We Are East Idaho: Ririe
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RIRIE — Ririe is a quiet town of about 680 people today, but at one time it was a much busier place.
Once, it was the largest wheat shipping center in Idaho, and that heritage lives on today.
When settlers arrived in the region in the late 1800s, it was called the Antelope Flats and the settlers were skeptical about whether the dry, sagebrush-covered land could produce crops enough to support their own families, let alone a new settlement.
But given the rich volcanic soil, and the nearby Snake River, some saw the potential to turn the valley from desert to lush farmland. Soon — with a lot of effort, the settlers were producing an abundance of crops.
It was around that time, in 1890, that David Ririe and his wife, Leah Ann Lovell, migrated from Utah to Idaho.
“The town and surrounding valley looked very different from the beautiful farms and homes when my father, David Ririe, came to this valley. That was in 1890 and the valley was a desert of sagebrush,” one of his children wrote in “A Short History of Ririe.”
The Riries had eight children. The first only lived to 8 months old, but the rest lived until adulthood. During the time the Riries were raising their family, the valley went by various names.
Commenting on the letters her father, David, sent to his parents, Elizabeth Ririe Hoggan wrote that “one would wonder if he knew where he did live.”
“The first letters were postmarked Birch Creek, later Prospect, Bingham County and still later Rudy, Fremont County. After that, they were changed to Lorenzo, Fremont County, and then to Rigby, Route #2, Jefferson County and finally to Ririe, Idaho,” Hoggan wrote.
How a town got its name
David Ririe’s children and grandchildren remembered the man as industrious and hard-working. A man who turned the land “into one of the best-improved farms in this part of the state.”
David’s grandson and namesake wrote about his grandfather’s extensive orchard.
“Grandpa was very progressive. His orchard was the largest in the area. Long after his death, we enjoyed the fruit of his labors. In the grove, there were plums, cherries, pears, and many varieties of apples. In fact, there were apple varieties that I have seldom seen since, such as yellow transparent, Whitney crab, Gano, Ben Davis and Wolf River,” David Ririe wrote in “My Personal Reflections on the Life of Grandfather David Ririe.”
It’s clear that the Riries weren’t the only successful farmers in the area. In fact, the farmers in the area found that they needed a better way to sell and transport their produce. In July 1914, a solution presented itself.
“One day two men called at (David’s) home to talk to him about a railroad going around the valley,” according to “A Short History of Ririe.”
The two men were representatives of the Oregon Short Line Railroad. David was all for it, but others opposed the idea. The people of the nearby settlement of Shelton protested vigorously as the tracks would need to be laid across their land.
David worked closely with the men to find a possible route for the railroad. Eventually, he convinced a local man to sell portions of his land that hadn’t yet been cultivated.
Shortly after, the ring of hammer on steel began to sound through the townsite as work on the railroad began.
Around 17 people from the Oregon Short Line were working on the railroad, and they needed a place to sleep. David offered the men room and board until the settlement’s first hotel was built. The Filipino immigrants who laid the tracks slept in tents at the construction site.
“Mother had a large home that was turned into a boarding house. At one time she had 22 boarders besides baking bread and selling milk and eggs to a group of men who were camped and working on the railroad,” according to “A Short History of Ririe.”
Leah Ann, daughter Lizzie and a local woman they hired to help baked 22 loaves of bread every day to provide for the railroad workers.
Eventually, construction finished, and the townsite had its railroad station to provide transportation for the farmer’s crops.
“When the mighty steam engine came rolling by, we all stood in amazement and wondered what our previously quiet domain was going to develop into,” Hoggan wrote.
With the railroad, the townsite grew. That growth was helped along by David’s industrious nature. He purchased land for development and sold part of his own land to become the townsite’s first general store. But the community still needed an official name.
“When the question arose as to what the name of this new prospective metropolis should be called, one name and another was suggested. Some agreed that it should have the name of the original owner of the property upon which the railroad was built, but the general manager of arrangements said, ‘It should be called Ririe out of respect for Mr. Ririe’s efforts in helping us gain rights-of-way and permits to cross canals and roads and farms so that this part of the country could be developed,'” Hoggan wrote.
The Ririe name was chosen, and the community was eventually incorporated into Jefferson County.
The town continued to grow at a rapid pace and traded the problems of a small frontier village for the new problems of a growing town, including fires, flooding and even bank robberies.
Every town in America has had its own share of difficulties, and Ririe is no different.
On July 4, 1919, a fire broke out in a livery stable. The hot dry July wind caused the fire to spread throughout the town.
According to information gathered by the Ririe High School Class of 1959, the fire jumped from building to building. The town had a small firefighting force, but their efforts to contain the flames were ineffectual.
Records tell about Gus Kunter, who grabbed an ax and jumped onto the roof of one of the burning buildings. As the firefighters worked to hose down the flames, they accidentally struck Gus with the water and knocked him to the ground. He was badly hurt.
Men, women and children ran frantically as others worked to rescue the people stuck inside two hotels that eventually burned to the ground.
By the time the fire was extinguished, it had burned much of the southern section of town and destroyed some of the largest buildings in Ririe.
Along with the fire, 1919 was also the year David Ririe passed away. He was buried in the Ririe-Shelton Cemetery.
1919 was also the year that three men tried to rob the Ririe Bank.
Two days before the fire started, two men were walking to Ririe from Idaho Falls. Along the way, Joe Dutson, a Ririe citizen, gave the pair a ride into town. After saying their goodbyes, the two men went to go meet up with their third partner who was working at Milo Rowan’s garage. There they waited.
After some time the first two men left taking a gun the third man had given them and walked towards the bank as it was beginning to close for the day. When the last man, Mr. Homer, exited the bank and began locking up, the two men sprang into action.
One man shoved the gun into Mr. Homer’s face while the other tried to push him back into the back. They planned to get him in the bank, chloroform him then blow up the safe. But Mr. Homer wasn’t going to go quietly.
He jumped for the man holding the gun just as the man tried to fire. Mr. Homer knocked the gun from the man’s hand and pushed both of them back into the street and yelled for help. The two men sprinted away.
The small town was quickly in an uproar as groups searched for the would-be bank robbers. One of the men hid in a coal bin beside the Gem Theater across from the Bank. The other hid up the street in the Quality Store. However, it wasn’t long before they were found.
Townspeople took the robbers to Mr. Reeds Implement Store tied them up and held them at gunpoint until the constable from Rigby could take them into custody.
The third accomplice was found out when investigators traced the gun back to him. He apparently had trouble buying the firearm because the store didn’t want to take his check. After the robbery, the man fled to Idaho Falls but was later taken into custody and he confessed to being an accomplice.
Ririe faced trouble from water as well as fire. In 1927, in Kelly, Wyoming — more than 80 miles from Ririe — a part of a natural dam burst, causing a flash flood on the Gros Ventre River.
The flood was six feet deep and inundated Wilson, Wyoming. But it didn’t stop there. The floodwaters spilled into the Snake River. The river overflowed and flooded Ririe. It took a year for the people of Ririe to clear wood and debris from the land. In all throughout Idaho and Wyoming, the flood caused $500,000 of damage. In today’s money, that’s $27 million.
The people of Ririe didn’t let any of these events keep them down. After each one, they came together and rebuilt. Or in the case of the failed bank robbers, they would make sure the criminals were caught and justice served.
Over the years Ririe has held strong to its agricultural roots and remains one of Idaho’s remaining farming towns. The railroad still runs regularly through the city and stops to pick up loads of grain, barley and potatoes to be shipped around the country.
As a small town, it can be difficult for someone who didn’t grow up there to feel part of the community, one local business owner said. But after time, that all changes.
“Now it’s like family,” said Sweet Surrender owner Sheila Mathews. “It’s like everyone is family.”