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We are East Idaho: Rigby

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.

RIGBY — It was a cold and windy Sunday morning nearly 100 years ago when one of Rigby’s most popular businesses was destroyed in a massive fire.

It was 1926, the height of one of the most prosperous decades in the nation’s history. On the corner of State and Main was a three-story building that housed one of the largest department stores in eastern Idaho.

“It was said to have everything – clothing and hardware,” Rigby resident and historian Pat Scott tells EastIdahoNews.com.

PHOTO GALLERY: RIGBY

The Quality Store, as it was known to locals, was a popular shopping destination for residents of Rigby and surrounding communities because of the wide selection of products that were available.

On Saturday night, March 25, the shop closed after another week of business. The following day, a dramatic turn of events brought an unexpected end to the city’s most popular business. On March 26, 1926, the Quality Store caught fire.

“It started in the rear and quickly spread from the basement to the roof,” Scott says. “It was fanned by 50 mile an hour winds, and within 30 minutes, the entire structure was engulfed in flames.”

Quality Store Fire on Main Street in Rigby, March 26, 1926 | Jefferson County Historical Society

Weather conditions made the fire grow quickly. That’s when Russell Bates, the fire chief at the time, and his crew sprang into action. Firefighters from neighboring counties were called to assist because the flames were so big.

“Just a day before, Jack Oram had opened a modern bowling alley in the west end of the building at a cost of $100,000,” Scott writes in her history book about Rigby.

It wasn’t long before the fire started to spread to the Royal Theater next door to the west. Lines of hose along the roof and walls allowed firefighters to contain the fire and save the theater, but the Quality Store was destroyed.

No one was in the building when the fire started, but details surrounding the cause were never officially determined. Scott says it was most likely an accident that could have originated from a lit cigarette, trash or a stove that was left on.

“It was such a hot fire, I don’t know if they ever found the source,” says Scott.

Whatever the cause, no injuries were reported. But the loss of the building was devastating and left a huge impact.

“This fire would scar the community for a number of years since the Quality Store was never rebuilt,” Scott writes.

In later years, the site would become home to Walker’s Cafe, and more recently, Me’n Stans restaurant.

Ironically, fire would strike this same intersection again more than 50 years later.

The heroic efforts of firemen prevented flames from damaging The Royal Theater in 1926, but on March 13, 1979, the old theater caught fire and burned down the night before a scheduled reopening after a renovation project.

Like the Quality Store, details about the cause are not available. No one was injured, but the loss of the 60-year-old building was another blow for many locals and it marked the end of an era.

From that blustery day in 1926 to today, fire has played a prominent role in Rigby’s development. The Rigby Tabernacle, the old junior high, Jefferson County Bank and Riverside Gardens are just a few of the buildings from Rigby’s past that no longer exist because of major fires. One of the largest fires in recent memory is the Reed Drug store fire on Friday, July 8, 1988.

Reed Drug store fire

Reed Drug fire, July 8, 1988 | Mike Miller

Reed Drug was right next door to Ben Franklin craft store, which sat kitty-cornered from Me’n Stans, along with several other businesses.

Carl Anderson, fire chief for Central Fire District in Jefferson County, was involved in fighting this fire that began around 3:45 p.m.

“Our Lewisville battalion chief Brent Hayes was coming from Lewisville into Rigby. He saw the smoke and called it into the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.”

Crews from Rigby, Lewisville and Central Fire District responded. Flames quickly spread to Ben Franklin and firefighters from Idaho Falls and Madison County were called in to assist.

Crews fought the blaze for two days before Reed Drug and Ben Franklin were destroyed. No one was injured but some of the firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation.

The official cause of the fire, according to Anderson, was a short in the electrical wiring. Leon Guymon, who was also involved in fighting the fire, remembers a candle in one of the apartments being a contributing factor.

Though Reed Drug was never rebuilt, its memory lives on. Smoke damage can be seen on some of the buildings on Main Street to this day.

The early years

Rigby was first established as a town in 1903, but some of the first settlers arrived in 1883. Many of them were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Obadiah Armstrong was one of the first to arrive. He immigrated from Canada as a convert to the church and opened a general store near where Subway currently sits.

The man for whom Rigby is named is William F. Rigby, and according to Scott, he was actually from Rexburg.

“He was a church leader, a very respected businessman too. He operated a sawmill in the Spencer area, and he employed some of the early settlers here,” says Scott.

Rigby helped many of those early settlers get established in the community, and they eventually decided to name the community in his honor.

One of the city’s most famous citizens is Philo T. Farnsworth. His accomplishment of inventing television is the city’s claim to fame and is posted on a large billboard outside city limits on the south end of town. His story is well-documented in the Farnsworth TV & Pioneer Museum at 118 West 1st South.

But people are less familiar with two other Rigby residents whose accomplishments also had a worldwide impact.

Vardis Fisher was a student at Rigby High School from about 1910 to 1913. He demonstrated keen skills as a writer. After attending college, he went on to write numerous books about the old west, including “Mountain Man.” This book later served as the inspiration for the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson,” starring Robert Redford.

Wayne Quinton graduated with honors from Rigby High School in 1939. His passion for science and curiosity for how things worked lead him to create the dialysis machine and the treadmill.

Their stories are also on display in the museum.

A pioneering legacy

From the days of those early settlers in the late 1800s to the modern days of the 21st century, Rigby has grown into a thriving business community of about 4,200 people, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

Major fires over the years have changed the landscape and resulted in newer businesses opening up.

“Main Street has changed a lot,” Anderson says. “They’ve added some nice new buildings there. A Maverik is there now. They’ve got a nice building, but it certainly has changed the landscape of the city of Rigby.”

Photo taken from rooftop of Me’n Stans in Rigby | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

Main Street, where Ben Franklin once stood, was expanded and later became Abbott’s and remained a popular craft store for many years. It closed in May of 2017 before it was demolished and replaced with a new Maverik gas station.

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Me’n Stans on the opposite street corner was recently purchased by Andrew and Jorelle McClellan. It will soon be office space for several businesses. Behind it, where The Royal Theater once stood, is Lift’d Fitness, an amateur boxing MMA fitness gym.

RELATED | Lift’d Fitness: New gym coming to Rigby

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Other new developments include Dollar Tree at 131 West Main and a Papa Murphy’s restaurant opening later this week inside the old Maverik at 200 East Main.

Despite the growth, Rigby still has its challenges.

“The big difference between people today (versus then) is that people used to live here and work here. Now many of the people live here, but they work elsewhere,” Scott says.

Having unique services available in town is key to addressing this, according to Mayor Jason Richardson, and one way to do that is by making sure the proper infrastructure is in place. New water and sewer lines were installed throughout Rigby this summer.

Other things include keeping property tax rates low and making entrepreneurialism easy.

“We don’t have a business license. We don’t charge people to come and start a business here,” Richardson says. “We try to stay out of your way and let you be successful.”

Many different expansion projects are in the planning stages, including the museum, rodeo grounds and baseball field. Plans for a new rec center with a swimming pool have also been discussed.

“The population growth is spurring possibilities for some bigger projects,” he says.

But the most requested thing among residents is a new sit-down restaurant.

“That’s our No. 1 call from residents,” Mayor Jason Richardson says. “They want a coffee shop in the morning and somewhere to take the grandkids in the evening. They really want a sit-down restaurant. We’ve got a great barbecue place in town, but what (people) are looking for is that cozy (feel and a place) that offers breakfast.”

Ultimately, Richardson says it’s the people that make the community a great place to live and attractive for business owners.

“It’s great because it’s a tight, small community. Of course, growth changes that dynamic somewhat,” Richardson says. “I’m not originally from here. I grew up in northern California, but the moment we walked into Rigby we were at home. It’s comfortable and it’s fun. It’s a lovely place to raise your kids.”

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