We are East Idaho: Ashton
Published at | Updated at
ASHTON — When you first drive into Ashton, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to see. But if you look a little deeper, the town of roughly 1,100 people has much to offer the outside world and one another.
At the town’s entrance, one of the first things people notice is a large retro mug of root beer suspended on a pole. The iconic landmark sits next to the Frostop Drive-In — a locally famous venue that serves burgers, fries, ice cream, shakes and its iconic blend of root beer.
Owner Hannah McCausey says the giant mug has been drawing in locals and those traveling on U.S. Highway 20 since the drive-in opened in 1965, although the mug itself was refaced in 2008.
“It rotates and spins. It’s the old-fashioned look,” she said.
Her favorite questions come from the kids.
“Kids ask me, ‘How much root beer does it hold?’ and if that’s real root beer in it,” she said.
Not too far from the Frostop is where the bulk of Ashton’s business is — on or near Main Street. Here, a variety of shops and restaurants keep the town alive and attracts tourists on their way to Yellowstone National Park.
Main Street has a lot of history, and much of the infrastructure has been there since the town was founded in 1906.
Take the Shoppe on Main. Today, owners Esther and Tim Ryland serve fresh espresso drinks, tea, and smoothies and sell crafts from local artists. But it wasn’t always like this.
Back in 1906, the Royal Hotel occupied the space. It had rooms upstairs and a restaurant downstairs. It transitioned into a Masonic temple in 1936 and held lodge meetings until 2002, Esther Ryland said.
When Ryland and her family got their hands on the building two years ago, they wanted to take it back to its original glory.
“The upstairs was completely bricked in. … My sister took the original pictures from the archives so that they could recreate the front of the building,” Ryland says. “This opportunity came up, and we always wanted to be able to support the local artisans and have a place that had unique gifts.”
All the essentials
Many of the businesses in Ashton are small, but they offer all the essentials.
Dave’s Jubilee, the town’s main grocery store, doubles as a gas station and the main place residents can buy food. It was originally a bowling alley in the 1960s.
“Ashton used to be a lot bigger. There used to be two or three grocery stores here and a couple of car dealerships,” owner Dave Jacobson says. “But it’s kind of faded out over the years.”
Jacobson, known as Jake, who’s owned the store since 1997, admits it wasn’t named after him but his father-in-law, Dave Merna, who took the store over in 1984. Back then it was named Dave’s IGC, and before that, Slusher Wholesale owned the place and operated it as a grocery store in the ’70s.
Jacobson says the store is an asset to the community. Given the distance to St. Anthony, Ashton’s closest neighbor, its good to have a place to pick up the necessities like milk, bread and eggs.
“It’s a hometown feel. Some people just come in here not even to shop — just to visit. They like just being here,” Jacobson says.
The same is true of HG Lumber and Hardware. The store is one of the longest consistently running businesses in town. It’s been serving the community for 52 years.
“I’m third generation for this business. It started with my grandpa and my dad and maybe someday me,” clerk and CFO Amber Steinman says. She runs the store with her dad, Richard Griffel.
“I think just by being here for so long, people know that we’re here,” Steinman says. “We started out really, really small and we’ve grown over the years and to be honest, this giant store is now too small for us.”
She says over the years the community has come to rely on their store, but overall keeping business activity local is vital, so sometimes that means sending to or receiving customers from their competitors.
“I think that there’s enough of a community around here that if we don’t have it, they can go over to (Stronks & Sons), and if Stronks doesn’t have it, they come over here. We try to play off of each other and encourage to stay local,” Steinman says.
Business owners are also community volunteers and civic leaders
That desire to help out fellow members of the community is also a staple in Ashton. Many of the city’s business leaders are also civic leaders, such as Mayor Teddy Stronks, who has owned Stronks & Sons for 42 years.
“I’ve watched Ashton change. I’ve seen new structures and old structures come down,” Stronks says. “I’ve seen good people that have lived here forever pass away, and new people come in and try to make a spot here as a home.”
Stronks, who was born and raised in the community, served on the City Council for 12 years and has been the mayor for 18. He gives credit for his civic services to his supportive family and wife and says if it wasn’t for her, “I don’t think I’d be doing all this.”
“I’ve been in Rotary, and I’ve been the president two or three times. I’ve just got involved with the city, and I think that’s helped me have that passion for the community,” Stronks says. “I’ve enjoyed being mayor. It’s been a good experience.”
Stronks says the town is very friendly, and people work together often for the good of one another.
Jacobson, of Dave’s Jubilee, and his family have also led community events and activities, including the Mesa Falls Marathon. Jacobson also serves as the Chamber of Commerce and Lyon’s Club president.
“We do a float for the store every year. … My wife and I ran the Easter egg hunt for 16 years, and we ran the youth soccer league for 25 years here, and we’d coached at the high school for 14 years,” Jacobson says.
Similarly, McCausey says her involvement in the community is also broad. She helps with Christmas events and recently started a local women’s empowerment group to help victims of domestic abuse.
“It’d be faster to say what we’re not involved in,” McCausey says. “Brandy (a worker) just yesterday cooked soup for the community. … I’m doing the flea market this week for charity. I do an Easter egg hunt that we just had.”
Things to look for in Ashton
The city of Ashton is a lot more than its business community, though. It’s also home to large swaths of agricultural and recreational land, which make up a big part of the local economy and culture.
Seed potatoes and malting barley are two of the community’s largest exports. Some locals call Ashton the seed potato capital of the world.
“It really is that it’s not just a billboard on the highway,” says Rob Vankirk. “The temperature, and the climate and the soils around here are just right for growing seed potatoes and this provides the seed for all the production of the regular potatoes you buy in the store or eat at McDonald’s.”
Most of the malting barley in the area goes to large brewing companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors.
“This is a major source for malting barley for those international companies,” Vankirk says. “I mean, we really have a world-class agricultural region here, and most people don’t have a clue.”
Besides agriculture, outdoor tourism and recreation are a big deal, especially so close to Island Park and Yellowstone National Park.
“The advantages to living here are pretty big. There’s fishing two miles up the road. There’s hunting, hiking, camping. There’s a reason that people come from all over the world to go to Island Park and Yellowstone,” Jacobson says.
Things to try in Ashton
A great place to stop by if you’ve never been to this part of Fremont County is the Henry’s Fork Foundation. The non-profit is dedicated to preserving the unique fishery of Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.
“The Henry’s Fork is a world famous fly fishing destination. People come here from all over the world to fish for trout,” says Vankirk, who is a senior scientist with the foundation.
And if you’ve never been fly fishing or up Mesa Falls near Ashton, the Henry’s Fork Foundation can give you a virtual reality tour.
“We have a virtual reality fishing trip. It’s about a 10-minute virtual reality experience. We got a drift boat out here in the interpretive center, and you can come in and see what it’s like to take a floating trip on the Henry’s Fork,” Vankirk says.
Another must-try in Ashton is the American Dog Derby: The Oldest All-American Dog Sled Race.
This annual winter event brings people from all over the world to compete in Ashton. It’s been a staple of the community since 1917, due in large part to Union Pacific Railroad.
Due to deep snow, two railroads in the area were shut down in the winter and not plowed until spring. In the winter, mail, people, and supplies had to be transported to high country areas by dog sled.
Kathy Scafe, co-chair of the dog derby, says the first race went from West Yellowstone to Ashton through deep snows.
“We have it much easier now since our race follows the county groomed snowmobile track,” Scafe says.
The most recent dog race in February had 21 mushers. Scafe says many people in the area watch the race. Learn more about the event here.
Why you should visit Ashton
If there’s anything to take away from the city of Ashton besides the plethora of outdoor activities, strong agriculture and unique business community, it’s the fact that community is family.
“Ashton’s unique in a way that (we) have five different (religious) denominations here in Ashton. I love it. Because we are able to work together. We do fundraisers together. We help each other, we pray for each other when we’re down, and it doesn’t matter what faith you are, we all take care of each other,” Hatton says.
“Come and give us one day and let us show what Ashton has to offer,” Stronk says. “We have so much to offer.”