AMMON — Ammon is a sprawling, growing city that has thrived on a sense of community.
Although it has strip malls, big box stores, grocery stores, a dozen or more restaurants, several large schools, a stadium and the largest movie theater in eastern Idaho, other areas have maintained the rural, small-town feel which defined the city for most of its 114-year history.
City leaders say that’s by design. They say Ammon should be a place that is always growing but still maintains its most defining characteristic: a sense of togetherness.
This started with some of the city’s first settlers.
South Iona — and the beginning of Ammon
As with many settlements in eastern Idaho, Ammon owes its existence to Latter-day Saint pioneers who homesteaded the area. The first settlers arrived around 1885 to a land that was largely untamed.
Histories written by some of Ammon’s earliest residents recall that in the beginning, the sagebrush was so tall in places a man could ride horseback through it and never be seen. But to work the land, the brush needed to be cleared, wells needed to be dug, canals needed to be built and homes needed to be finished.
The settlers, usually through their church organizations, worked together to clear the land.
“There were many blistered hands and aching backs,” one settler recalls in Miranda Stringham’s “Old Ammon.” “Gloves were a luxury, and keeping their bare feet shod was a task in itself with so much walking and rough work had to be done.”
John Empey was one of the areas first settlers. In his later life, some would remember him boasting that he and neighbors had “grubbed the brush and killed the snake and made it possible for people to live here.”
Empey and his wife Almira arrived in the Iona-area in spring 1886, but couldn’t quite manage to get a home built before winter. They were forced to turn his wagon box over to double as a makeshift home until the next spring. He planted grain, fruit and potatoes, and hauled his wares to the Caribou Mountains, where Chinese miners were digging for gold.
In 1888, Empey moved south to a place known as South Iona. His small family settled in a cabin with a dirt roof and floor next to present-day Sunnyside Road and Crowley Road. South Iona wasn’t so much a physical community at the time, but rather the southern boundary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward, which Empey’s family attended.
Two years later, as more settlers moved to South Iona, church authorities established a new ward, and Bishop Arthur M. Rawson renamed the area Ammon after a missionary in the Book of Mormon. It wasn’t until 1905 that Ammon would be officially incorporated as a town.
Empey became one of the first Bonneville County commissioners when the county was organized in 1911. His history, told in “Old Ammon” and Connie Otteson’s “Unsung Heroes and Settlers of Bonneville County, Idaho,” shows a man of grit and resolve.
Tales about Empey include how he dug and blasted to find water, stared down a mountain lion, and negotiated a dispute over water rights while staring down the barrels of 19 guns carried by angry farmers. He died in 1938, having gone from living under a wagon box to becoming one of the most influential men in the area.
His story and others of his time portray a budding, tightly-knit Ammon that was destined to grow.
READ MORE ABOUT JOHN EMPEY IN THE VIDEO PLAYER ABOVE.
Centered on togetherness
Social events were some of the most talked-about things in early Ammon. Music, dancing and recreation were important to the early settlers, and many of first brick buildings were large gathering places used for entertainment, worship and education.
Some of the best events of the year were at Christmas, many said.
“As far back as I can remember, the school always put on a Christmas program,” Ada E. Owen Campbell said in “Old Ammon.” “All through December, we made popcorn chains to decorate our class window and also put on the Christmas tree. … There (were) candle holders to fasten the candles on the tree, and on Christmas Eve these candles were lighted, and our program started. Everyone had a part in the program. There were always two or three men there to see and watch the candles that they didn’t set fire to the tree.”
Edna Day Empey recalled Santa would always come, and everyone, including the parents, would receive a gift. Usually, it would be followed by a children’s dance in the afternoon and an adult dance at night.
Back then, social events often involved trips to neighboring Idaho Falls. Although today, people come to Ammon to see new movies at Edwards Theater, in the early days, there was a popular silent picture theater in Idaho Falls.
Another popular Idaho Falls destination was Reno Park, (now Tautphaus Park). On one occasion, a group of Ammon children was herded into a buggy to see the Wright brothers at the park. The inventors were touring the country with an airplane around 1912.
“When Orville and his brother ‘took off,’ there was a terrific roar, suction, and dust. The horses on this new buggy became so frightened he made us all crawl out while he held them by the bits and later tied them real short to a post,” Miranda Stringham wrote. “The horses became frantic when the machine roared over us.”
Although merrymaking brought people together, sometimes tragedy and hardship also played a role in unification.
In 1931, 14-year-old Naomi Purcell was killed in a school bus accident. About 30 students were riding in a beet truck that was doubling as a school bus. As it turned a corner, the truck tipped. The children spilled onto the highway, according to “Ammon” by Lynn Blatter and Val Crow. There were no major injuries, except for Naomi, who broke her neck and died in the arms of a teacher.
One of the more traumatic events of early Ammon was another crash in 1938. A newspaper account reads, “Three young children were killed, their bodies horribly mangled, when their car (a one-seater Model A Ford Coupe) collided with a Union Pacific train.” An adult also died the next day in the hospital.
Both these events were shocking, but they led to people supporting one another.
“This is a family-oriented community, and the people here really care,” local historian Ann Rydalch said. “That culture comes from our leaders who really care about meeting the needs of the people in Ammon.”
One example of this sense of togetherness is Ammon Days. The annual summer celebration began in 1966 and continues today. The event — food, activities and entertainment — are always free.
“We knew this needed to be different than everything else,” Mayor Sean Coletti said. “Ammon Days brings us all together in a way where we realize that we’re one community, we’re friends and neighbors, and we may have differences, but we’re all Ammonites.”
A host of other activities held throughout the year reinforce this idea.
The next one is this weekend. On Nov. 30, Ammon will hold the McCowin Park Lighting Ceremony and Winter Light Parade. There may not be dancing, like in the early-day Christmas celebrations, but the event promises lots of fun with food, carolers, activities and winter fireworks.
“It’s important for us to bring a sense of community,” Coletti said. “We’re growing, but we’re still a small town, and I want to have these types of events to reinforce that we’re still small and connected to each other.”
The once and future Ammon
When John Empey died in 1938, the village of Ammon only had about 300 residents, and while it continued to grow somewhat, it remained small for a long time.
By the 1970s and 1980s, Ammon had grown to several thousand people, but it was primarily a feeder community to the much larger — and now much closer — Idaho Falls. There was some businesses and industry in the area, but Ammon was primarily residential.
That began to change in the 1990s when Mayor Bruce Ard was elected and realized that Ammon could be much bigger than just a suburb of Idaho Falls. He worked to create an urban renewal district to start building businesses along Hitt Road.
“I think we had a mayor and a council that had a vision for what the city was going to become,” Coletti said. “I think he realized that there was a lot of potential commercial growth here at a time when we didn’t have much of it, and the tax base was pretty much all residential to support the many things that were needed.”
The Hitt Road corridor took off, and so did growth in Ammon. Building and population boomed throughout the 1990s, and between 2000 and 2010, driven by lots of land and low taxes, Ammon became one of the fastest-growing communities in the entire state.
About 16,500 people live in Ammon today.
“Even with the growth, though, I still feel this is a very comfortable residential community, and I like that,” Coletti said. “I like the fact that my son, who is 8, can ride his bike in the neighborhood, and I don’t feel nervous about it. That’s a good thing.”
Although growth has slowed, it doesn’t look like it is going to stop. In the last few years, Ammon has seen residential expansion in all directions. It just got a brand new high school, and commercial development is expanding along Sunnyside Road and 17th Street.
One of the newest undertakings in Ammon is a city-owned fiber-optic network aimed at getting high-speed internet to anyone who wants it. Coletti hopes to bring people to town who can work and innovate from their homes.
“I think in 10 to 20 years, we are going to have a large contingent of working professionals working at home because of our fiber program,” he said.
The emphasis also feeds into the city’s slogan: “Where Tomorrow Begins.”
“That slogan has a few different meanings, Coletti said. “We have a goal of looking toward tomorrow and how we can make our community better. We want people to feel like this is where their tomorrow begins, and we want to be considered a city of tomorrow, where people come to develop new products, ideas and services.”