We Are East Idaho: Malad City
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MALAD — Underneath the big ‘M’ on the side of a mountain sits the quaint little town of Malad City.
It’s the first city you hit in eastern Idaho once you’ve crossed the Utah-Idaho border, and here you’ll find shops, old churches, the city park and one of the top pumice sources in the entire world.
Hess Pumice Products was founded by Marion Hess in 1958. He was working for the state of Idaho and one day, while driving a bulldozer in Oneida County, and he struck pumice.
“As he was digging away in the mountains making a road, a white material came out,” says Mike Hess, Marion’s great-grandson. “He grabbed a bucket of it, had it tested and found out that it was pumice.”
Marion quit his job with the state and built a pumice processing plant in the center of Malad. In 1981, he moved the company south of town to the Malad Business Park, where it remains in full operation today.
Over the 61 years since Marion found the rocky white powder, business has continued to boom. Hess Pumice has over 80 employees, sends pumice to 39 different countries and over 100,000 tons are shipped out every year.
“The pumice comes from our Wright’s Creek Mine – exactly 23 miles from our processing plant,” Hess says.
The pumice rock is brought to the plant, where it is crushed, screened, bagged and loaded onto pallets. From there it goes into trucks or train cars and is sent all over the world.
“Our deposit is very pure and a very rare deposit for pumice for the lack of impurities it has,” Hess says. “People know Malad, Idaho because they use our pumice. They see the little brown bag that says, ‘Made in Malad Idaho.”
You might be asking, what is pumice used for? Well, there are pumice blocks and stones, and it’s put in cosmetics, paints, oils, technology and you’ve likely had it in your mouth.
“That gritty feeling after the dentist cleans your teeth … 10 times out of 10 that’s probably pumice,” Hess says.
Malad’s early days
Hess Pumice shows no sign of slowing down. They’re a huge employer and economic provider to Malad – a town of 2,200 people founded by Welsh settlers in the mid-1800s.
“They came across the plains with the Mormon pioneers. That’s how they got here. They had been converted in Wales and they kept moving up,” Jean Thomas, a local historian tells EastIdahoNews.com.
Before Idaho became a territory in 1863, there were people moving into the Malad Valley. In 1855, 15 families settled on the east side of the Malad River on the south end of the Malad Valley, which was called Oregon Springs.
The settlers constructed an adobe fort on about one acre of ground, according to a historical account. On the inside of the fort they dug cellars and erected log homes.
Others began moving to Malad and business really picked up when Malad became the Oneida County seat in 1866.
Every year the community gathers to remember and honor the early settlers with the Malad Welsh Festival. It will be held June 28-29 and there will be food and craft vendors, history and cultural events and live music on an amphitheater stage at the Malad Park.
“Everybody’s invited. You do not have to be Welsh, which is one of those things we fight all of the time,” she says with a laugh. “And you don’t have to live in Malad.”
Click here for more information on the Malad Welsh Festival
Striking it rich in Malad
Thomas has lived in Malad most of her life. She, along with almost everybody raised here, has heard the Iron Door Legend.
Historians say it is a well-known fact that there were stagecoach robberies in the early history of Oneida County but many versions of the same stories have been combined and changed over the years, resulting in confusion as to what actually happened.
What is known is that freight wagons were used to transport goods to the Montana gold mines. These wagons were drawn by either mules or oxen, and were so slow that they could only travel about twelve miles a day. It was easy for robbers to target the wagons and steal whatever they could.
Legend has it that on one occasion in the 1800s, a bank was robbed and the thieves made their way to the Samaria mountains outside of Malad with stolen gold bars. They apparently buried the treasure, with plans to come back later, but the valuables were never found.
Word spread fast that gold was hidden and over the decades, hundreds have dug through the hills.
“Does it exist? I think probably so but those mountains are full of caves and caverns,” Thomas explains. “It’s all limestone, (there’s been) lots of earthquakes…I think with the passage of time, the shifting of the grounds, who knows if (the robbers) ever went back – I don’t think anybody will ever find it.”
Another treasure modern-day travelers hope to find in Malad is winning lottery tickets. Locals know when possible earnings are high because an influx of Utahans invade their town. Gambling is illegal in Utah and Malad is the closest city for many to purchase lottery tickets.
“There are times when you cannot get into one of the lottery outlets to buy gas or other things that you want,” Thomas says. “The lines will stretch clear around the store twice. We don’t even go near there.”
The future of Malad
When Ralph Bennett was a senior studying music at Utah State University, he received a phone call from Malad High School begging him to teach band and choir. The original teacher had quit in the middle of the school year and help was urgently needed.
Bennett said yes and commuted during his final year of college before moving to Malad upon graduation.
That was 46 years ago.
Bennett retired in 2016, having spent over four decades in the classroom.
“If you look around town, almost everybody I taught,” he says with a smile.
Although Malad hasn’t experienced major growth, Bennett has seen things change over the years.
“When I first came here, it was very agricultural. I remember one year we lost 70 farms in one year – when the market crashed,” he says. “Now we still have a lot of farms but they’re just local farms and mostly those people have jobs somewhere else.”
Bennett says Malad has recently welcomed a few families moving in from other states – those who are desperate to escape city life and live in a slower paced, peaceful setting with lots of options for outdoor activities.
“If you like hiking, these mountains are great. We have five reservoirs within our county, big reservoirs, so fishing is a wonderful thing, hunting is a great thing, a lot of outdoor things,” he says.
Bennett loves it here. So does Thomas and so does the Hess family.
It’s folks like these, and all their friends and neighbors in Malad, who are proud to say we are east Idaho.