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The Secret in Your Back Yard

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Photo by Marylyn Cork Photo by Marylyn Cork

This Memorial Day, meet Priest Lake, the town that doesn’t actually exist, and Coolin and Nordman - the towns that do

As an almost life-long resident of Bonner County, I am baffled sometimes that so many of my fellow citizens know so little about their county as a whole. The Sandpoint area and the east side hardly know the west side, and vice versa. Yet every part of “Beautiful Bonner” has much to offer visitors, and the resort area of Priest Lake is no exception.

Priest Lake at its southern end is about 20 miles north of the city of Priest River, via State Highway 57. Dearly beloved of the locals and eastern Washingtonians, particularly Spokane city dwellers, not many residents of Bonner County as a whole seem to have ever been there. That’s their loss. Priest Lake has the county’s finest sand beaches, water so clear and clean it’s as pristine as any to be found anywhere in the country, magnificent scenery, plentiful wildlife, and beautiful full-amenity resorts.

Many residents of Bonner County don’t even seem to realize there is no town named Priest Lake, even though mail can be addressed there using the Priest River zip code (83856). Two small hamlets, do exist, however, with business establishments and post offices: Coolin on the southeast end of the big lake (83821), and Nordman (83848) on the west side. There’s an upper Priest Lake, too, but no one lives there. It’s protected wilderness accessed only on foot or by boat.

Memorial Day weekend would be a great opportunity for anyone looking for a good time to make the acquaintance of the body of water known as “Idaho’s Crown Jewel.” That’s when the Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce introduces the summer tourist season with its annual “Spring Fling” celebration.

The popular event eases into the weekend with a bake sale fund-raiser for the Priest Lake EMTs on Friday, May 28, and kicks into high gear in Coolin on Saturday with a pancake feed, arts and crafts fair, bake sale and quilt show, food and music, and a groomer display.

Noon heralds the Coolin Days Parade, which this year commemorates “Historic Coolin: Gateway to Priest Lake.” The parade will pay homage to the 100th anniversary of the founding of Coolin, and will feature the 1914 Beardmore auto stage that ran from Priest River to the lake, beginning in 1914. (Horse stages were in service earlier.) Beardmore’s ancient White vehicle has been restored by the great-grandsons of timber entrepreneur and Priest River businessman, Charles Beardmore, who owned it.

The museum Idaho historian Keith Peterson has called “the best little museum in Idaho run entirely by volunteers” also opens on Saturday at Luby Bay on the west side of the lake. However, the museum’s 20th anniversary open house, hosted by the Priest lake Museum Association, will be held in Coolin Saturday afternoon at the Old Northern Inn bed and breakfast.

Sunday’s events will continue the pancake feed and arts and crafts fair at Coolin, but some of the events will move to the west side. Live music and good food will be available at resorts and restaurants all day. At 3 p.m., the Priest Lake Chamber of commerce will hold a silent auction and wine and cheese social at Elkins Resort at Nordman. A buffalo dinner is scheduled to follow at 5 p.m., and then a really big affair, the 17th Live Charity Auction, will take the stage. Reservations, however, are required. The auction raises thousands of dollars each year for Priest Lake charities and endeavors.

The Priest Lake Museum will be open both Saturday and Sunday—the summer season at the lake runs from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor day—and is a must-see for anyone interested in history. It is one of Priest Lake’s most amazing success stories.

Plans to establish a museum at Priest Lake began in 1979 when Doug Urquhart, a longtime friend of the lake, now deceased, donated $300 to begin the task of preserving and protecting the area’s history. Lois Hill and GG Fisher began organizing volunteers, collecting artifacts and designing displays. Hill and family own and operate the nationally known Hill’s Resort, next door to the museum at Luby Bay. Lois and her son, Scott, are still active in the work.

Priest Lakers, who include a large volunteer pool of summer people, got together, and in 1990 the Priest Lake Museum and Visitor Center opened its door in a picturesque log cabin on the lakeshore. The structure was constructed during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was made available by the Panhandle National Forest, which had entered into a partnership with the museum association the previous year. According to spokesmen for the association, “the former provided the building, the association volunteers do the work of collecting and recording history and keeping the museum open.”

In 1983 a grant from the Association for the Arts in Idaho allowed the museum board to hire a graduate museologist to guide them through a massive photo collection campaign, build traveling exhibits and develop a long-range plan for preserving historical material.

Later grants paid for other projects. Dr. Kris Runberg Smith, a professor of history from St. Louis, Mo., a great-granddaughter of Charles Beardmore, supervised the recording of a number of oral history interviews that evolved into a book, “Voices of Priest Lake.” The interviews have also been recorded on CD’s that the public can access at the Priest Lake Library.

Donations and grants from many private and public donors provided the funding in 2009 to hire Smith and college intern Brooke Shelman to digitize the museum’s photographs and records, and the Forest Service “helped support intern-related expenses,” board members said. The board of directors has since approved Smith to research and write a comprehensive, documented history of Priest Lake that she will be working on this summer.

The Priest Lake Museum Association has left no stone unturned in attempting to fulfill its mission. Newsletters keep the lake communities current with plans and projects, and even the students at Priest Lake Elementary School have been involved. Sixth-graders study their local history, then illustrate its many facets by participating in an art class in which they produce clay “story chains” that are displayed and sold at the museum.

The museum utilizes the building’s limited space superbly by means of pictorial story boards that relate the history of Priest Lake’s explorers and trappers, the Forest Service and Kalispel Indians, moonshiners and homesteaders, loggers and prospectors. Nor has silent screen film star and producer Nell Shipman been overlooked, she who made movies at the lake in the early 1920s.

Books about lake history are available for sale, and two videos produced by film-maker Scott Hill can be viewed and purchased on CD. “See the Changes” features beautiful photography and music that enhance the historical narrative. The other CD is on the celebrated Continental Mine. A back wall displays a large wooden map created by local residents Jeannie and Vern Melvin, with every point of interest on the lake noted.

Landscaping and site improvement projects are still under way, along with the acquisition of artifacts that can be stored outside on the grounds. One artifact already there, a little road grader dating back to about 1910, greets visitors near the front door and is sure to bring a smile to every face. Admission is free, and you’ll be glad you took the time to visit.

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Marylyn Cork

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history, Priest Lake, Coolin, Nordman, Memorial Day

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