Little Town on the Prairie
Even though Fairfield may look small, it’s got a big heart. It also has an exceptionally strong community, is steeped in Western history, has a quaint but fun culinary scene and has one big, snowy reason to be hopeful about its future.
Crossing the Prairie
When the great Western explorer Meriwether Lewis first set his eyes upon a field full of camas lilies in bloom, he mistook the swaying blue and purple flowers for water. As he wrote, “from the color of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deception that on first site I could have sworn it was water.”
Each spring, usually in late May, those lucky enough to be rolling through southern Idaho’s Camas County (not to be confused with the northern Camas Prairie near Grangeville) have a similar sensation when the Camassia quamash are in bloom and it looks like the high desert of Idaho has been devoured by a high tide from the sea.
(Left to right): Owner Chris Bradley, right, chats with Kaylin Dennis during après ski festivities at Soldier Creek Brewing Company.
Proud Fairfield resident and Soldier Mountain ski patrolman, Jeff Roebuck, shares a laugh at Soldier Creek.
Aside from their natural beauty, camas are also a great food source. The bulbs were a staple of local Native Americans tribes, the Bannock Paiute as well as Nez Perce and Shoshone.
While it’s easy to spend time extolling the virtues of the camas, which any tried and true Camas County native can easily do, the plant is not what put the prairie on the map. The Oregon Trail did that.
By the mid-1800s, tens of thousands of Americans were crossing southern Idaho each summer heading west along the Oregon Trail in search of fortunes in gold or fertile lands. By 1860, the main route, which followed along the harsh and rugged terrain of the Snake River Plain where Indian hostilities had begun to rise, had become too treacherous for most travelers.
So a large group of emigrants hired a Western explorer and mountain trader named Tim Goodale to lead them across a little-used shortcut from Fort Hall, near Pocatello, to Boise. The group, which consisted of more than a thousand people, over 300 wagons and almost 3,000 cattle, was one of the largest to ever travel the Oregon Trail. Despite the challenges of crossing the lava fields of what we now know as Craters of the Moon National Monument (where wagon tracks can still be found), the successful crossing helped make “Goodale’s Cutoff” the most popular route for those young men, women and families heading West for the next half century.
The first homesteads in greater Fairfield were granted in 1877 and were followed by numerous mining claims in the mountains abutting the prairie. By the turn of the 20th century, nine towns and nearly 30 schools were scattered about Camas County.
The Oregon Short Line Railroad arrived in 1911 and Fairfield and Hill City became the new hubs of the prairie, which, for a spell, became known as the sheep-shipping capital of the world.
Eventually the trains and most mines where shut down, though the sheep, cattle and camas remained.
“It’s not an easy town to live in,” explained Jeff Roebuck, who’s been calling Fairfield home and working as a ski patrolman at Soldier Mountain for 15 years. “There are very few weaklings around here.” And it doesn’t take a visitor long to understand why.
(Left to right): Soldier Creek Brewing Company brews coffee and good times, not beer; Soldier Mountain Ski Resort also boasts world-class cat skiing.
Besides Highway 20, there are only a few paved roads in Fairfield. The main street, Soldier Road, runs north from the highway toward the Soldier (or what are sometimes called the Smoky Dome) Mountains. After exiting the highway and passing the town’s lone gas station and market, the road meanders past an old Union Pacific rail car that serves as a seasonal visitors center, by a barn and a grain silo and then by a row of Old West, false-front restaurants that make up downtown Fairfield.
On a typical Friday afternoon during ski season, downtown Fairfield hosts a healthy population of locals and visiting skiers who partake in après-ski time at the town’s handful of bars and eateries. It was during just such an après-afternoon last winter when photographer Craig Wolfrom and I, along with our tour guide Kaylin Dennis (a born and raised Fairfield local), did some partying on the prairie.
“You’ve got to be willing to shovel … and it helps if you have four-wheel drive, if you’re going to live here,” Roebuck said, dropping a few tips for living in a place that gets as much snow, sunshine and wind as Fairfield, as we sipped suds at the Soldier Creek Brewing Company. “It’s a can-do-attitude kind of community.”
The Soldier Creek Brewing Company, which brews coffee, not beer, opened in 2003 and has been a popular spot ever since.
Chris Bradley is the owner/chef/barkeep of Soldier Creek. He grew up on the other side of the Camas Prairie in Jerome, skiing Soldier as a kid. After stints in Utah’s Park City and Whitefish in Montana, he finally came home to Fairfield. For Chris and a solid clientele of locals and ski bums from across southern Idaho, there’s just something special about the place.
“Life here on the prairie is good,” Bradley said about owning his Fairfield restaurant, which has a following for its homemade-heavy menu, free popcorn at the bar and an impressive beer selection.
“The toughest part of life in Fairfield is the wind … and the mud,” Bradley said with a smile.
Owner Suzanne Schmidt serves up locals at The Cliff.
The strong winds, which are known to whip across the prairie with ferocious regularity, have actually become a blessing. Fairfield and its wide, flat surroundings are considered one of the best places on the planet for snowkiting (which is like windsurfing on snow) and people now come from all over the world to surf the prairie.
The owners of The Cliff Bar & Grille have traveled quite a distance to get to Fairfield, as well. The Cliff sits just on the other side of Jim Dandy’s Pizza Pub on the town’s main block from Soldier Creek Brewing (with the Sandwiched Inn Deli in between). Suzanne Schmidt, a sport fisheries biologist by trade, and her partner, Cheryl Hemke, a commercial fisherman, came to the Camas Prairie from Alaska. After finding the place on Craigslist, they visited Fairfield and decided to give life running a full bar and restaurant a shot.
“Owning a bar is like a marriage,” Schmidt joked from across the clean and stylishly modern bar. “You really have to work at it, but not all the time. Throw in food and it’s like having kids.”
After opening as just a bar last winter, The Cliff opened a small kitchen last summer and offers a small, fresh and healthy menu full of tasty treats like black bean burgers and fried green beans and, of course, fresh Wild Alaskan fish and chips.
Business has been good at The Cliff and the town has been very welcoming to its owners. “It really is a great community we have here. If you ever need anything, you just ask,” Schmidt said, pointing out the outpouring of support the community had given an injured high school student recently. “People really look out for each other.”
“It’s a really close-knit community,” confirmed Kaylin Dennis, who grew up on a cattle ranch just outside of town. “People really care about the school and the kids. They really care about this place and the people who live here.”
Outside the town of Taos, New Mexico, there’s a majestic mountain peak known to the locals as the “Sacred Mountain.” Along the Camas Prairie they have a similar mountain, and they call it Soldier.
Towering above Fairfield (5,056’), a dozen miles to the north, nestled in a mountain range that bears its name, sits Soldier Mountain Ski Area (7,177’). Founded by Bob Frostenson, Soldier originally opened to skiing in 1948 and has long had a solid following of families, powderhounds (Soldier is famous for still holding fresh tracks days after its big sister mountain about 45 miles to the northeast, Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain, has been skied off) and for its access to terrific backcountry snowcat skiing.
Actor Bruce Willis purchased Soldier Mountain in the late-1990s. But the “Die Hard” star had been severing ties with the area after a divorce and it appeared the ski area had been forgotten in the mix.
Early last spring, however, Willis announced that he would gift Soldier Mountain to a non-profit. About a month before the ski season was set to begin, in front of a packed house at the Legion Hall in Fairfield, the new ownership group was announced.
The founding board of the Soldier Mountain Ski Area, Inc. (SMSA) consists almost exclusively of “Fairfield boys,” as they declared themselves, including Jamon Frostenson, who told the hopeful and enthusiastic hall full of locals he just wanted to help “carry on what my grandfather started.”
“What the mountain is really about is this community,” SMSA board president Will Varin said. Varin is also a Fairfield boy who, like many folks in southern Idaho, learned how to ski at Soldier and is now a successful attorney in Boise.
“This mountain has a passionate following that’s every bit as passionate as any mountain in the country. There are numerous people out there who have been touched by this mountain,” Varin said, to an enthusiastic audience of farmers, ranchers, small business owners and ski bums.
“We’re just super excited to have the opportunity to share the mountain where we grew up, and that we really love,” Varin explained, as the ski area’s sexy new logo was launched. “We’re going to put this mountain back on the map, and really, this town.”
So maybe the next time we roll by Fairfield at 45 miles per hour, some of us will stop or at least pause long enough to realize that there’s a lot more to the place than first meets the eye. Fairfield, Idaho, is, after all, a place where the wind blows with a passion, the plants bloom like high tide and where that tough but hopeful pioneer spirit still lives on.