Bux's Place, Challis, Idaho
This Idaho Town Vol. I
PHOTOGRAPHY Craig Wolfrom
(page 3 of 3)
There are sad stories, too. In 1983, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, the largest in the continental U.S. in a quarter century, struck near the base of Borah Peak, the state’s highest mountain (which rose about six inches during the seismic event). In Challis, two children, Tara Leadon, 7, and Travis Franck, 6, were walking to school when the façade of one of the oldest buildings in town, a seventy-five-year-old stone ice house, collapsed on them, crushing them fatally under four feet of debris. The memory can still provoke, up and down the bar, a silent toast for the children.
And then there are the absurd: In the early 1980s, a grandson of Pat Garrett, the Old West lawman credited with killing Billy the Kid, was passing through town showing his dexterity with a bull whip. He awed the crowd gathered on Main Street by whipping a cigarette from the lips of Bill’s wife, Tami. While it is not known if he was in the employ of some federal anti-smoking cabal, the event is rich with symbolism.
The bar itself is a story. Built by Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, probably in Cincinnati, Ohio, it was shipped to the San Francisco ports via Tierra del Fuego, “around The Horn,” as Madge put it, before arriving in the Vienna, Idaho, mining camp in the mid-to-late 1880s.
After several mule-team hauls through the mountains, the bar was put on wagon road to storage in Blackfoot until 1942, when it came home to Challis. Madge Yacomella’s first-grade class went on a field trip that spring to watch the traveling muralist paint his scenes of America on the backbar. The murals are still evident, “but need to be cleaned.”
The stories at Bux’s Place pour forth, and those along the bar or leaning over the pool table nod knowingly at their favorite tales, tacitly confirming their importance and veracity.
A visitor realizes that while Challis is a town rich with commerce, government and spiritual life, the people on both sides of the bar at Bux’s are custodians of the town’s history. The perspective may be a little bit narrow, sometimes weighted through a double-double of Wild Turkey, but it is a critical component of the community chronicle.
Mike Church spent the first two years of his life in Bonanza, a ghost town along the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. By the time he graduated high school, his family had moved more than a dozen times throughout the West. “I’ve worn a cowboy hat since I was about a year old,” he said. In senior English class in Dillon, Montana, Church was caught writing his own poetry when he should have been minding The Bard. When he flunked the class, Church’s father confiscated the journal of poems. That was 1961, and he didn’t see his youthful verse again until 1994, the year his father died. He found the book among the dead man’s cherished things and with the help of a friend who worked at The Custer, Church turned his distant observations into a self-published book, Before the Days of Gasoline. He brings copies to Bux’s and over the years has sold more than 200. One poem goes like this:
So my spurs are getting rusty
And my rope is laid away
And the leather’s rotting on my saddle tree,
My chaps are getting musty
My hair is getting gray
For, stranger, times ain’t what they used to be.
Times ain’t what they used to be, he writes. But in Challis, they haven’t changed much.
Outside Bux’s Place, when the sun falls west across the still and foreboding national forest, Main Street settles in for the long night. Window signs throw a jumbled neon luster across the sidewalk. A few cars stop as men and women on their way home from work pause for a quick beer and a smoke. Challis falls back to what it has always been, a small fortification at the brink of the wilderness, a place where people cluster against the loneliness. Bux’s becomes the stronghold, a place of light in mountain darkness. The sound of laughter and camaraderie in carefree isolation. A place where nobody sneers at poor grammar or worn clothes or long silences. Bux’s Place is a home, perhaps the best some here have ever known.
For better or worse, critical decisions of the heart and career get made in bars. At least in Van Gordon Sauter’s lifetime. Whether the bar was 21 in Manhattan (executive vice president, CBS); Billy Goat’s Tavern in Chicago (reporter, Chicago Daily News); Weber’s Saloon in Middletown, Ohio (hod carrier and laborer); a nameless café on the rue Marbeuf (Paris bureau chief, CBS News); or the Danang Vietnam Press Center (correspondent, Detroit Free Press), Sauter knows that barroom decisions tilt to the ill advised, if not the catastrophic. But to men, bars are associated with freedom, camaraderie and a delusion that bad decisions can easily be corrected. Bux’s Place in Challis, Idaho, is a splendid setting for when those issues are settled. Simple rules of conduct are followed. Respect history. Buy a round for the house. Tip the bartender. And toddle with cheer into the bracing mountain night.
Craig Wolfrom is about as colorful and candid as his images. He has enthusiastically pursued his photography career since the 1990s covering editorial essays, applying a creative photojournalistic approach to weddings, and enjoying all of nature’s elements while capturing adventurous travel and sports images. Craig teaches a few workshops every year and also takes time to mentor high school students interested in photography. The Wood River Valley has been Craig’s home since 2002. He lives in Bellevue with his wife and two children.
All photos are property of Craig Wolfrom and Sun Valley Magazine and may not be copied, reproduced or distributed in any manner not pre-approved by the photographer and publisher.