At ninety miles an hour, the undulating landscape of scrub brush and melon gravel along the 250-mile stretch of I-84 from Boise to Pocatello recede and morph into a homogeneous blur. Steep ravines slice through the lava fields and the miles of ranch fencing are constant company. A catastrophic flood 15,000 years ago deposited boulders larger than our rental Jeep across these plains.
We approach and pass Massacre Rocks State Park. It commemorates a place on the Oregon Trail where immigrants and Shoshone clashed in the mid-1800s. The lore is that the Shoshone would sit atop the rocks and ambush the wagon trains as they filed through. I tried to imagine the Shoshone protecting their lands from the jostling, clanking lines of covered wagons that would not cease arriving.
The road trip would take me, along with my mom and our cousin Bonnie, back to the place where my grandma Jessie grew up. I wanted to understand more about her early life, hear family stories, and learn about the history of the area.
My mom was the city cousin, sent during the summers of the 1950s to the Burley micropolitan area of southern Idaho to visit my grandma’s siblings and their children. My grandfather was a train conductor out of Union Station, so he would bring my mom to work with him and see her off on from the bustling metropolis of Portland, Oregon. Around this time, my very young mother feared overpopulation, and not just by the living. She wondered what we were going to do with all the dead bodies. Where would we bury them? It was during a trip to visit her country cousins when she realized the absolute vastness of the landscape, and her fears eased. There would always be room in Minidoka County, for both the living and the dead.
Immediately following the Newlands Reclamation Act in 1902, also known as the US Reclamation Act, projects for irrigating the arid western United States began. My grandma, the youngest of five, was born in Colorado during the family’s journey from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to their new hometown of Rupert, Idaho the summer of 1907. They were lured by the potential of the soon-to-be irrigated farmlands of the Snake River plains as a result of the Minidoka Reclamation Project and the Minidoka Dam, transforming arid and forbidding volcanic soil and sagebrush into lush acres of grain, alfalfa, beans, or potatoes. After the completion of the dam and its hydroelectric power plant, electricity was plentiful, and the surrounding towns were some of the first cities in the world to have electric street lights.
Minidoka comes from the Dakota word meaning “a fountain of water.” My grandma’s siblings, all under the age of nine, Maudie, Joe, Daisy, and Mildred, would grow up amidst the expanding irrigation ditch networks, built by local laborers—quite possibly including my great grandfather. They, and their subsequent children, were expected to labor on the family farms. (Well, everyone except Joe, the only boy. He was permitted to take the buckboard into town while the daughters tended to the chores, often returning home too inebriated to be of much help.) This ever-expanding “fountain of water” became the circulatory system hydrating the dry volcanic soil into lush agricultural fields and cattle ranches.
By the time my family had arrived, the native Bannock and Northern Shoshone peoples had for decades traded and clashed with the fur traders, missionaries, Mormons, US Army, and miners, eventually resulting in the Fort Bridger Treaty and the tribes’ relocation to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in the late 1860s.
The Snake River Basin had been home to humans for more than 12,000 years, including hunters who used stone-tipped spears to kill Mammoths that roamed the plains. Subsequent populations, early ancestors of the Bannock and Shoshone, moved throughout the 100,000-mile area in seasonal cycles, fishing for salmon at Shoshone Falls, gathering roots on the plains, and picking berries to dry and store for the winter. There is evidence they wove baskets and milled flour. The introduction of horses, firearms, and diseases had a significant detrimental impact on the tribes long before the arrival of white immigrants and their covered wagon trains. The desolate, harsh land, a plentiful home to native peoples for thousands of years, was considered an ordeal to be overcome on the way to other more lush landscapes nearer the West Coast by pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, The Minidoka Reclamation Project had created 1,600 miles of canals and nearly 4,000 miles of laterals, irrigating more than one million acres of farmland. I grew up hearing stories about my young grandma and her siblings picking wild asparagus that sprouted and grew quickly in the full sun and well-drained soil of the vast network of irrigation ditches. It was free produce to help feed many hungry mouths. My great aunts were accomplished gardeners, known for their tidy rows of dahlias and sweet peas, as well as adept cooks who always managed to have something filling on the stove and just out of the oven for the field workers.
My grandma got married in Cassia, Idaho in August 1926, and my eldest aunt was born the following March in Los Angeles. I had heard subtle hints about a hasty move from home, a controlling mother-in-law, and a husband who “had a temper.” One day I did the math, and I realized that she must have had a shotgun wedding and then disappeared to the big city not too long before she gave birth. She never returned to Minidoka County to live, but only for occasional visits.
When I asked one of the country cousins about this, she replied, “Your grandma wouldn’t have made a very good farmer’s wife.” My childhood recollections of my grandma are of her coral twin-sets and crisp polyester slacks. Not a pill or a loose thread to be found. She got her updo once a week, and she slept on her back with her hands folded delicately just beneath her small bosom. She traveled with a hard-case toiletry kit, and I used to love to snoop through her creams, powders, and vials, each with a unique scent, all adding a note to her perfume accord. Her skin was delicate and nearly translucent. My cousin’s remark made complete sense.
My grandma’s time in Los Angeles was tragic: Two years after her first baby, the Stock Market crashed, and in 1931 her husband died suddenly of appendicitis. My grandma found herself a single mother of a four-year-old daughter, far away from home, at the depth of the Great Depression. Between 1920 and 1930, the population of Los Angeles had more than doubled, and by 1932, the unemployment rate in California was twenty-eight percent. The city of Los Angeles hosted the Xth Olympiad that same year. Oil rigs dotted the Los Angeles landscape. The city seethed with xenophobic resentment toward immigrants. “Oakies” flooded into California, seeking refuge from the Dust Bowl. They were met by Los Angeles Chief of Police James E. Davis and his “Bum Blockade,” a California border patrol created to halt the “invasion” of migrants from the Midwest. There were constant labor strikes, food sat rotting in the fields as it was too costly to harvest or transport it, and one-fifth of the population was on public relief. My mom can remember my grandma describing things as “very difficult” during this time. Such delicate understatement, yet throughout it all, she never returned to her Idaho family.
The name Minidoka might sound familiar for another reason: The Minidoka War Relocation Center operated from 1942–45 just outside Jerome, Idaho. Franklin D. Roosevelt designated parts of the United States as military zones and enabled the arrest, detention, and imprisonment hundreds of thousands of people from World War II-enemy countries—Germany, Italy, and Japan. More than 9,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned for three years in tar paper-covered barracks, under guard towers, and surrounded by barbed-wire fences thirty miles from the dahlia garden and alfalfa fields where my grandma grew up.
Eventually, she met and married my grandfather, had my aunt and my mother, and moved to what was in the 1950s the raucous and corrupt lumber and shipping town of Portland, Oregon. I imagine that was somewhat of a compromise between the harsh farm life of rural Idaho and the combustion of Great Depression–era Los Angeles. Perhaps this is why she sent my city-slicker mom back to Idaho for the summers. She passed from one auntie’s house to another during her visits. One summer my mom stayed with Aunt Marion. Having grown up drinking store-bought milk, my mom refused to drink the milk from the resident cows. Aunt Mildred dutifully purchased a bottle of milk the first day, and once it was gone, continued refilling it with the “estate” milk. My mom never knew the difference.
My grandma died when I was sixteen. I was just two years younger than she was when she got pregnant, married, and left her small town. I was too young to realize her hardship, and the hardship of those inhabiting her hometown before and after her. I was too self absorbed to ask her about the native tribes being sent to reservations to make way for her family to settle their lands, about surviving the Great Depression, being a single mother, or watching Japanese neighbors in Los Angeles rounded up and imprisoned mere miles from her childhood home. I guess what matters most is that I want to know, that I can see her smaller story within a larger historical context. So I keep having conversations with surviving relatives. I take them on road trips. I keep asking questions. I keep researching. And I continue to uncover startling and sad similarities between our briefly overlapping lives spanning more than one hundred years.