Mayfield was ever a town. "It's just an area," he says, adding that in his estimation, it stretches from Blacks Creek east approximately 8 miles to Bowns Creek along the old Oregon Trail. An inexact measurement, perhaps, but here's where Erin's authority comes from: Everyone else from the community hall days of Mayfield has either been bought out by land speculators or has bought the proverbial farm themselves, so there's no one around to argue.
"Everybody always treated us like the newcomers," recalls the lifelong cattleman of his early years in Mayfield. "Now, we're the last ones left."
Erin and Carleen's son Jeff, 49, puts it a different way. Jeff attended the final year of classes at Mayfield School as a child, and today, he lives just up the road from his parents and commutes to his job as an accountant in Boise. But he draws his metaphor for history from the time he spends on the side running cattle with his father: "He who lives the longest gets to spread whatever manure he wants."
All three Lords have plenty of stories to pile on about the peculiarities of life in the middle of nowhere ... just outside of Boise. First and foremost: Their address is completely bogus.
"When I first got married, way back when, the address was just, 'Care of Mayfield Stage, Boise, Idaho," Carleen recalls. "Then we went to 'Highway Contract 34.' I'd write 'HC 34, Mayfield Road,' just to give us a place that we live beside just HC 34, which included Federal Way and out where Micron is."
Aside from being the unofficial Mayfield historian who penned the town's history in just over three pages, Carleen has also represented rural Elmore denizens on the county's emergency services committee in 2000. That's the year when all the houses in the Mayfield area finally received street numbers and all the nebulously titled roads were given final, official names. Before that, "Mayfield Road"--the old Oregon Trail--had been known by two other titles as recently as a decade ago: "Slater Flat Road" and "Foothills Road" (on many maps, those names still appear).
Today, finally, the Lords' address is a number followed by "Mayfield Road, Boise, Idaho." The only problem: Mayfield is in Elmore County.
"We have this Boise phone number and this Boise address," Carleen explains. "Our community is Boise, and we're part of Boise 911. But Ada County [emergency services] can't come over into Elmore County. So they answer [the call], but then they have to notify Mountain Home, and they have to send someone out here." She shakes her head.
Conversely, the few times that the Lords' fellow Boiseans actually do come knocking, it's inevitably to cause the type of trouble more befitting of Mayfield's frontier history than its quiet present. Asked what brings typical Treasure Valley visitors to the area, both Erin and Carleen are concise:
"Prowling," she says.
"Raising hell," he adds.
The Lords have found city people in flipped cars in fields, driving through fences, shooting dangerously near their farmhouse, holding bonfires in the middle of nearby dirt roads and--of course--camping out on private property all over the countryside, from front yards to hay sheds.
"Two hundred tons of hay, and they're sitting there smoking cigarettes," Erin recalls. "They just had no idea."
But perhaps the ultimate intrusion took place just last week. Jeff's cellular phone rang in his house for the very first time. "We went, 'What the hell was that?'" Jeff recalls. Mayfield, which hadn't offered any service since stage service, now has service once again.
"It was kinda sad," he says. "The beauty has always been that this is a single-task deal up here. You can't manage and dig a posthole at the same time."
But all of those annoyances--the nonsensical boundaries, the wandering miscreants and the invasive ringtones--are about to become someone else's problem.
The Lords haven't yet sold their approximately 8,000 acres of farmland around Mayfield. But the area's steadiest residents readily admit that at some point, they will.
"A year ago, I thought we'd die here," Erin says. "But somebody is going to buy. We're just too close to Boise." Asked who he envisions the buyer to be, Erin scoffs. Unlike the buyout wave that eliminated the Mayfield School almost a half-century ago, today's rural barons are investment firms and speculators who, from a buyer's perspective, are little more than names on paper.
"It's either the mafia or the Mormons," he jokes. Either way, he's got a stack of information about other ranches "within four or five hours." In the meantime, the family just waits, in a gentle defeatism familiar to a growing number of Idaho's rural families when they see the 'burbs peaking on the horizon: "It's inevitable, but nothing's settled yet--so why worry about it?" Erin says.
The Lords's situation may sound like yesterday's news to development-savvy Ada County residents, and it is. While development issues--and in particular planned communities--have been discussed and debated in Ada County since the turn of the century, Elmore County has been largely overlooked until now. Currently, the county has just two incorporated cities, Mountain Home and Glenns Ferry, and a total population of fewer than 30,000. Bonnie Sharp, Elmore County's director of growth and development, said when companies began contacting her in the last year about the possibility of building subdivisions and planned communities in western Elmore County, it was "hard for me to imagine."
"I don't think anyone in Elmore County anticipated the interest in our county that we've had in the last year," Sharp said--and she's including the county itself. Elmore doesn't even have an ordinance on the books to establish what a planned communities is, or what the county can require of it. Ada County has had such an ordinance since 1990, and has already revised it multiple times.
But while Elmore County may not yet be ready for large-scale development, development is ready in Elmore County. A few of the significant projects on the horizon include:
Mayfield Springs: Developer Greg Johnson applied last September 16 for a municipal water right for a 2,000-unit planned community called Mayfield Springs, to be located directly across I-84 from the Boise Stage Stop at exit 71. A representative from Mayfield Springs told BW that the proposed planned community will be completely self-sustaining, and will initially include 900 acres of homes, schools, a town center, storefronts and a hotel/convention center, mostly in Ada County along the Ada/Elmore border but also possibly expanding into Elmore County. The community will also include a championship golf course designed by Gene Bates, who designed the nationally acclaimed Circling Raven golf course at the Couer D'Alene Resort Casino in North Idaho. The representative said the developers plan to turn their planned community application to Ada County as soon as this week.
Unnamed planned community: Sharp said she has been in discussion with Farwest LLC, a Boise-based firm that plans to develop a planned community on a that 12,000-acre parcel in the Indian Creek area of Mayfield. Representatives from Farwest did not return repeated calls from BW, and Sharp told BW that the county has not yet received an application for this community.
Unnamed planned community: On June 19, a group representing Arizona-based developers Cardon Bowden Investments and Cardon Hiatt Companies conducted a "meet and greet" with the Elmore County Board of County Commissioners. The group told the Commissioners that they "have 1800 acres, 1200 of which are on the Elmore County side" of the Ada/Elmore border, and they were "working on the concept" of a 5,200-unit planned community with four units per acre, according to the meeting minutes.
After being questioned by the commissioners about the water needs for such a project, the group said they "hadn't gotten that far yet." Brent Bowden with Cardon Bowden did not return repeated calls from BW concerning the development.
War Eagle Speedways: While not technically a planned community, this $200 million super speedway complex proposed near Interstate 84 exit 74, three miles east of the Boise Stage Stop, is based on the same principles: Self-containment, self-sustainability and sheer immensity. Proposed to stretch two and a half miles south along Simco Road, the 2,000-acre site will contain its own trauma ward, RV parks and fire department, all woven around eight separate motor race venues with a total seating capacity of over 200,000 spectators. War Eagle vice president Pamela Dugger told BW that the company has filed for a conditional use permit from Elmore County, and is "very hopeful" that they will be able to break ground by late fall of this year.
What's a county to do in the face of such rabid expansion? Ask for help. At the June 19 meeting, Elmore County commissioners actually asked former Boise City Councilman Jerome Mapp, who was present in a consulting role for the developer, to send them "some Web sites that they could explore." Sharp asked at the same meeting that the developers create a "general concept plan" for the county to study. She says she also recently made an initial visit to Hidden Springs planned community north of Boise, which she found to be "quite attractive." In the near future, Sharp and the Elmore County Commissioners are going to meet with Gerry Armstron, Ada County's director of growth and development, to discuss what they can learn from their smaller, more populous neighboring county's ordinance.
"We just updated it in May," Armstrong says. "So obviously, there are some lessons we could offer, and some advice." Among the sections that Armstrong says he wishes had been better articulated in the previous version were rules about open space requirements, slope issues and rules about wildlife and game animals.
Not having received any applications as of yet, Sharp says she is comforted that "a lot of it is just speculation for now." However, she adds that she has joked with her friends the Lords about the possibility of their house serving as a voting precinct for several thousands of new Mayfield residents.
But don't try to talk about that vision of the future with them. Six decades years after coming to what seemed at first like "the end of the world," these country loyalists are already spinning analogies for the as-of-yet-unrealized loss of their prized piece of nowhere.
"It's the center of the universe," Jeff Lord says of Mayfield on a summer evening in his parents' kitchen. "For 49 years, it was in one spot, it was easy to find and not many people knew about it. However, the center of the universe is going through a freefall right now."
His solution is simple. "We're going to move the center of the universe," he says. "It sure won't be here anymore, once it's covered with houses."