Sage: Into the Golden Idaho Myth

By Evelyn Funda

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To consider the facts of my grandfather Frank Funda’s birth, you might never imagine him becoming a poor, Idaho farmer. In fact, Frank’s background in Europe was solidly upper middle class. Born in 1882, he grew up in a picturesque, forested city alongside the gentle Elbe River. Just outside Prague, Podebrady is famous for its curative mineral baths and for being a “royal city,” so named by Bohemia’s King George, who was born there and built a spectacular chateau there in the 15th century. According to Frank, his father, Václav, was a well-to-do shopkeeper in Podebrady, and Frank grew up in a large house, complete with servants’ quarters and the servants to go with them. When he came of age, he was inducted to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army, and after that, he trained as an accountant, a respectable occupation in the late Austrian Empire. As pleasant as all that may have seemed, the late nineteenth-century Czech National Revival had heightened the political and religious tensions with the Austrian ruling class, and increasingly Czechs were leaving for America. When my great-grandfather’s business began to decline, Frank’s father, mother, and three adult sisters were lured to the United States by the promise of freedom from Habsburg tyranny and an opportunity to make their fortunes. They left in 1907, the peak year for Bohemian migration pre-World War I, and settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. Czechs like my great-grandparents were the target of propaganda efforts that were spread throughout Europe by American employers who needed laborers and were willing to stretch the truth. Satirizing the hyperbolic language of such propaganda, playwright Josef Kajetan Tyl wrote in his satirical play Lesní panna aneb cesta do Ameriky (The Forest Maiden: A Journey to America), that America was a place “where dumplings grow on trees. Underneath those trees are lakes filled with butter and the dumplings can be dipped in butter. . . . Pigs are roasted and pigeons and birds are already fried when they fly, cakes and kolace bake by themselves and coffee pours straight into the mouth.”

Excerpted from Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament by Evelyn Funda by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.

Weeds: A Farm Daughter's Lament by Evelyn Funda

In Thomas Jefferson’s day, 90 percent of the population worked on family farms. Today, in a world dominated by agribusiness, less than 1 percent of Americans claim farm-related occupations. What was lost along the way is something that Evelyn Funda experienced firsthand when, in 2001, her parents sold the last parcel of the farm they had worked since they married in 1957. Against that landscape of loss, Funda explores her family’s three-generation farming experience in southern Idaho, where her Czech immigrant family spent their lives turning a patch of sagebrush into crop land.

The story of Funda’s family unfolds within the larger context of our country’s rich immigrant history, western culture, and farming as a science and an art. Situated at the crossroads of American farming, Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament offers a clear view of the nature, the cost, and the transformation of the American West. Part cultural history, part memoir, and part elegy, the book reminds us that in losing our attachment to the land we also lose some of our humanity and something at the very heart of our identity as a nation.

Learn more about the book.

What my great-grandfather Václav hadn’t foreseen about the family’s immigration, however, was that class-wise, they hadn’t gained any ground. Although being a baker was somewhat akin to being a shop owner in the old country, in America their family was just one among the masses of “greasy Bohunks” and “dirty immigrants” who struggled to assimilate in the early days of the 20th century. That didn’t stop Frank from following his sisters and parents from Bohemia to Minnesota in 1908, where he took up working in his brother-in-law’s bakery in St. Paul. Still feeling unsettled, however, he began clipping stories out of the Czech-American newspapers about Bohemian immigrants successfully homesteading in southern Idaho, and he voraciously read the “commercial club” pamphlets that were distributed in the Midwest and East by the western railroads. In these, he found idealistic descriptions of a western paradise that could be his for the taking.

And so in the spring of 1910, less than two years after his arrival in the United States, he boarded a train going west. The first leg of Frank’s trip took him 1,300 miles to Ogden, Utah, just 40 miles from where I now live. There he boarded another train, run by the Oregon Short Line Railroad, which took him 200 miles on north to Twin Falls, Idaho, in the Snake River region, and finally, after hitching ride with a fellow Bohemian to Buhl, he filed on a 40-acre homestead just outside of town that he eventually dubbed “Rock Creek Ranch.” He stayed in the area for nearly a decade before he and his wife Annie moved 150 miles northwest to Gem County, where I was born.

According to family lore, when he came to Idaho, Frank Funda performed that remarkable magic trick, right out of the Book of Isaiah; even though he knew nothing at all about farming, eventually, with hard work and determination, he made the desert “blossom as the rose.” This transformation of the land became a salient element in family mythology and represented how Frank reinvented himself from an aimless Czech immigrant into the land baron of his dreams. Ultimately, as patriarch of our agricultural family, Frank was proud of the fact that as a farmer, he helped to “feed the world.” He boasted that the fruit from our Emmett farm was shipped all over the country and that the rows in his fields of grain ran straight and true. For him, farming was a creative act, a true alchemy more powerful than any 16th century hocus pocus practiced by Rudolf II’s court alchemists at Golden Lane on the grounds of Prague Castle. In Idaho Frank could transform the relentless sun into acres of gold that swayed in the morning breeze and fell easily before the threshing machine.

Frank originally came west to the Snake River region because of second-generation homesteading legislation, the Desert Land Act of 1894, which offered expanses of irrigated Idaho land. Although irrigation is as ubiquitous in the West today as sagebrush itself, back in the early twentieth century the widespread use of irrigation beyond the 100th meridian was a relatively new idea, a successor to Charles Wilber’s famous 19th century “rain follows the plow” theory. An amateur climatologist, Wilber may have said in 1881 that “man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling,” but by the turn of the century, he had been discredited by the failure of the land to acquiesce to the authority of his theory. If rain couldn’t be enticed from the sky by the plow, water engineers were certain they could change the course of rivers instead.

Supported by the Reclamation Act of 1902, the Snake River region’s new irrigation projects applied modern technology and ingenuity to create for the first time in the West a large-scale, cooperative system of irrigation canals that offered human control over growing conditions. Known as the Carey Act, the homesteading legislation promised prospective settlers that they could “Plant Dimes–Harvest Dollars in Idaho!” With what appears to be complete sincerity, booster materials from the period claimed that irrigation was what made farming in Idaho far superior to any other place in the country.

Frank was primed, therefore, to a be persuaded by such rhetoric that claimed southern Idaho was “the most attractive, the most fertile, and the most wonderful part of the world.” In addition to promises of abundant land, the natural moral superiority of the citizenry, supportive infrastructure (with plenty of trains for getting crops to market), stunning views, and endless recreational opportunities (five trout streams make their way through the area), the pamphlets also expressed a pressing need: “During certain seasons of the year,” one pamphlet admitted, “it is sometimes very difficult to obtain men and this brings us to the ‘crying need’ of the Buhl Country—MEN—men with money, men without money, with or without families, but we need MEN.” Boarding that train for Idaho in 1910, then, must have seemed to the 28-year-old Frank like answering a call to serve, and ever after, he saw himself as a poster boy for Western settlement.

In the spring of 1915 he traveled briefly back to Minnesota, where he married his childhood sweetheart, Annie Martinek, who had immigrated in 1912, after she had spent several years working as a servant and nanny for a wealthy German family. Frank and Annie’s first son, my uncle, James Frank, was born ten months after their marriage.

It wasn’t easy, of course. Overcoming hardship, as in all good homestead stories, plays a part, and I remember my uncle saying, “All that homestead would grow was rocks!” He liked to tell stories about how he helped his parents clear the land and build a rock fence flanking the long drive from the road to their small house. Once when I was camping with my uncle and his wife, we returned home by way of Buhl, and he drove by the old farm, pulling the pickup off the side of the road so that he could point out to me the original ranch. The ground sloped away from the road, and I could see the long rock fence that ran parallel to the lane that led to a clump of trees down by the draw where the original house once stood. I pictured my uncle heaving rocks nearly as big as he was into the back of a cart that my grandmother was pulling along the bumpy field.

My grandfather featured that homestead in cycles of his own oral narratives, which he used to tell and retell at family gatherings. These included the tale of the neighbor arriving at the ranch to find Frank standing on a chair in a dress as my grandmother pinned the hem of a new skirt she was sewing. Another story references Buhl being a dry town and describes the local minister inviting himself to lunch one hot afternoon; just as they sat down to eat, the corks on the homebrew began to loudly pop, so Frank burst out in song and began to stomp his feet in time to the music in order to disguise the noise coming from the cellar.

Frank Funda
Frank Funda, circa 1910.
Photo courtesy Evelyn Funda.

But one of Frank’s stories stands out as his favorite. Rocky, unproductive land meant that he had to find additional income to support himself and his wife, and it has long been a source of considerable family pride to declare that in addition to farming, Frank used his prior work experience in Minnesota to open in Buhl the very first all-electric bakery in Idaho. Living in one of the most progressive states in the union to develop extensive water-powered electrical facilities, Frank therefore was among the true visionaries of the early 20th century, who foresaw the great revolution electricity would bring to the West. Moreover, his expertise as a baker of savory breads and fine European pastries brought the wild town of Buhl a measure of culture and made him an important community member.

The work was hard, and Frank and Annie put in long hours at the bakery. Late one afternoon after working next to the ovens since early in the morning, my tired grandmother wanted to return to the homestead. Frank still had work to do at the bakery, however, so he hitched up the horse and absently helped my grandmother onto the wagon seat. The trouble was that Annie had never learned how to drive a horse and wagon; indeed, she was afraid of horses. No problem, Frank assured her. Babe, the big red bay, knew the way home, and she wouldn’t even have to lift the reins. At the edge of the town, where the road turned right toward the ranch, the horse calmly turned left—and then slowed to a stop—right in front of a house. “Pokrač! Honem!” Annie hissed in Czech. “Go on! Hurry up!” But Babe was unfazed by her entreaties. She gave a sidelong glance toward the house, where the curtains stirred slightly. Mortified that someone might see and recognize her plight, Annie was about to reach for the reins when Babe moved on—and then stopped at the next house, for another excruciating moment, and then the one after that. Too much of a lady to yell at the horse, too much of a greenhorn to pick up the reins, Annie sat stiffly on the seat, staring straight ahead and feeling helpless as Babe circled the town, stopping at nearly every house. Nor was there any comfort in at last comprehending what the horse was doing: he was following Frank’s daily bread route, pausing where he had paused that very morning and a hundred times before while Frank set freshly baked loaves on the stoop of nearly every house in town. By the time Annie and Babe turned at last onto the road that led out to the homestead, it was dusk. Frank had already walked home and, finding no wife and no horse, was imagining the worst until he saw the wagon coming down the lane with his red-faced wife fuming in the wagon seat.

My grandfather retold this story often as the family gathered around my grandmother’s big walnut table for huge Sunday dinners. As he lit his after-dinner pipe and the women cleared the dishes, he would tell again the cycle of homesteading tales. Even though we had heard them all before, he was a skilled narrator who knew how to fully engage an audience. He puffed meditatively on his pipe, never rushing his performance. When he told the bread route story, he pretended not to notice my grandmother squirming in her chair, finding any excuse to leave the table—the coffee had finished percolating, or she’d forgotten to dust the kolaches with powdered sugar. He winked at me as the rest of us laughed at the moment in the story where Annie realized what the horse was doing.

The benediction of the story always included someone reminding us that years after Frank and Annie left Buhl, he wrote down the stories of his experiences on the homestead, and they were published in a regular column he wrote for the Hlasatel, a famous Czech-language newspaper that was published in Chicago and distributed to Czech Americans around the country. Thus, Frank’s stories had brought the family some measure of fame.

Among the stories, the bread route tale remained the most popular, and my own parents, it is said, met as a result of its publication. Friends of my mother, who was then living in New York, had been reading Frank’s stories and began corresponding with him after the bread route story was published; through them, my mother and father began writing each other, thus beginning their love story.

My very existence, therefore, hinges on the certainty of a horse, a bakery, and a homestead in Buhl.

Trouble is, what I thought I knew as the facts about Frank’s early days at the Rock Creek homestead, for the most part, have proven to be a series of downright falsehoods, dismantled one by one as I researched the details of Frank’s homesteading stories. I had been utterly charmed by Frank’s tales and how they made a compelling case for my family’s relevance in the history of the West, and I wanted to know more. Even though Buhl was within a few hours’ drive of both my hometown of Emmett (to its north) and my present home of Logan, Utah (to its south), I really didn’t know much about the area. Lacking any more artifact than the stories themselves, I set out to read historical accounts and newspapers from the region and learn as much as I could about the privately funded irrigation projects of the Carey Act, which promised to domesticate that unpredictable Snake River for service to the greater good of agricultural success. The Great Twin Falls irrigation tract, which included the Buhl district, was the largest irrigation project in the United States in 1910. Moreover, under the Carey Act Idaho would bring more desert land into cultivation than any other state. Those facts are without dispute.

From here, however, the waters of the Snake River and its history get a little murky, and myth and hyperbole swirl in the current of family history like a fast-moving eddy.

Promotional pamphlets published by the railroads glossed over the harsh realities of this high desert and featured instead paintings on their covers that made Idaho look like the Elysian fields, complete with toga-clad and winged goddesses anointing the land with elixirs of fertility. Inside, the text promised that “at the threshold of this great State, the goddess of GOOD FORTUNE has thrown wide the portals of OPPORTUNITY.” Carey Act advertising likewise assured settlers that precisely 98 percent of the land is “level, has rich soil, is free of rock, lava reefs or gullies or coulees.” Like a kid who adamantly denies he could have broken the vase in the family room because he’s been upstairs the whole morning, listening to that techno-punk band he likes while was working on his chapter 3 math homework, the specificity of the denial is its own indictment. Although a rhetorical sleight of hand had labeled the Snake River valley “Magic Valley,” and nearby towns “Bliss” and “Eden,” and the state as a whole the “Gem State,” this is no paradise of easy living.

Idaho-born historian Leonard Arrington recalls his father telling a meeting of farmers in Hollister that “all this place needs is good people and lots of water”—to which the reply from the audience was, “That’s all Hell needs!” Even today, decades after the Carey Act has transformed more than 630,000 acres in the state from sagebrush to marginally arable land, only a narrow belt of farms runs along the Snake River, and less than ten miles due south of the river the land is barren desert, dotted with the odd, wind-battered ranch house.

From the time of the earliest white explorers the landscape of the Snake River region had mystified men who could only conceive of it in absolutes. Lewis and Clark took note of the “eternal sage,” and explorer Wilson Prince Hunt described the “vast tracts . . . [that] must ever defy cultivation.” Hunt, who came to explore the southern Snake River region in 1811 for the Pacific Fur Company, warned that this was a place “where no man permanently resides,” and he called it “a vast, uninhabited solitude, . . . looking much like the ruins of the world.” The explorers who came after Hunt in the mid-19th century thought of it as a “dead country” and “an aggressive wilderness,” where “the conditions of survival required a whole new technique.”

Gooding, Idaho publicity pamphlet
Cover of a promotional pamphlet for the nearby community of Gooding, Idaho, circa 1910, produced by the Oregon Short Line Railroad. Printing by William Bittle Bells.
Image courtesy Idaho State Library.

Look in any direction from Buhl, and it is true that within the circle of a hundred-mile radius you’ll still find a bizarre and desolate land of inhospitable extremes: fire and ice, record-breaking heights and astonishing depths. In addition to sagebrush expanses that still dominate the area, the circle would encompass a series of lava tubes and ice caves, including the Shoshone Caves, which are reportedly haunted by an Indian princess buried in the ice; the Bruneau sand dunes, which claim the title of highest dunes in North America; the site of Wilson Butte Cave, which provided archaeologists with the first evidence of human occupation in the Snake River plain and is among the oldest human archaeological sites in North America; the spectacular Shoshone waterfalls, “Niagara of the West,” which few know is actually 50 feet taller than Niagara Falls; Hagerman Fossil Beds, which contains the continent’s largest concentration of horse fossils; and the 2.5-billion-year-old granite monoliths of the City of Rocks. Closer to Buhl, you can find the strange, massive rock formation called Balanced Rock, which is a 48-foot-tall, 40-ton rock poised on a pedestal less than 4.5 square feet in size. The Snake River itself has a greater annual flow than either the Colorado or the Rio Grande, and, crossing the river near Twin Falls is the site of the Perrine Bridge, once the highest bridge in the world and spanning the 500-foot-deep, 1,500-foot-wide canyon at Twin Falls, near the place where Evel Knievel attempted, and failed, to jump a motorcycle across the canyon in 1974. These sheer perpendicular cliffs of the Snake River Canyon slash through the land, and in some places you could can look right across stretches of sage and rabbit brush without even knowing the canyon is only yards in front of you. Walk through this country on a moonless night, and before you could even sense the danger, you might slip and plunge through the chilled canyon air, hundreds of feet, past the raptors nesting in the cliff walls, and smash on the rocky canyon bed below. But there’s more. Less than 50 miles northeast of the bridge is the edge of the volcanic lava field now called “Craters of the Moon,” with its ominously named sites “Devil’s Orchard,” “Inferno Cone,” and the “Blue Dragon.” As part of the “Great Rift” volcanic zone, the black expanse of this area is the largest and deepest unbroken field of lava flows in North American. Seismic activity in the area indicates this is a landscape still forming, a geological infant, so to speak, and scientists claim the area, which hasn’t seen an eruption in 2,000 years, is long overdue. The ground is covered with shards of volcanic clinkers that make simple walking a treacherous task, and even sagebrush has a hard time growing amid the frozen swells of lava. Craters of the Moon’s 1,100 square miles of cinder cones, fissures, and lava fields (roughly the size of Rhode Island) create a black scar of volcanic land forms that can even be seen from space. It is appropriate, therefore, that in 1969, Apollo astronauts, including Alan Shepard and Czech American Eugene Cernan, came to Craters of the Moon to prepare for future moon landings. Where else, NASA officials thought, could they find any closer approximation to the topography of that other world?

In 1910, however, when Frank arrived on that train, recognizing that the region had been from the time of the early explorers, and remained, an uncongenial backdrop to the agricultural drama wasn’t the party line. Boosterism ruled the day. Although the town of Buhl was less than four years old when he arrived, the newspaper was bragging that it already had a population approaching the 1,500 mark and had “passed from a small village to a modern little city” because it possessed all the big city’s amenities, including electric lights, a new school building, several hotels and churches, two banks, and numerous merchants, as well as cement sidewalks, daily mail service, a volunteer fire department, a waterworks system, and a city sewer system. Resisting the western character stereotypes, the boosters claimed that the people of the area “are civilized, [and] you do not need to carry a six shooter or Gatling gun, not even a pen knife. They are progressive, industrious, intelligent, peaceable people.” Too much of this rah-rah talk, however, was perilous, and boosters walked a tightrope between such reassurances about how civilized the region was and their main message: that the Snake River valley was a cultural and environmental blank slate, full of “golden opportunities,” as they said, for people hungry for a fresh start. Even though the promotional pamphlets like those Frank saw vowed a “scrupulous conformity with facts,” writers of the time knew how to turn a phrase to dramatize that main message. In a newspaper editorial, for instance, the land’s awe-inspiring transformation to agriculture was credited to “the hand of industry” that had “tapped the great Snake River . . . [so that its] waters gushed forth, and mingled with the rich soil. . . . The farmers came and sowed and reaped and were rewarded,” and they would ultimately arrive “at the temple of success.” Citing the “never-failing ditches,” farmers quoted in the pamphlets demonstrated their unshaken belief in irrigation as a modern technology, borne of human ingenuity, certain to compensate for an imperfect natural world. Such optimism and faith in technology was were not only ubiquitous in Idaho but was were a nationwide phenomenon during the Progressive Era, prior to World War I.

People believed theirs was a world without limits. And in Idaho irrigation was a means of dominion over a wild land: “there is no saying how far, when the need arises, the engineering skill or the mechanical daring of man will go toward overcoming the obstacles that Nature has interposed.” Unlike our nation’s first Puritan colonists, who believed they would succeed only if God found them righteous and therefore blessed their efforts, the first white settlers of southern Idaho figured God had nothing to do with it. Since the 1890s western writers had been expressing what historian Hugh Lovin identifies as “the new irrigation gospels,” in which Idaho was depicted as a man-made paradise, and their arguments were not subtle. Case in point, the masthead of one local paper, the Filer Films, laid claim to their settlement as “the Center of the Modern Garden of Eden.” The same year Frank arrived in Idaho, C. L. Blanchard of the U.S. Reclamation Service wrote in the National Geographic that irrigation was a “miracle” and that the deserts of the West were “the sleeping empires awaiting exploitation and development.” With irrigation the Idaho farmer was “[e]ntirely liberated . . . from the caprice of the weather” by “an inexhaustible supply of water.” Buhl farmer Gustave Kunze was quoted as saying, “When my pastures need rain, do I look anxiously at the heavens? Not on your life; I simply press the button (figuratively speaking) and can have a gentle shower or a gully washer at my option.” To hear the boosters of the time tell it, “the farmer in the Buhl country invariably reaps bounteous crops, never experiences a crop failure to any degree whatsoever, and grows steadily prosperous in increasing measure, from day to day.”

With such superlatives, it should come as no surprise then that shortly after Frank first arrived in Idaho, a newspaper editorial insisted that Buhl was a “metropolis” where there was, “as yet, no need of a graveyard, [because] no one ever dies, and the city has not even a hatchet that needs burying.” I can’t help but think that the editor was only half joking.

Perhaps Idaho demanded exaggeration. Maybe it could only be conceived of in such broad strokes. If Frank is any measure, Idaho certainly inspired belief in the utterly transformative power of boundless imagination. If irrigation could make desert into an Eden, couldn’t that Eden make Frank into anything he wanted?

The local newspaper never seemed aware of the schizophrenia evident in its portrayal of Buhl as a “progressive” community, but one also romantically beset by lawless horse thieves who rode through a landscape characterized by fierce coyotes, rattlesnakes, and cougars. Even while the newspaper was declaring in 1909 that Buhl was “no longer a sagebrush wilderness,” it was also regularly discussing the twin scourge of jackrabbits and sagebrush as impediments to progress and portraying the homesteaders’ efforts at eradication of both as an Idaho Manifest Destiny.

Historic photo of sage removal.
Removal of sage by railing and simultaneous seeding by men using broadcast seeders (undated).
Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

Botanical surveys confirm what most of us already suspect: that sagebrush is the single most widespread plant in the West, and Philip Fradkin has written that it prefers “to dominate by pure ordinariness.” During the early 20th century Idaho farmers believed that huge stands of sagebrush, with some bushes standing chest-high, merely indicated the potential fertility of a virgin soil, but they, nevertheless, were quick to find ways to eradicate this impediment to their certain progress. T. B. Hendricks of Twin Falls was among the first of several inventors nationwide to submit patents for sage-grubbing machines, and in 1906 the Hendricks Grubber was advertised as the “acme of perfection,” a machine that could “perform the labor of ten men” as it “thoroughly pulverizes the ground leaving it level and mellow, . . . a perfect seed bed.”

If Hendricks’s $100-$150 price tag was too much, there were other methods of grubbing sage. Some settlers experimented with “chaining” or “railing,” which meant breaking the brush with heavy chains or timbers dragged by horses across the rough terrain. This worked relatively well on cold days when the sage would snap off at the ground, but still the roots of the plants would need to be plowed or dug up. Setting the sage afire might effectively clear the land, but settlers had to be careful not to start dangerous wildfires. However, the most typical method was hand grubbing sage with a mattock—difficult work, to say the least. If the parcel was relatively free of rock and the sagebrush was low growing (something that actually indicated poorer soil), a strong man might be able to clear an acre a day, but in the rocky soils of the Buhl area, where young men fresh off the train often took jobs picking up boulders for a dollar a day, settlers like Frank were not so fortunate. Carey Act homesteading laws took this difficulty into account, and unlike other homesteading laws the Carey Act required settlers to clear and put into cultivation only 1/16th of their land in the first year and 1/8th of their land within the entire three-year period it took to prove up.

But while farmers were out grubbing sage, scientists and inventors were pondering ways to make it useful. They were certain that sagebrush “merely awaited man’s ingenuity to find new uses for it.” The Buhl newspaper ran stories about promising research, and even Thomas Edison tried to rewrite the plant’s story by arguing that the sage of Idaho and Nevada deserts was a valuable commodity that could yield millions of dollars, if we could just find the key to its worth. Scientists and entrepreneurs experimented with fruit and berry plants grafted onto sage stock; invented methods for making sage paper; mixed sage-based medicinal teas (based on indigenous people’s formulas) and tonics for tuberculosis; manufactured a sage charcoal; hawked sage-infused shampoos for baldness and dandruff; extracted tar, creosote oil, and rubber substances; and distilled tannic acid and wood alcohol from the plants. But sagebrush resisted efforts to turn it into a compliant and profitable commodity. Instead, the only real use settlers found for it was as hot and fast-burning fuel for their cook fires.

Once the land was cleared and planted, however, the difficulties still were not at an end. In 1911, the year after Frank’s arrival, troublesome jackrabbits were so numerous that the local paper claimed they “travel in flock[s] like black birds.” Capable of devouring entire crops in a day or killing orchard saplings by eating the bark, the jackrabbits were dealt with by various means including poisoning and fencing; however, the poisoning was indiscriminate in what it killed, and the fencing proved to be more of a scam to the buyer than an effective deterrent for the rabbits. In her memoir, We Sagebrush Folks, Annie Pike Greenwood wrote that the man who sold her husband Charley their rabbit-proof fence had “convinced Charley of its merit, but he had failed to convince the rabbits.” In the spirit of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, residents in nearby Jerome, Idaho, once killed, dressed, and packed in ice a train car full of 5,000 cleaned rabbits that were bound for the meat markets of Detroit and Pittsburgh. According to a 1911 notice in the Twin Falls Times entitled “Market for Idaho Jacks,” local merchants got around the general skepticism of locals by announcing a six-cent bounty for each dressed carcass—“and the rest was easy. People turned out with all the shot guns they could muster.” Certain that theirs was a creative solution to a perennial problem, the newspaper account concluded, “This is said to be the first commercial shipment of rabbits that has left the state.” However, there was no second shipment of Idaho jacks, which remained plentiful but proved unpalatable. Serving Idaho jacks to the nation was just another one of those unfulfilled schemes.

The most effective method of getting rid of jackrabbits was tracking the beasts down and killing them one by one. For years the Buhl newspaper featured stories about rabbit drives where two teams of as many as 200 men drove hundreds or thousands of animals into a fenced enclosure and then shot or clubbed them to death, or they drove them to the edge of a nearby bluff, where, says one writer, “the jackrabbits that were not shot at last committed suicide by leaping into the canyon.” Historian Mark Fiege calls the drives a “masculine and overt demonstration of the desert conquest . . . a ritual in which farmers reenacted the subjugation of the desert,” and although he suggests that the huge numbers, like the claim of 12,000 rabbits killed in one drive near Hansen in 1906, were hyperbole, photos taken by Twin Falls photographer Clarence Bisbee still show a blur of hundreds of panicked rabbits running wildly in one of the enclosures. In contrast to these portrayals of conquest and mayhem, however, is how the local community set out to depict these rabbit drives as genteel events in which the rising middle class spent their Sunday afternoons at “enjoyable” gatherings of “sport” that exhibited “a prevailing community spirit.” Greenwood describes one drive just north of Buhl where ice cream cones and “something more invigorating” were “passed around freely”; refreshments, she concludes, had become such a highly anticipated part of the rabbit drive ritual that they “never again can be omitted.” Reporting one successful drive of June 1911, the Buhl newspaper noted that during the morning, 500 rabbits were killed, and then, without so much as a paragraph break, the account continues, “Lunch was then served, Mr. Beinz having a boiler of hot coffee provided.” The paper even boasted that a writer from the Ladies Home Journal was in attendance that day and planned a feature on the drive. No one then questioned why one of the emerging women’s magazines of the time would cover such an event, and no amount of free coffee or invigorating refreshments could make Idaho rabbit drives a palatable story for the readers of Ladies Home Journal, which never offered anything but a decidedly sanitized version of life, sans jackrabbit carcasses.

As I see it, then, Frank arrived in a place characterized by a culture of embellishment, where stretchers and whoppers and colorful tales were merely an expected part of the local rhetoric, both private and public. Maybe, then, he’s to be forgiven, I thought, when a search of land records proved that, to be entirely accurate, my grandfather never actually in fact “homesteaded” but instead purchased one of the 40-acre parcels sold by local land speculator Oscar Boswell, who had actually been the one to file the Carey claim on that and several other parcels before he left Buhl for retirement in Washington state. This is no minor discrepancy, for within western mythology “proving up” on a homestead establishes your muster, and having the first white name associated in official documents with a tract of land bears witness to your involvement in a transformative act with national implications. That would have been doubly so for a poor immigrant like Frank. On the other hand, buying land in a fair and square exchange of money for deed remains on the level of a prosaic transaction, made all the more pedestrian in this instance by flowery legalese that has Frank promising, as the document reads, that “the party of the first part shall quietly enjoy the said premises.” The closest Frank came to actual homesteading, I was to discover in the historical record, was when he served as one of the witnesses for Václav Miskovsky, a fellow immigrant, who was filing his “final proof” on Carey Act land nearby.

And that rock fence my uncle claims to have helped build? I discovered James Frank Funda was born 16 miles away in Twin Falls, never even lived on the ranch (more on that in a moment), and he was only three years old—hardly rock-toting size—when he and my grandparents left the Snake River valley and moved to Gem County for good. But what’s a little fudging when you’re related to a man who rewrites regional history?

In addition to Frank’s oral narratives, both a 1965 newspaper announcement noting my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary and Frank’s own obituary claim that he developed a place called the Rock Creek Ranch and also purchased a bakery in Buhl, where he would become “known for his baking and culinary arts.” Upon research, however, neither of these assertions holds up either. When I heard that a colleague at my university had actually grown up near Rock Creek Ranch, I thought I had hit the historical mother lode. Norm Jones was the head, mind you, of my university’s History Department, and therefore someone who banked on the absolute accuracy of historical detail. “Yes,” Norm answered after I explained the family history of the bakery and the ranch outside town, he was familiar with Rock Creek Ranch. Pause. “It’s a well-known locale in Twin Falls County.” Another pause. “What years were your family there?” he asked. “The bakery was in Buhl, you say?” I got the sense he was being politely evasive, and Norm’s questions were among the first signs that had me scrutinizing my family’s claims more closely.

Map of Territory of Idaho, 1876
U.S. General Land Office Territory of Idaho Map, 1876. Click map to view interactive version.
Map courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection, Cartography Associates, used via Creative Commons License.

Historical records for Rock Creek Ranch were not that difficult to track down—and they were impressive. The stream that lent its name to the ranch flanked a portion of the original Oregon Trail. Moreover, the Rock Creek Ranch and the nearby town also named Rock Creek were subjects of local fame as a stage stop and mail station—during the 1870s. Homesteader Herman Stricker ran the Rock Creek Store and ranched adjacent land that, before his death, totaled a whopping 960 acres. His grand Victorian home is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and in 1984 that home and a five-acre parcel around it were granted by the family to the Idaho State Historical Society for use as an educational and cultural center, a homesteading mecca—Idaho style—complete with bus parking lot (already there) and a forthcoming visitors’ center depicting life on the frontier at the turn of the century.

All of this proves that Rock Creek Ranch was, of course, there well before my grandfather’s arrival in Idaho in 1910. In fact, the distance from the plot of land just northwest of Buhl officially listed in Frank’s name to the real Rock Creek Ranch, just south of Hansen, Idaho, is nearly 40 miles—no small distance when measured up against the story of Frank walking home from the bakery in Buhl to the ranch late one afternoon. And while it is true that Frank’s little 40-acre parcel in Buhl was adjacent to a stream, topographic maps show it was the less than romantically named Mud Creek. The stream of Rock Creek itself never meanders closer than 25 miles to the northeast of what was my grandparents’ land, although the “Rock Creek” name is ubiquitous throughout the entire region. A park in Buhl is so named, and innumerable businesses and other entities around Twin Falls County and nearby communities borrow the “Rock Creek” moniker, including an automotive shop, coffee shop, dairy, church, metalwork shop, and upholstery shop. Frank, therefore, wasn’t the only one who wanted to draw on the cachet of the name.

So, what about that history-making bakery? Newspaper notices from the Buhl Herald never mention Frank Funda as owner of any bakery in town. Instead, he would have found upon his arrival in Buhl two bakeries with thriving businesses. Already dominating the local scene were the Bon Ton Bakery (a name that is in keeping with the genteel image Buhl was striving for) and the nearby Buhl Bakery, which bragged about its modern oven and claimed that “Every Home is supplied with Bread and Cakes from The Buhl Bakery.” In the vein of exaggeration I had, by now, come to expect, the bakery also made assurances that its breads were so “toothsome” that any child raised on the Buhl Bakery bread “won’t be much [in] need of a doctor.”

Electric or not, Frank Funda’s bakery in Buhl never existed. In point of fact, just a year and a half after his arrival—and only one week after he’d served as a witness on his friend’s homesteading claim—the newspaper revealed that Frank had moved north to Twin Falls, where he had “accepted a position as baker in a Twin Falls Bakery.”

“Accepted a position.” In other words, he left Buhl even before his marriage to Annie, and while it is true he returned to work as a baker, he never owned a bakery—anywhere—either in Buhl or in Twin Falls, where I would also find evidence of several bakeries already in existence—all advertising their impeccable sanitary facilities, their modern packaging and delivery, and the world-class qualifications of their professional bakers. For instance, Mr. Stimson, who took over as the manager and head baker of Smith & Smith’s Bakery at almost the exact time Frank went to Twin Falls, was said to be an “expert baker,” who had a notable reputation for his fancy cakes and pastries. Down the road at “Graham’s First Premium Bakery,” Mr. Graham himself claimed to be “The World’s Best Baker,” a title from “the HIGHEST TRIBUNAL OF BREAD MAKERS in the World.” Frank, on the other hand, was not newsworthy. In spite of his experience in his brother-in-law’s bakery in Minnesota, the Twin Falls Times never made mention of Frank joining any bakery in town, which would suggest to me that he didn’t even become the head baker at someone else’s business.

Records do prove that Frank kept title to his land in Buhl until 1919. Apparently taking his cue from land developer Oscar Boswell, he somehow managed to buy two adjoining lots of land at some point, though there is no evidence he ever farmed them. According to the notice in the Buhl Herald about his departure for Twin Falls, he arranged to rent his land to another Czech immigrant family, the Zachs. That brief newspaper notice, barely two lines long, served to significantly unravel details of my family story about Frank’s homesteading and his bakery. More importantly, for me, it indicated a significant and hard-to-swallow truth: Frank, like so many other settlers to come to Idaho lacking any prior farming experience, had admitted to failure on the ranch within just two years of his arrival. The myth of his blooming desert was just that. Frank was among many who found out that making a farm successful in the Buhl area took more than just will, desire, and imagination.


Author Notes
Regarding the history of Idaho irrigation and culture in the Snake River valley, I used Mark Fiege’s excellent book Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West, University of Washington Press, 2000. I also consulted several essays by Hugh T. Lovin, including, my favorite, “Sage, Jacks, and Snake Plain Pioneers.” Idaho Yesterdays. 22.4 (Winter 1979): 13-24, as well as “Dreamers, Schemers, and Doers of Idaho Irrigation.” Agricultural History. 76.2 (2002): 232-243 and “Water, Arid Land, and Visions of Advancement on the Snake River Plain” Idaho Yesterdays, 35.1 (Spring 1991): 3-18. Leonard J Arrington’s “Irrigation in the Snake River Valley: An Historical Overview” was also useful (Idaho Yesterdays. 30 (Spring 1986): 3-11. The quotes about the Snake River country being called a “dead country” in the 19th century are from Bernard DeVoto comes from The Year of Decision, 1846, which was published in 1943. Emphasis on the Snake River Valley’s development of electricity can be seen in The Twin Falls Times, which often ran a special section entitled the “Electricity Page” where stories about the remarkable variety of ways electricity was being put to use locally demonstrated the motto of the times: “Electricity is my servant”; see especially July 15, 1913.

Annie Pike Greenwood’s 1934 We Sagebrush Folks is a remarkable memoir of life in southern Idaho in those early days of the twentieth century (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1988). I’ve also drawn upon James R. Gentry’s “Czechoslovakian Culture in the Buhl-Castleford Area” Idaho Yesterdays. 29-30 (Winter 1987): 2-14, which was written from interviews conducted with several Czech immigrants whose parents Frank undoubtedly knew. Gentry also gives a lively portrayal of Czech lodge culture in the area, which I found useful, and he is the source for the mention of Anton Suchan’s sagebrush art.

C.J. Blanchard’s 1910 essay “The Spirit of the West: Wonderful Development Since Dawn of Irrigation” was first published in The National Geographic (21(4):333- 360) and then reprinted in the Buhl Herald on Aug 25 1910. Additional information on the Carey Act comes from an Idaho State Historical Society publication entitled “The Carey Act in Idaho” that can be found at The booster quotes are from the 1910 and 1914 Commercial club pamphlets for Buhl and the 1908 pamphlet for Boise, and the striking cover paintings I mention are by William Bittle Wells on the Gooding, Richfield, Pocatello and American Falls pamphlets. All these pamphlets, developed in conjunction with the Oregon Short Line Railroad, are all available at the Idaho State Historical Society among the Idaho Travel and Tourism Collection; however, several of the Wells paintings can be found reprinted in Fiege’s book.

The Wilson Hunt Price expedition of 1811 was immortalized in Washington Irving’s 1836 account Astoria, or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains. The translation of the passage from Tyl’s play Lesní panna aneb cesta do Ameriky (The Forest Maiden: A Journey to America) comes from Stepanka Korytova-Magstadat’s study To Reap a Bountiful Harvest: Czech Immigration Beyond the Mississippi, 1850-1900. (Rudi Publishers, 1993).

The history of the Hendrick’s Grubber can be found in The Twin Falls Times (February 27, 1912 & April 9, 1915), and the U.S. patent office lists at least two other sage grubbing machine patents (by William O. White in 1903 and Alonzo L. Dunavan in 1905); these can be found online at Even though the Ladies Home Journal never published stories about the rabbit drives, the rabbits’ “suicide” quote actually comes from a mainstream Eastern magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and was part of a series of essays about western agricultural states written by Maude Radford Warren; this essay in the series was titled “A Woman Pioneer: In the Irrigated Country” and appeared on May 20, 1911.

Discussion of the reality of farming in sagebrush country was found in “The Twin Falls Project of Southern Idaho” originally appeared in Wallace’s Farmer, October 1, 1909, and was later collected in Henry A. Wallace’s Irrigation Frontier, On the Trail of the Corn Belt Farmer (reprint, University of Oklahoma Press.1991).

Philip L. Fradkin’s book is entitled Sagebrush Country: Land and the American West, published in 1989 by Random House. I also consulted Stephen Trimble’s The Sagebrush Ocean, A Natural History of the Great Basin and Bruce L. Welch’s 2005 Department of Agriculture publication entitled Big Sagebrush: A Sea Fragmented into Lakes, Ponds, and Puddles. Although I did not quote from these two sources, I found Trimble and Welch’s work useful for my understanding of the natural history of sagebrush deserts.

A transcript of the Western Literature Association’s biography panel I refer to, featuring Susanne Bloomfield, Mary Clearman Blew, Judy Nolte Temple, and Melody Graulich, can be found in “Writing Women’s Biographies: Processes, Challenges, Rewards” Western American Literature 43.1 (Summer 2008): 179-203.


Evelyn Funda is Professor of American Literature at Utah State University. In addition to Weeds, she is co-author and editor with Joyce Kinkead and Lynne McNiell of Farm: A Multimodal Reader, which is an interdisciplinary textbook about American farm culture (literature, art, history, etc.). She has published numerous essays of literary criticism on Willa Cather and is currently completing a book entitled Willa Cather and the Czechs.

Header photo of Idaho landscape with sage by Tucker James, courtesy Shutterstock.

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