Bux's Place, Challis, Idaho
This Idaho Town Vol. I
PHOTOGRAPHY Craig Wolfrom
(page 1 of 3)
In the grit of a mountain town, the saloon is more than just a bar. It’s a community watering hole, and the regulars are family. Challis is less than eighty miles, but a world apart, from Sun Valley. Here in the high heart of central Idaho, Bux’s Place is keeper of the town spirit.
Bill Yacomella, the 53-year-old-manager of Bux’s Place, sat at the bar, pulled softly on a nearly expired Pall Mall and scanned his comfortably dim establishment and its midday clientele. His battered hat, virtually shapeless, rested lightly on his head with chaotic shafts of hair poking from beneath it. His eyes are a light, clear blue, and his face is surprisingly soft given his years of work on ranches, construction sites and in a deep mine (“I decided I didn’t want to stay in that hole the rest of my life”)—and now Bux’s.
The Yacomella family has been in Challis for nearly a century, and among its diversified interests are ranches, a commercial tax return company and Bux’s Place, Yacomella’s main responsibility. When he talks about construction, one senses his true passion is masonry, but small towns bristle with reality, and Coors Light has more economic traction in Custer County than a glowering stone gargoyle.
And this is a small town.
Main Street, Challis, Idaho, pop. 909, lies just outside the rectangular front window of Bux’s Place and near the junction of four mountain chains—the Lost River, White Cloud, Salmon River and Lemhi mountains—and on the great Salmon River itself. This is mining and ranching country and, aside from the occasional surge of invading hunters and fishermen, it is populated mainly by people who embrace the rhythms and demands of small-town life, close to the ground, in the majesty of a real Idaho.
They form a legacy that flows, or sloshes, from one year to the next, one decade to the next.
Sun Valley is different. The best thing about the historic resort town, the saying goes, is how close it is to Idaho. In Sun Valley, I have witnessed a dinner party conversation lurch inexplicably and irretrievably out of control as the topics of real life were abandoned for some grave discourse on hot yoga and baby turnips. One listlessly moves the apricot-ginger-pear-parfait around a delicate plate and looks out soaring dining room windows to a vague moonlit profile of Bald Mountain. The honeyed life of Sun Valley? Presumably.
But where is the West? The dust and the drink? One pines for a worn leather stool in a small-town barroom, its windows festooned with sizzling neon signs, shouting onto empty windswept streets: Coors! Budweiser! And in the background, the crisp clicks from a contested pool table and the raucous laughter bouncing off a back bar as weathered as any patron saddled up to it.
“Our motto here in the bar,” Yacomella declared from his taproom, “is that we have an open heart, an open mind and a warm stove. That’s our philosophy of business.”
The late William Buxton, the founder of Bux’s, was partial to the phrase, “Where good friends meet,” so much that he put it on his swizzle sticks. Yacomella put it on his matches. One senses that matches have a broader reach in the local clientele than swizzle sticks. Bux’s Place is redolent with the rich aroma of smoke, strong enough to traumatize the fetishistic clean-air crowd, but just mellow enough to provoke a wave of nostalgia for those who gave up smokes years ago.
The Yacomellas bought out Buxton about the time a mining firm began extracting molybdenum (known to the locals as “molly”) from the vast, open-pit Thompson Creek Mine, about thirty miles from town. Molly has an array of industrial uses, such as improving the strength of steel at high temperatures, which makes it critical for missile and aircraft parts. The firm employs nearly 300 people, and the company recently estimated there was, at a minimum, about ten years of molly left in the site.
It is not uncommon for an isolated Western town to depend on a single-source economy, and not a lot of people want to dwell on an image of Challis without molly. But towns like Challis reek of resiliency. There is here a powerful survival instinct, a belief in continuity. >>>