We Are East Idaho: Roberts
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ROBERTS — Early in the days of settling eastern Idaho, Thomas E. Ricks of Rexburg made his way south to the trading post in Market Lake to buy matches. He reached the town in the middle of the night, but the shopkeeper turned him away after Ricks tried to haggle the price.
In the end, Ricks had to go all the way to Eagle Rock to buy his matches, making the journey a total of four days.
Market Lake, once a thriving trading post that preexisted Idaho Falls and Rexburg, has shrunk in size over the years. Once, it was one of the few cities that appeared on an 1875 map of eastern Idaho. Now, if you look at in on Google Maps, it’s a small city west of Menan. In fact, it doesn’t even go by Market Lake anymore, which was the translation of the original Native American word. When the railroad came through, the name changed to Roberts.
Both the mayor of Roberts and others attested to the fact that Roberts was once bigger and more influential than Idaho Falls. Mayor Robert “B.J.” Berlin said Roberts was once the trading post in this part of the state.
“They had telephone service and a bigger population than Idaho Falls before Idaho Falls had telephone service,” said lifelong resident Jerry VanLeuven. “(Roberts) has gone on a big diet. We had four gas stations, four restaurants. We had a (John Deere) tractor store that was one of the biggest in the country. We had a high school here, and that’s been one of the hard things. With a diminishing population, they closed the high school here. And you know, school is really the spirit of the community.”
The Roberts High School closed in the 1960s, during VanLeuven’s sophomore year of high school. Now the town only has an elementary school. The old high school was a middle school and is now an events center.
Small Town, Great Eclipse
Even though Roberts has decreased in size over the years, Berlin and VanLeuven believe it’s a great place to live.
“It’s a quiet, nice, small-town community,” Berlin said. “Many years ago, Roberts was a rough and tumble town, but that’s changed considerably. It’s just a nice place to live and a nice place to visit.”
Two years ago, Roberts welcomed almost 5,000 visitors as the Great American Eclipse put the little town right in its crosshairs. Berlin laughed as he said they spent a year preparing for the event.
“We did a lot of work to prepare for it, and it ended up being a great experience for our community, as well as all our guests,” Berlin said.
They hired vendors, turned their two parks into camping grounds and deputized enforcement officers.
“We basically made sure we had enough amenities to take care of the people who were coming. It was a great group of people, and it turned out really well.”
Small Town, Big Changes
Another change Roberts has been going through is a change in the population. Berlin pointed out that they are starting to see an influx of younger families looking for “small town values.”
“It’s more accepting of change than it was,” Berlin said. “It’s also a younger demographic.”
When Berlin moved here about 29 years ago, Roberts was bigger and had more businesses, but those have since been absorbed into the surrounding cities like Rigby and Idaho Falls.
“We don’t really have a lot of employment opportunities here.”
VanLeuvan, who works in Idaho Falls, said they just don’t have the businesses they used to have, so if residents wanting good-paying jobs have to commute.
Small Town, Big History
Although Roberts may be a quiet town now, Berlin and VanLeuvan shared a few stories of Roberts’ past. For example, Butch Cassidy came and stayed in town for a winter, robbing a bank in Soda Springs on the way out.
“The big flood (of 1976) hit Roberts as well as Rexburg,” Berlin said, “but Roberts wasn’t so much in the news since it wasn’t such a big town.”
VanLeuven also said there used to be a huge mosquito problem in Roberts because of all the standing water around.
In 1910, a visitor tied up his mule outside the hotel that Berlin now owns; the next morning, VanLeuven said they found the mule dead from mosquito bites.
Now, this small community is close-knit.
“We’ve always worked together really well,” VanLeuven said. “It’s just been a really good community.”
On the third Saturday in July, Roberts celebrates Market Lake Day, which includes a parade, community bonfire and street dance.
They also plan a community Christmas party in early December at the event center.
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