UCON —- Over the years, the small town of Ucon has seen its share of ups and downs, but one aspect that always seems to remain the same is the family-owned business community at its heart.
As with most of the now Idaho Falls-area, the first settlers arrived in present-day Ucon in the mid-1880s, according to Karen Landon, one of the authors of the book “Ucon, A City Lost – A City Found.”
Originally, the area was called Willow Creek, but had a bit of an identity crisis at the turn of the century. In 1903, residents renamed the area Ako, and in 1908 it was renamed again to Elva. In her book, Landon said eventually, four letters were chosen from a jar and the name Ucon was settled on in 1911.
In the beginning, the small community had an amusement hall for dancing and plays, a mercantile store, movie house, drug store, dairy shop, hotels and a pool hall. At that point, it was quite the hub, even boasting a population greater than Idaho Falls’ 900 residents.
The arrival of the railway changed all that, and when tracks were built in places like Menan and Roberts, the community shrunk with businesses closing and buildings being demolished.
“The railroad was going to the people, the people didn’t have to come here so the population started to dwindle,” Landon told EastIdahoNews.com.
Eventually, the bustling community settled down to become the smaller feeder community it is today. There are about 1,144 people living in Ucon, and most of them work in nearby Idaho Falls or Ammon.
There is only one traffic light and only one gas station, but a number of family-owned businesses in the area have endured and continue to make Ucon what it is today.
Holst Truck Parts
One of those longtime businesses is Holst Truck Parts.
In 1907, James E. “Ted” Holst Sr. was born. His family settled in Ucon but his father passed away when Holst was a young boy and James he hopped on a freight train headed for Seattle, Washington. With nothing but an eighth-grade education from Ucon, Holst started working at gas stations and repair shops and put himself through mechanics school. After he finished he returned to Ucon in 1937 and opened his own repair shop.
Holst Truck Parts has been open ever since.
Holst Sr. built farm machinery out of wrecked vehicles during World War II because farm equipment was tough to find. He took parts off the vehicles, built farm equipment with it and what was left of the vehicles he put in a yard behind the shop.
“It got to the point where he was selling more parts off the vehicles that were sitting out back than he was building machinery,” Jon Holst, Holst Sr.’s son, said.
James eventually transformed his shop into a salvage business, which remains almost 90 years later. Holst Truck Parts is still family-owned and operated with around 35 employees, over 30 acres of parts and more than 25,000 square feet of warehouse.
“Anything to do with trucks, we do,” Jon said.
The services they provide aren’t just for locals. Their goal is to get whomever it may be back on the road quickly by providing the highest quality service. That’s why they also ship truck parts all over the world.
Despite the growing success “Holst Truck Parts” has had since James started the business, that’s not what stands out to Jon the most. The opportunity to wake up every day and work with family, like his sons, makes owning the business that much better.
“That’s the best part, family all working together,” Jon said. “We all get along. The wives all get along, it’s just a miracle.”
Another iconic business is the Rusty Lantern, a rustic, western-themed restaurant about a half mile from the Ucon exit on U.S. Highway 20. Known for its country atmosphere, antique decorations and homemade food, the only diner in Ucon is an ideal location for locals and those passing through.
“If they’re looking for something out of the ordinary and they don’t want to eat at a franchise, they want to find the mom and pop places. Rusty Lantern will pop up (on the GPS),” owner Barbara Hart said.
A little over nine years ago, Hart and her husband Kelly opened the diner’s front doors. But it was a journey to get to that point.
Both Kelly and Barbara are from Ucon, but they lived in Montana for 21 years. During their time there, Kelly did carpentry work and Barbara worked in the restaurant business.
The couple owned a restaurant for three years in Wisdom, Montana, a tiny town of 100 people. As a young mother, that’s where Barbara said she gained experience.
“I had never worked in food, but it was only 100 people,” Barbara said. “If you wanted a job, you worked there.”
Another small restaurant in town closed, and the Harts decided to open their own eatery there. For three years they ran the business in the middle of a rural area, but the two-hour commute their kids had riding a bus to and from school was not worth it. They moved closer to their kid’s school and left the business behind.
As the children grew, some of them moved back to Idaho. Barbara worked for restaurants in Dillon, Montana before she and her husband were convinced they should return home.
“The kids were trying to get us back down here,” Barbara said. “They said, ‘There’s a little vacant place in Ucon would you want to come and look at it?'”
Sure enough, Kelly visited the building and the two of them decided to lease it. The family business attracts visitors from all around. They employee about 17 people and out of Hart’s five children, four of them work with their parents at the diner.
And if you live in Ucon, you also know about Alene’s Chocolates.
Vernon and Alene Hill married in 1948 and spent their life together raising five children in Ucon. They were married for 68 years before Alene passed away in 2017. But she left a legacy, one that most people in Ucon know as “Alene’s Chocolates.”
Alene made mints for wedding receptions before learning how to make chocolate centers at a church activity.
“She came home all enthused,” Vernon, the oldest man in Ucon at 93-years-old, said. “I had to buy her a marble slab, and she went into making chocolates.”
Pretty soon she was giving chocolates away to her family and they wanted to buy some to give to their friends.
“That started it all,” Vernon said.
Years ago, during a trip back east at Christmas time, the couple visited a few candy shops. One of the businesses had a machine that melted chocolate and had a little conveyor belt. A center was placed on the belt and as it moved, it would get covered with chocolate. Then it would be taken off the belt and put on a pan.
“She wanted one of them,” Vernon said. “So we ordered one.”
Alene received her chocolate machine and used it in their kitchen. When the Festival of Trees rolled around, she donated a couple of pounds of chocolates to the event. But one day, when the food inspector called and asked if her place had been inspected, her answer wasn’t what the inspector wanted to hear. She told him she makes the chocolates in her kitchen. He let her know that it’s against the law to sell anything made in the kitchen.
That’s when “Alene’s Chocolates” opened in the Hill’s basement in the late 1950s.
“Over the years we accumulated little pieces of equipment here and there,” Vernon said.
They made enough chocolates to afford five missions where they served for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During that time, they worked in offices and proselyted to people around the world about their beliefs.
The shop is now run by their son Sid and his wife Becky who bought it when they retired. The candies are not available in stores and are only made at Christmas time. But year-round, Vernon is proud of what his wife left behind.
“It’s gotten to be a pretty good business,” Vernon said.