Yes, indeed, I like that photo, and that one, and that one too. Mind if I get a copy? Well, I’m so very glad you asked. Please feel free to do so, all we ask is that you give credit where credit is due, mention where you acquired that photo. We are quite proud of our town and do not mind sharing it’s history.
Greetings…Welcome to the Potlatch Historical Society website. Whether you landed here by an accidental search or your visit is intentional, we say “Hello, welcome to our Company Town!!” Have a seat, kick your feet up, get comfortable, you could be here for awhile. We have lots of town photos for you to view, we have a calendar of events for the local area, towns and cities that are within an hour’s drive from here, they welcome you as well, links to their websites will be in the “from here to where” button on the main page and we offer virtual tours, right here, right now on the Potlatch Historical Society webration, a web based celebration of the town of Potlatch. We hope you’ll enjoy your visit. Before you go, leave a comment or two, this is your chance to say how you remembered the town, what are your memories, we’d love to hear them. And…y’all come back again soon!!
Potlatch, the who, what, when, where and why, maybe a little how’s too.
The who; are residents of a small town in Idaho, Potlatch is in the Inland Northwest, the panhandle of Idaho, north of Moscow, south of Coeur d’Alene.
The what; by definition a potlatch is : a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary economic system. A potlatch was held on the occasion of births, deaths, adoptions, weddings, and other major events. Typically the potlatch was practiced more in the winter seasons as historically the warmer months were for procuring wealth for the family, clan or village, then coming home and sharing that with neighbors and friends.
For our reference here, Potlatch is a small town of roughly 800 persons. This quaint small town has no stop lights and is friendly as all get out. I’ve heard it said that when the annual parade comes during Potlatch Days in the month of July, the whole city is present, you are either in the parade or watching.
Potlatch was created in 1905 to provide homes for the 500 workers at the Potlatch Lumber Co. mill. Nineteen of the homes built by the company are on the National Register of Historic Places, and City Hall used to be the mill headquarters. The mill closed in 1981, and no major business activity has emerged to replace those lumber jobs.
The when; incorporated in 1906 by the Potlatch Corporation, Potlatch so named for the company it held and supported, and for the largest white pine log mill in the United States, it was the place the workers of the mill called home. Back in the day, it was nearly 3 times the population it is today, the number of residents holding fairly steady for the last several years. Plenty big to offer some great amenities and small enough to know a great majority of the residents.
The where; put these coordinates into your zoom mobile to arrive in Potlatch, 46°55′18″N 116°53′54″W. Potlatch is located 18 miles NE of Moscow, ID, one mile off Highway 95 on State Highway 6, to the East (also called “The Scenic 6”). We are 51 miles NE of Lewiston, ID. Approaching from Coeur d’Alene, travel approximately 70 miles due South. To the West is another lovely town, Palouse, WA, where the mill originally had plans to build, but chose Potlatch instead for the lower land prices. If coming from the East, you will drive through Potlatch on Highway 6 before you get to the major North-South route, Highway 95. The old adage, you cannot get here from there simply does not apply to Potlatch, we are not far off the beaten path, and yes, we can leave a light on for you.
The why; owners of the Potlatch Mill knew their employees would give their all if they were well taken care of at home, if they had fewer of the daily worries than other working townsfolk. Good schools for their children, fresh groceries at a lower price at the mercantile, electricity and water was paid for by the corporation, and close in was all the support staff for an up and coming company town, bank, barber, and lodging.
Just what exactly is a “Company Town”? You might be thinking to yourself, work, at the end of the workday, I want to be as far from it as I possibly can be. Yeah, I thought that too. However, just for a couple moments, give a thought to this…waking up in a brand new house, no morning commute, new schools and the best teachers, fun activities to take part in, company sponsored picnics, good healthcare close at hand, the freshest groceries at the best prices, a quick walk home for lunch if you so desired, all these amenities practically at your fingertips. Sounding much better than that bumper to bumper, smell of exhaust morning commute. This was life in a Company Town, this was Potlatch, back in the day. There’s a saying…”happy wife, happy life”, take that a little further, happy life, happy worker, so thought the Potlatch Lumber Company owners. If you give the workers everything they could possibly need in town, they would not have their minds on anything but the jobs at hand. Take care of your workers and they will be dedicated in their work for you. If only…there might be something of that sort today. Back in the day, there were all kinds of fun activities to participate in or sit back and watch, races at the racetrack, dances, entertainment from some of the greats in the day; Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, George Jones, rollerskating, practically just about anything fun, it was here and available for the workers and their families to enjoy. Not many years back, in 1983, this company town was sold back to the city of Potlatch and it remains today, a town in many ways similar to other small towns of America, people dedicated to making their town livable, lovable and viable.
Tomorrow, today is history.
The Potlatch Lumber Company was organized as a corporation in 1904 and in September 1905 began erecting its mill in Potlatch, Idaho.
The Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway, although not part of the Potlatch Company, also had its headquarters in Potlatch. The railway was completed in 1907, and spanned the 47 miles from Palouse, Washington to Bovill, Idaho which was the main point of logging activity and the railroad switching point for logs which were then routed to the mill. The town of Bovill depended almost entirely on this timber, and was established by the Potlatch Company because of its proximity to a stand of the best white pine in North Idaho. Logging in the region north and west of Bovill was begun even before the railway line was completed.
Potlatch Company’s Camp 6 was located on the railway line northwest of Helmer, Idaho, which was a small, unincorporated town southwest of Bovill. It was laid out in 1910 and was named after a Potlatch Forest timber cruiser, William Helmer. Camp 6, the headquarters camp and one of the company’s largest, was built around 1917. Each bunk house contained beds for sixty men. Unlike most camps, this one had good laundry facilities; hot water was obtained via a system of coils directly from water heated on the wood stove.
In spite of this, body lice and bed bugs were common. As in most of the camps the meals served to the loggers by the camp cook were also a source of complaint. Two unions were active in the camps, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) and the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (4-L). They caused no serious problems and were successful in improving conditions.
The logging activity tended to taper off a little in the 1920’s with the depletion of the prime stands of timber. When the depression began to be felt in 1930 operations slowed considerably. This was the end of the boom for the area. Logging operations eventually ceased, leaving nothing but the logging litter, broken trees, rusted machinery, etc., as a reminder of the past.
The Potlatch Lumber Company, Potlatch, Idaho, was incorporated in 1903 under the laws of the state of Maine, with Charles Weyerhaeuser named as its first president. For timber the company relied on the holdings of the Northland Pine and the Wisconsin Log and Lumber Companies. Soon it acquired mills and timber of Codd Lumber Company of Colfax, Washington, and Palouse River Lumber Company of Palouse, Washington. The Codd mill did not operate and the Palouse mill served only to cut lumber to build the Potlatch town and plant.
In 1904 the building of the largest white pine mill in the world began. It was steam powered and driven by belts and shafts. W. A. Wilkinson of Minnesota was in charge of the design, plans, and construction. The company believed a company town was a necessary investment and a proper step in labor relations and community improvement. When the mill began operating in the fall of 1906 the company had finished 128 houses, 2 boarding houses, 2 schools, a hotel, 2 churches, a store, bank, post office, and an opera house. Saloons were barred and gambling was not allowed in the bunkhouses. In 1952 the town of Potlatch was incorporated and houses were sold to those who wanted to purchase them; the last property was sold in 1982.
Under the general managership of William Deary the mill began operation on September 11, 1906. Assisting him in the management of the mill were Allison W. Laird, assistant manager, and timber cruiser, William Helmer. According to the Palouse Republic, September 14, 1906, “The first log cut will be white pine and the lumber will be fashioned into a desk for assistant manager A. W. Laird.”
In 1910 the company built a mill in Elk River which operated until 1930. They also supported their operations through the creation of other companies. In order to haul logs to the mill and lumber from the mill to an existing railroad at Palouse, the company built a 50 mile long railway, the Washington, Idaho, and Montana, which ran from Palouse to Purdue, Idaho. The Townsite Company and its commercial center, the Potlatch Mercantile Company, as well as Potlatch Brick Company, were located at Potlatch, Idaho. They also operated the Palouse Flour Mill in Palouse, Washington.
In 1930 the Weyerhaeuser conglomerate faced the possibility that, due to heavy taxation of privately owned timber land by the state, all of its North Idaho mills would go bankrupt. So, in 1931, they merged Potlatch Lumber Company, Edward Rutledge Timber Company, and Clearwater Timber Company to form Potlatch Forests, Inc., with headquarters in Lewiston. The mills were modernized, managerial talents pooled, and by the early 1940’s the business was making a profit. The Potlatch mill was again modernized in 1962 and a new office building was completed in 1964.
The mill continued to operated until August 14, 1981 when, due to a depressed lumber market, it closed. It was thought that this closure, like several before it, was temporary, but on March 16, 1983, announcement of a permanent closure effective April 1 was announced. Shortly thereafter dismantling of the mill began.
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