Updated: Apr 1, 2020
The Booming West
By: EmilieRae Smith
At the turn of the twentieth century, the towns west of the Rocky Mountains were economically booming. After Lewis and Clark explored the Pacific Northwest, people began settling in the Idaho Territory. The territory brought many farmers and miners to northern Idaho. Moscow, originally named Paradise Valley, was one of the first towns founded in the area in 1871 and grew to be the largest city in Latah County. Shortly after, towns throughout Latah County came into existence.
In 1905, the western American ideals of many of Latah County’s residents were challenged by a proposal to found a company town north of Moscow where all of the community’s property would be owned by a single business, the Potlatch Coporation. The company is based out of Spokane, Washington and bought the land in Idaho as a sawmill site. At this time, Potlatch had one of the largest sawmills in the United States. Potlatch Corp. ran the city similarly to how Pullman, WA was run. Pullman got it’s name after George Pullman and his company town in Illinois. His company town was very effective and Potlatch adopted many of it’s tactics, for example: only married couples who worked within the company were allowed to rent houses and live there. They created a school, church and general store.
Despite the economic success of Potlatch, locals from neighboring cities like Troy and Moscow had their reservations. In 1905, a newspaper from Moscow was printed about the growing concerns. The mayor of Moscow, W. M. Morgan, even called Potlatch an “un-American” town. The newspaper quoted him saying, “it denied the rights of people to own property — and follow lines of enterprise of their own choosing, characteristic of the boom-towns of the West.” To him, it was the opposite of Latah County’s ideals. There had been rumors of wood working mills, planting mills and connecting railroads in Moscow and Troy before the announcement of Potlatch. The citizens saw their towns being by-passed in much needed developments.
The employees of the company saw this as an opportunity for a better life. They were looking forward to living in low rental houses that were equipped with electricity, water and sewers, along with a good school and church for their families. They saw Potlatch as a new way of community living, one where you worked alongside your neighbors while maintaining strong family values.
A year after Potlatch came into being, the mayor of Moscow visited the town. The Moscow Evening Journal printed an article on March 19, 1906 explaining what the mayor said about the new addition into Latah County. After his visit, mayor Morgan was inclined to take his previous reservations and insults back. He said, “In common with a great many citizens in this community, I have been prone to criticize as un-American the plan of the Potlatch company to refuse to sell a town lot, or to allow anyone to become a property holder in Potlatch. This is a mistake. The three or four hundred men who are working in this town are well fed, well housed, well paid and contented.” After praising the conditions of Potlatch he ended by saying, “by the enterprise of this company the population and taxable property of Latah County will be doubled within the next very few months.”
The sawmill in Potlatch was shut down in 1981. The town was then sold to its residents and in 1986 the commercial district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Potlatch remains to be a historical town in Latah County and still holds the same values of a close knit community that it did when it was first founded.
If you’d like to read more from these articles, please visit the Latah County Historical Society and ask to see PAM 78-3.