Otter visits town on the edge

By Michael H. O’Donnell

There were American flags on display along Rockland’s two main streets as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter held court for his Capital for a Day visit last week.

It doesn’t take many flags to decorate this tiny town.

Highway 37 — a strip of blacktop that serves as a route for truck drivers trying to avoid state weigh stations — runs right past city hall.

Across the highway from the steel building that serves as a hub for the hamlet’s government is Direct Communications, a fiber optics company that provides some of the only private jobs available. Everyone else works for the city, Power County or Rockland School District.

Federal payments under the Conservation Reserve Program have idled most of the dryland farming operations in the area.

It’s a pretty setting for the 297 people who still call it home — a narrow strip of land nestled between sage, juniper and pine-covered slopes. But Rockland exists on the edge of fading into the history books like the settlement of Roy to the south did decades ago.

Where there were 100 households and 80 families in 2000, there are 76 families today. Finding a good seat in the LDS Church in town is not a problem.

With no convenience store, you can’t even buy a roll of toilet paper in Rockland. Finding any supplies requires a 15-mile drive to American Falls and a link to Interstate 86.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m belittling this slice of rural Idaho. More than three decades ago, I wrote a column suggesting that Rockland consider consolidating its public school effort with American Falls.

That heresy brought a flurry of tar and feathers. Bulldog pride bit into my leg and didn’t let go. Tradition and pride are always the last landmarks to succumb to the erosion of time and progress.

But I couldn’t help but see the casualties of an area quickly becoming remote and unnecessary as I visited Rockland again for the first time in more than 20 years. Pulling up to city hall to cover the governor’s visit, I noticed the old Mercantile store was gone. So was the Hi Lo Bar and Grill — a place where I had scored an ice-cold draft beer and juicy hamburger several times in the past.

About 137 years ago Hildalgo Valdez dug a ditch on the East Fork and declared Rockland his home. Eleven years later Idaho became a state. In its heyday, Rockland boasted a hotel, cheese factory, general store, bar, hardware store, school and churches. 

Only the school and churches remain.

Rockland has always been a quiet place, but now it seems eerily vacant.

It also looks like a faded snapshot from history compared to the high definition image of Boise, where Gov. Otter spends most of his days.

Butch is quick to tell everyone he actually lives in Star — a small town that rubs shoulders with the Boise-Nampa metropolitan area. And he speaks warmly of the family values prevalent in small-town Idaho.

But while Rockland has lost population over the past decade, the number of people living in Star has tripled from less than 2,000 to nearly 6,000. That happens when you are a bedroom community for a metro area with more than 600,000 people.

Gov. Otter knows comparisons between Star and Rockland are limited. It’s hard to be a bedroom community for American Falls.

Otter also knows Rockland is solidly in his camp when it comes to conservative political views and a place he will get a warm reception when he talks about the evils of boosting the minimum wage or wasted spending by the federal government.

He proved that last Wednesday.

However, it should come as no surprise that the same folks who deplore taxes and outside interference in their lives also look for outside help.

Rockland folks asked about additional state and federal funding to make repairs to Highway 37. They quizzed the governor about efforts by the state to improve the economy in rural Idaho. Others wondered why more wasn’t being done to bolster deer herds or reroute a massive new power transmission line.

It isn’t the first time this tiny town has needed help. Like most Idaho communities, it has relied on state and federal financial assistance to keep the place alive.

The little town also pulls its own weight. School district landowners pay a school tax levy 17 times higher than the folks in Sun Valley just to keep its kids in town. They have to. The school is the only glue holding things together.

During the governor’s big visit last week, the town’s true financial picture revealed itself. The makings for sandwiches and some desserts were placed on a table for lunch.

“The cost for lunch is $8,” a woman announced.

Gov. Otter pulled out his wallet and fished out eight bucks. He left no tip.

Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.