Scratch the Surface
Curious Visitors to this Historical Junction Get a Slice of Idaho's History
Photography: Craig Wolfrom
A rail runs through it. Trains brought everything from supplies to comedy acts the historic town of Gooding.
A fierce, cold wind whips down Main Street in Gooding, flipping up leaves and a few bits
of paper. Other than the wind, there is only the sound of the trains rolling through.
A snow squall sputters, dropping the light to a hard gray cast and spitting
tiny ice crystals that hiss against glass.
Stepping inside the door of The Gooding Hotel, for example, shifts perception considerably. It feels like home. Coffee’s on. Conversation flows from the next room. Lace hangs in the windows. A tentative newcomer’s greeting to innkeepers Judee and Dean Gooding (he’s the great-grandson of the town’s founder) turns into a fascinating, sometimes raucous, eyebrow-raising oral tour through the stories of their historic bed and breakfast inn, and of the documented tales and folklore of their hometown. As it turns out, Gooding’s residents are like that—proud of their city and eager to share its tales.
In conversations with the waitress at the New China House Restaurant, with a local carpenter skinning logs on Main Street for the remodel of the Old Skagg’s Building, or with Shirley at the historical museum, the opinions are pretty much the same. Gooding is experiencing a resurgence, with new blood coming into town, and some consensus between the old guard and new ideas. Once a bustling center for commerce and culture, the town looks to its future with an eye to its past.
Key buildings on Main Street are getting facelifts and new tenants, local artisan cheese makers are garnering awards for their gourmet products, boutique farms are becoming well-known in markets across southern Idaho and sales are improving enough to justify the addition of passive solar greenhouses to extend the growing season without imposing higher heating costs.
Townspeople here are a feisty bunch, clear-spoken and forthright in a plainly Western way, but their reception of visitors is very warm, and most are more than willing to share their perspective about Gooding. The solid and progressive planning by Frank Gooding is still paying off and people are coming here for reasonable land prices and the hopes of building their dreams.
A walk through Gooding’s residential neighborhoods shows evidence of residents settling in for the long haul. There is a hopeful and committed spirit in the sprinkling of children’s toys in the yards of young families; home improvement projects underway; holiday decorations festooning eves and lawns.
Near the railroad tracks that have made this town a center of agriculture, education, arts, and commerce, cowboys sit on the fence that wraps around the arena at the Gooding County Fairgrounds. There’s a little training to be done. Judging by the good-natured teasing and laughter, this is an afternoon that blurs the line between work and plain old fun. The scene is as quintessentially Western as the grinding, rumbling wheels and hollow whistles of trains rolling through town.
Gooding was established in 1907 by Frank R. Gooding, a man who would later become a Republican United States Senator and Idaho’s Governor. He moved to the Idaho Territory in 1881, settling in Ketchum where he was a mail carrier. Gooding later worked in the firewood and charcoal business before settling in 1888 in the area that would later bear his name. In an unusual twist of events, Frank Gooding became a member of the Idaho Legislature in 1898, and governor in 1904 before he gained his citizenship in the United States. (Gooding was born in 1859 in Tiverton, England.)
Gooding saw in his dreams a “City of Destiny,” a city of culture and size to rival, if not surpass, that of Boise. He was precise and purposeful in his planning, laying out streets in a logical grid pattern oriented so that every lot might have maximum exposure to sunlight. The town site was conceived with a thorough and detailed design. For example, Main Street was intentionally built wide enough to turn around a wagon hitched with a team of four horses for the maneuvering of freight wagons moving goods from outlying lands to town and to the train depot. This practical pioneer spirit of not fixing something that isn’t broken prevails in Gooding even today.
Building a strong infrastructure and attracting a diverse business community was one of Frank Gooding’s primary goals. To that end, he worked tirelessly to develop a system for bringing irrigation water to this land of lava rock and sagebrush from the Magic and Milner reservoirs through canals to Gooding farms and ranches.
After the west wing of the statehouse in Boise burned and left the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind without a home, Frank Gooding granted land to the school, and promised to build a wide concrete sidewalk from the train depot to the school so that blind students could find their ways safely using their canes. (Existing streets at the time were simply dirt roads.) The school remains in operation today, the only such facility in the state.
Gooding is a city that has boasted a college—the now defunct but well-regarded Gooding College—and several public schools, plus a beautiful building for vaudeville acts and early motion pictures that Frank Gooding built as a wedding gift for his daughter and Adam Schubert, his former secretary. It cost $60,000 to build the Schubert Theatre in 1919, and has murals painted by Hugo Clausen, who also painted the murals in the governor’s mansion.
In the 1920s, people from all over southern Idaho flocked to Gooding for the popular Chautauqua movement, which brought a series of educational, religious, cultural, and entertainment events to a festive, temporary tent site. This pursuit of culture and knowledge is reflected today in the presence of the College of Southern Idaho’s North Side Center, and the University of Idaho’s extension office. The Walker Center, established in Gooding in 1976, offers information, progressive support and treatment of substance abuse for patients from all over the state, and has grown to include three additional outpatient centers in Twin Falls, Burley and Hailey.
At least two grand hotels were built in Gooding, the Lincoln Hotel—built in 1912, and lost to fire in 1967—and the Gooding Hotel, built in the 1880s on Main Street and still open to guests today.
The Gooding Hotel and Schubert Theatre are both listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The hotel’s “new part,” the brick side, was built in 1906. The “old part” was built of wood in the 1880s, according to innkeeper Dean Gooding. The hotel now operates as a bed and breakfast inn and boasts 10 rooms, all named after members of the family, or people important to the history of the hotel or the town of Gooding. The halls are filled with historic photos, maps, postcards, and ephemera. Visitors can follow the proprietors down two hallways and hear story after fascinating story about Gooding and Sun Valley (Dean was born in Hailey, at Main and Croy Streets, upstairs from the honky-tonk that was located where the Hailey Library is now.)
“We have a New Year’s Eve party every year,” explains Dean Gooding with an impish grin. “People come back year after year. We try to get in as much trouble as we can in one night in this little town.”
If there is one way to sum up the general spirit of Gooding, it’s in the words and the demeanor of her residents, a constellation of characters telling anecdotes with point-blank honesty. The people in the café, in the historical museum, in the convenience store are solid, grounded, matter-of-fact, salt-of-the-earth folks. They’re something like the lava rock formations around their town, shaped by time to thrive in this place and reflective of its tenacious nature. Gooding doesn’t give herself up easily if you’re just driving through, or stopping only for supplies. Step inside and sit awhile. Her rich history and generous spirit is there for the asking if you take the time to listen.