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We are East Idaho: Driggs

We Are East Idaho

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EastIdahoNews.com is spending the year introducing you to places and people that make east Idaho special. In our We Are East Idaho series, we're going on a road trip and sharing things you may not know about this beautiful place we call home.

DRIGGS — It was a sunny afternoon in July of 1914 when a caravan of 19 stagecoaches carrying 147 tourists entered Yellowstone National Park.

The group consisted of wealthy bankers and brokers from the east with their families.

A written history provided by the Teton Valley Museum indicates there had been a recent history of stage hold-ups in the park. None of the men were armed because the law prohibited them from carrying guns into the park.

Before the group arrived, one nervous young lady asked one of the drivers, “What would we do if anybody held us up?”

“Why, this park is as safe as a nursery,” the driver replied.

The group continued their journey into the park. But Ed Trafton, a notorious outlaw from Driggs, had heard about the group’s arrival. He had cleared away the brush near a large rock and was waiting to greet them.

The coaches were traveling about a mile apart, and when the first one approached, Trafton came out from behind the rock, wearing a handkerchief over his face, and pointed a rifle at the driver.

“Turn right off there,” Trafton said, according to the historical account. “And stop right in front of me!”

The driver obeyed. Trafton told the passengers to come out with their hands up. Noting the driver’s earlier response about how safe the park was, the passengers gave the driver a reprimanding look as they got out of the wagon.

Trafton spread a blanket in front of his feet and instructed the passengers to place their valuables on it.

“You eastern plutocrats wouldn’t cheat a poor westerner, would you?” he said. “If ye do, ye’ll get a bullet in you.”

After handing over their valuables, Trafton told the driver to haul the stage into the park and sit tight.

“Now, just sit around and be comfortable. None of you are goin’ to git hurt if you behave like good little boys and girls!” Trafton said.

Trafton repeated this process with the remaining 18 coaches but didn’t acquire more than about $700.

Trafton was 61 at the time and had accrued quite a criminal record throughout his life. Eight years after the Yellowstone hold-up, Trafton died near an ice cream shop in Los Angeles, California.

“A man whose adventuresome life inspired (Owen) Wister to write ‘The Virginian’ dropped dead at Second and Broadway (in Los Angeles) late one afternoon while drinking ice cream soda,” the Teton Valley News reported in August 1922.

The cause of death was never stated.

Though reports of Trafton being the model for Owen Wister’s 1902 Wild West novel “The Virginian” were later confirmed false, the Yellowstone hold-up still seems to have permanently established him as one of the most notorious outlaws of the American West, and one of Driggs’ most infamous early citizens.

Ed Trafton, left, pictured with his wife and kids | Photo courtesy Teton Valley Museum

Driggs’early days

Forty-five miles southeast of Rexburg, Driggs is home to about 1,800 people. With Yellowstone an hour and a half away and Grand Targhee 12 miles to the northeast, Driggs has become a destination for more than 25,000 tourists every year.

But in the early days, Driggs was a desert landscape where a few dedicated families came to build a homestead and a new life.

“Teton Valley was the last unsettled place in Idaho. Nobody came here. It had a reputation of being a home for horse thieves. And it’s cold,” local historian and writer Joyce Edlefsen tells EastIdahoNews.com. “It was not a great place to bring your wagon, your wife and your baby and say, ‘OK, we’re going to start a life here, and we have nothing.'”

B.W. Driggs, Edlefsen’s great-grandfather, was among the first to settle the area in the spring of 1891. He came looking for farmland. He also practiced law and went on to become the first prosecuting attorney for Teton County.

RELATED | Photo Gallery: Driggs

“The first residence built in Driggs was the log cabin of D.C. Driggs (brother to B.W.) in 1888,” B.W. wrote in his history of Teton Valley.

Once those first settlers arrived, others soon followed. Carving out a town was not an easy task. It was hard, back-breaking work, and many people struggled that first year.

“It’s not like you could just buy (hay for your animals, let alone food for your family). There was nothing. It’s hard to imagine how dedicated those people had to be to stick it out,” Edlefsen says.

In the beginning, it was just a collection of settlers, but it would be another 20 years before Driggs officially had a name. B.W. Driggs played a pivotal role in the community becoming recognized as a town.

“The community members petitioned the U.S. Postal Service for a post office in the area. There were so many signers of that petition with the last name of Driggs, so that’s what the postal service named it. It was an arbitrary decision,” Edlefsen says.

The townsite for Driggs was formally dedicated Dec. 21, 1909.

By 1913, the railroad came through, and it was a big boost for the burgeoning farming community.

Railroad day in Driggs | Teton Valley Museum

“The railroad gave them a way to get their products to market because the roads weren’t that great,” Edlefsen says. “But agriculture was marginal from the very beginning. The railroad also got more tourism coming.”

Tourism paved the way for a thriving business economy that grew to include a variety of shops. Corner Drug at 10 South Main Street has been in business for 113 years and is the town’s longest-running business.

The building was the home of the first high school in the valley until a regular schoolhouse was built, according to the Corner Drug’s Facebook page. Ice cream for the soda fountain was also made on-site at one time.

The Wardrobe Company, a department store offering clothing, footwear and home decor, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year.

“We are a third-generation owned business and have evolved from the old Price Mercantile in the early 1900s, selling everything from livestock feed to the latest in fashion clothing,” the company says on its website.

“There are many companies in this town that were founded many, many years ago by some of the early families here, and they continue to do well,” Brian McDermott, executive director of the Teton Regional Economic Coalition, tells EastIdahoNews.com. “Those companies provide incredible value, incredible services, and they’ve got a ton of integrity. They really are the backbone of this community.”

Agriculture continued to flourish as well, and Driggs remained a popular spot for tourists because of its close proximity to Yellowstone. But during the harsh winters, everything would shut down, and it was difficult to make ends meet. But during the 1960s, a few locals got together and decided to change that.

Opening a resort

The Tetons provided a unique backdrop for the community, and there were some who wanted to capitalize on the area’s winter conditions by creating another recreational opportunity that would also increase employment.

“People were moving from Teton County altogether too fast. Wayne Cole and I decided to get the county declared a depressed area, which we did during the year of 1963. The next year, someone conceived the idea that we had a mountain that would be good for a ski area,” Evan Floyd, a Driggs resident, wrote at the time.

People began scouting the area for a good location. A site known as Fred’s Mountain across the state line in Alta, Wyoming became the designated spot for what would become the Grand Targhee Resort.

“The location was chosen based on the great quality of snow that falls, the natural abundance of snow that falls and the reliability of the snow that falls late in the season,” Grand Targhee Marketing Director Jennie White says.

Historical photo of the chairlift at Grand Targhee Resort | Courtesy Ricker’s Film Productions

The capstone project that set everything in motion for the future resort was the construction of an access road leading to the site in 1965. Floyd, who is Edlefsen’s grandfather, was instrumental in getting government funding for the road’s construction. The road was completed the following year and efforts then got underway to secure funding for the development of the ski resort.

Grand Targhee cost about $1 million to build, according to one of its brochures.

Floyd and others formed a redevelopment corporation to secure the funding. The group sold memberships and acquired a loan for a total of $800,000. Construction began in the summer of 1969. The day after Christmas, on Dec. 26, 1969, the ski resort opened for the first time.

In 1987, hiking and biking trails were added to make Grand Targhee a year-round destination.

“Mountain biking has become a big part of our summer business. In 1997, we started allowing bikes on the chairlift. We didn’t have any designated trails from the top. It was more so that people would go up and ride the roads down,” White says.

The resort is celebrating its 50th year of operations this year and has grown to include more than 50 miles of cross country trails and more than 14 miles of downhill lift service trails.

Grand Targhee remains a massive draw for people all over the world and is now one of Teton Valley’s largest employers.

The legacy

From the days of those early pioneers struggling to carve out a town to today’s thriving business community, Driggs continues to draw people in from all parts of the globe.

Before the 2007 recession, Driggs was a fast growing community, although that slowed with the economic downturn. In recent years though, McDermott says he’s seen an uptick in growth that is similar to what it was before the recession.

“During the boom years, Teton County was the fastest-growing county in all of the U.S. That was fueled, in part, by the easy mortgage money. Once the financial crisis hit in 2007, things crashed pretty hard. We have recovered significantly because we’ve put in place a plan to diversify our economy,” says McDermott.

In the last five years, McDermott says the entire Teton Valley has had an increase of 1,600 people, resulting in the creation of 700 new jobs with a low average wage of $36,000 a year.

“That’s $25 million of new annual income in this valley,” he says. “The jobs we’re focusing on are those higher wage, low-impact kind of jobs.”

As Driggs continues to grow, many locals have strong connections to the values and traditions of their ancestors. Old homes dot the landscape and stand as a monument to those who first settled there.

“There’s a lot of pioneer families that are still in Driggs,” Edlefsen says.

This home on Ashley Ave. was the home of Joyce Edlefsen’s mother. It was built in 1919. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

Edlefsen’s mother grew up in a red brick home that was built in 1919. It’s still standing on Ashley Avenue next to the Driggs Tire store.

“To get this place going, it took the toughest of the toughest people just to survive. The original (pioneers) built this place where we can live,” says Aidan Sullivan, program manager for the Teton Regional Economic Coalition. “So naturally, (many) feel possessive of this space that they and their families have grown up in.”

Although some locals feel new economic developments and the influx of tourists every year introduce trends that betray traditional values, McDermott says newcomers have a fresh perspective that aligns with those values and strengthen the economy.

“We are a low-key community, which suits a particular type of person, and it takes a lot of extra work to get here. We’re a little off the beaten path,” McDermott says. “The people that come here have an appreciation for the low-key environment, the family-based recreational community they’re coming to visit.”

McDermott says they’re working to manage the growth by creating a vibrant economic future that stays true to who they are.

“Nobody wants willy-nilly growth with big box stores and developments sprouting up all over the place,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is retain the very best of what this community has been historically, but also create an economic sector that allows families to prosper and stay healthy.”

“This little section of the world in our little slice of the Rockies is really about living the life that you want to live,” says Sullivan. “The word is out about this place, and it’s pretty awesome. People are going to come and keep coming. I don’t know how that’s going to manifest itself, but hopefully, we can stay united in our values.”

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