Hangin' Out in Hagerman
One man’s quest to conquer the Hagerman Valley turns up more than he could guess
PHOTOGRAPHY Craig Wolfrom
The Snake River winds its way through Idaho’s Banana Belt.
You could drive across the country a couple of times over, from Freeport, Maine, to Carlsbad, California, from Miami all the way up to Seattle, and you’d be hard pressed to roll through a more unique place than Idaho’s Hagerman Valley.
And if you do decide to make such a trek, please be sure that anytime you see trout on a restaurant menu during your travels, to ask where it comes from. Chances are they’ll say it comes from Idaho, which more than likely means it once swam in the “Valley of a Thousand Springs.”
But that’s just the tip of this tale about a place where alligators and the world’s oldest fish swim, where one of the earth’s best fossil beds can be found and where the locals know how to have a rousing good time.
The Banana Belt
As the mighty Snake River winds its way through the harsh, sage-covered plains of southern Idaho, travelers have long found respite in a wide swath in the canyon known as the Hagerman Valley.
The original travelers, those hardy souls trudging their way along the Oregon Trail, would stop to trade with the native Shoshone-Bannock and Paiute tribes. Native Americans, who called the Snake “Pohogawa,” the River of the Sage Plain, have been inhabiting Hagerman Valley for some 12,000 years, getting much of their sustenance from the region’s historically rich fisheries; salmon, steelhead, trout and sturgeon said to weigh as much as dairy cows.
The Idaho gold rush of 1862 brought the first permanent settlements to Hagerman and while most of the businesses didn’t make it, some farmers did. By 1895, Stanley Hagerman established the valley’s first post office and both the small town that sprung up around it and the valley in which it sits took his name. Local legend, however, has it that Stanley’s last name was actually “Hageman” and that a clerical typo added the r.
Farming, especially for trout, has continued to be a strong driving force in the local economy. Thanks to the numerous natural springs that seep out all over the Hagerman Valley with clean, cool water from the Snake River Aquifer, it’s an ideal place to raise trout. That’s why over 75% of the commercial trout produced in the country comes from Idaho, primarily the Hagerman Valley.
From huge facilities like the Clear Springs Foods complex (which also raises commercial sturgeon) to the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery (which rears threatened steelhead) to the simplicity of a couple of trout runs running across someone’s front yard that are leased out to fish farmers, the entire valley is literally littered with trout. But the “Thousand Springs” of Hagerman Valley aren’t just good for trout.
Many of the springs (which were once said to number in the thousands, but now are in the hundreds), are actually hot, which is why Hagerman has long been an oasis for folks in search of a nice soak. The warm springs also allow the valley to commercially grow a few aquatic species that definitely aren’t native to Idaho, like alligators and tilapia.
Rumor even has it that a gator once escaped and made it to the much chillier Snake River. But there has yet to be a single report about any sightings of an alligator wearing a wetsuit or resembling a super-sized Popsicle.
Add the odd aquatic species together with all the hot water, mild winters and steamy summers and the Hagerman Valley has a near tropical feel to it—at least by Gem State standards. Even though it seems like bananas are the only thing they don’t grow in Hagerman, it makes sense that it’s often referred to as the “Banana Belt of Idaho.”
The Hagerman Horse
Old Highway 30, the “Thousand Springs Scenic Byway,” cuts a path through the heart of the Hagerman Valley, covering nearly 30 miles from beneath the bench where Buhl sits following the Snake River up to the edge of Bliss. But long before the road was cut, Mother Nature took a crack at it.
The Bonneville Flood, which tore open the Snake River canyon about 15,000 years ago, scattered “melon gravel”—rocks as big as watermelons and Volkswagen Beetles—on the valley floor and ripped off layers of the bluffs above, exposing the most varied fossil bed of land and aquatic species from the Pliocene Epoch found anywhere on earth.
Of course, no one knew that then. It took until 1928, when a local rancher named Elmer Cook clued in the scientists at the Smithsonian. Mastodons, sabre-toothed cats, camels, antelope, fish, frogs and snakes of all kinds all left evidence they’d lived here eons ago. But the big finds were the horses, many of which were over three million years old.
Over 20 complete skeletons of horses were found. The horses, which had much in common with modern-day zebras, were sent to museums all over the globe, making Equus simplicidens, “The Hagerman Horse,” world famous.
“One More Won’t Hurt”
As was the case with many towns from the Old West days, the opening of the post office was soon followed by the opening of a bar. The first one in Hagerman was said to have been opened by a fella named Billy Colthrap and all it offered was a barrel of whiskey and a tin cup.
There are two watering holes in Hagerman now, with a third legendary spot overlooking the valley up in Bliss. Perry Pleyte has lived along the edge of the Hagerman Valley for close to two decades now and likes the place so much that he and his wife, Karen, happily call five acres on the bluff above the Snake River home, even though he works in Hailey as the Director of Philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy and she works as an international flight attendant.
Perry was kind enough to play tour guide for Sun Valley Magazine’s romp through Hagerman, which naturally included stops at the (and just about any) region’s real cultural and historical hubs—its bars. Time does seem to stop, or at least come to a crawl, in most small town bars.
Since 1943, Wilson’s Club has been a family-run staple in the center of downtown Hagerman. Serving a full bar and some snack food, the walls of the place are adorned with knickknacks from yesteryear.
Farming equipment, faded photos of celebrities, moose and antelope mounts and a barber’s pole cover the walls. In the back, there’s a fenced off “museum” full of antiques from the mining and horse and wagon days.
“The ‘Rusty Zipper’ we call it,” jokes bartender Cindy Webb. “It’s the only museum with a liquor license.”
The floors are well-worn wooden slates that, could they speak, surely have many stories to tell. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and the bar is full, primarily with locals. As is the case everywhere we go, from the Visitor’s Center and golf course to the old bars, Perry’s is a familiar and welcomed face.
“It’s a beautiful area and an interesting place to live. There are a lot of characters around here and there’s a lot of dichotomy. There’s everything from mansions to ‘break out the banjo,’” Perry jokes, as we tip back a couple of cold ones.
“I prefer this to a big city,” Perry says, as we prepare to ignore the Wilson Club motto of “One More Won’t Hurt” and head across the street to the Angler’s Club. “It’s like stepping back in time.”
Much like it’s neighbor, the Angler’s Club—in various forms—has been hooking in thirsty patrons since the 1940s. Jim Achabal has owned the place since 1980 and it appeals to a younger crowd than Wilson’s. The Angler’s Club also serves solid food, to go along with lots of beer and whiskey.
“We have a lot of regulars and a lot of people who are just in town to hunt or fish or are on a bike ride,” bartender Mary Norman says. With later falls and earlier springs than most spots in Idaho, Hagerman is a popular spot for motorcyclists, and stopping in for a cold one at the Angler’s Club is usually part of the ride.
There are various motorcycles on display throughout the bar and the folks sitting around it can be friendly enough to even buy a stranger a beer—especially if you’re hanging out with a local.
“This is the type of place,” cook Kevin Hennagir says in a thick Bayou accent that lets you know he’s not a native Idahoan, “where everybody knows your name.”
Located “1/2 Way Between Heaven And Hell,” as their motto goes, Outlaws and Angels isn’t what you’d expect somebody to name a bar in a town called Bliss. But there it sits, a rather simple, single-story building overlooking the Snake River as it leaves the Hagerman Valley and heads northwest toward Glenns Ferry.
Under various names and numerous owners, Outlaws and Angels has been a bar on and off for as long as anyone can remember—which, guessing by their typical crowd, probably dates back to about yesterday afternoon.
“Everybody who grows up here has a little bit of wild in ’em,” Michele Hobdey says, while the late-afternoon bar crowd of folks from 21 to “darned near 81” reveled in familiar cheer. Michele’s family first homesteaded in nearby King Hill in 1870 and her uncle once owned the bar.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than north of Bliss,” Michele said, going on to describe the natural splendors to be found under the big skies of the Snake River Plain. From grouse and sunsets, talk soon returned to the little town on the edge of the Hagerman Valley.
“It is an odd town, though, I’m telling you that. It’s pretty close to the ‘Twilight Zone,’” Michele says with a wink, adding, “and if you stay long enough, the women will start booming like sage hens.”
From farms raising alligators, sturgeon and most of the nation’s edible trout to hot springs, classic Old West watering holes and world-famous horse fossils, there are plenty of fun, unique reasons to roll into the Hagerman Valley.
“There’s a little bit of everything down here,” Perry explains as we called it a day. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe this is Idaho, isn’t it?”
Which made me think of something else Michele said as we looked out toward the Hagerman Valley. Something that didn’t sound like it should be spelled with a capital ‘B.” She smiled, made a sweeping gesture with her hand and said, “We’re just bliss.”