This Idaho town was founded 56 years ago, and one of its residents became a renowned author - East Idaho News
Museum Memories

This Idaho town was founded 56 years ago, and one of its residents became a renowned author

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Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series highlighting the stories behind local museum artifacts.

MUD LAKE – Trish Petersen gets misty-eyed when she talks about the history of her community and the people who live there.

The 51-year-old Mud Lake woman moved to the town of just over 400 people 28 years ago. Petersen grew up in Teton Valley and swore she’d never live in a place she once described as a “forsaken desert of sagebrush and jackrabbits.” Today, it’s a place she’s proud to call home, mostly because of how tight-knit the community is.

She cites a recent personal tragedy as an example.

Her son-in-law, Wyatt Billman, was killed in December after colliding with a semi on Idaho Highway 33. Billman and his wife had a 15-month-old son at the time, which Petersen’s daughter is now raising on her own.

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Petersen is grateful for the way the community rallied around her and her family during that difficult time. Being surrounded by people who love and care about her is what makes living at “the end of the earth” worth it to Petersen.

Many of the town’s early settlers also felt a reluctance to live in such a remote place in eastern Idaho.

osborne russell
Osborne Russell was a trapper who visited the area now known as Mud Lake in 1835. He kept a record of his travels in a journal that was later published in a book. | Courtesy Mud Lake Museum

Historical highlights

Mud Lake is about 40 miles northwest of Idaho Falls. It sits between Rexburg and Howe off Highway 33. A 1978 newspaper clipping refers to it as the last “Last Frontier.” Though the first white settlers arrived in the early 1900s, it didn’t officially become a city until 1968.

Osborne Russell was the first trapper to come through the area in 1835. In one of his journal entries Petersen shared with Idaho Magazine earlier this year, Osborne describes a landscape filled with fat buffalo and hundreds of friendly Bannock tribal members.

Mud Lake’s first permanent white settler was Horace Jackett in 1901. Before then, it was a place where horse thieves and outlaws came to hide.

andy and mary nelson
Andy and Mary Nelson settled in Mud Lake in 1921. The house they built is still standing. | Courtesy Mud Lake Museum

A small shell of a home purchased by Andy and Mary Nelson in 1921, which they filled in with mud and grass bricks they made on their own, is still standing.

nelson house
Mud Lake Museum display showing photos of the house Andy and Mary Nelson lived in. | Rett Nelson,

The remoteness and sense of loneliness some people experienced in Mud Lake is illustrated in a story told about the couple in 1926. In a museum display, the Nelsons say they “were enthralled and delighted” when they went to a neighbor’s house and listened to a radio for the first time. Read it below.

nelsons first radio
The story of the Nelson’s first radio, as displayed in the Mud Lake Museum | Rett Nelson,

But it was the contribution of Pete Kuharski and his wife, two immigrants from Poland, that allowed Mud Lake to become a thriving, burgeoning village. The couple are credited with building the Mud Lake Mercantile, which is now occupied by the Mud Lake Museum. The Oasis Bar and Cafe on the west side of the store, which the Kuharskis also owned, was destroyed in a fire in 2016. The museum was also affected.

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Petersen, the museum’s program director, tells the museum is the activity center of the community and attracts visitors from all over.

One of the museum’s most popular exhibits talks about the bunny bash of 1981. At that time, there was such an overabundance of jackrabbits in Mud Lake. In old news reports on display, locals describe seeing fields crawling with rabbits and crops being destroyed because of it.

In an effort to control the population, community members caught them in cages and clubbed them over the head. The ground was later covered with thousands of dead bunnies and media outlets throughout the country reported on it. Petersen says it was spun in a negative way and attracted outrage from animal rights groups nationwide.

Another significant, though not as widely reported piece of Mud Lake history, is about a local farmer’s connection to a famous author.

They knew him before he was famous

Jimmy Stewart, a sheep rancher from Monteview who played a role in Mud Lake’s founding and passed away in March at age 95, often hired people to come and work for him.

jimmy stewart pic
One of the boys in this photo is Jimmy Stewart. The other is his brother. It’s not clear who is who. | Courtesy Mud Lake Museum

Wilson Rawls, the future author of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” had come to Idaho seeking work for what was then the Atomic Energy Commission on the Arco desert. He lived in Idaho Falls and would take a bus to Arco. He eventually tired of the long bus ride and got a job working for the Stewarts.

Jimmy’s daughter, Karen Stoddart, shares her memories of Rawls and the time he spent on their Monteview farm.

“He came in the summers with the threshing crew,” Stoddart says. “He lived and worked in Arizona part of the year. He was a carpenter by trade. He (helped harvest) our second hay crop and grain and built many of our wooden head gates.”

Rawls worked at the Stewart farm every summer for about six years. The house he lived in during that time still exists.

rawls farm house
The house Wilson Rawls lived in while working on the Stewart farm. | Courtesy Mud Lake Museum

After several summers, Stoddart’s mom introduced Rawls to Sophie Styczinski, a family friend and AEC budget analyst who eventually became his wife.

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Rawls had previously written the story that became “Where the Red Fern Grows” before coming to Idaho. It had been Rawls’ dream to be a writer since reading “Call of the Wild” as a kid, but he had a limited education. At 16, Rawls left home to find work to support his family during the Great Depression.

Rawls worked all over the country and returned home “each fall to hunt and work with his family,” a written history about Rawls says. “He took the stories he had written and locked them in an old trunk.”

As Rawls worked on the Stewart farm, Stoddart’s mom heard of his manuscript, which had numerous grammatical and other errors. Stoddart recalls her mom reading it and providing corrections.

Rawls and Styczinski were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Idaho Falls. Stewart was Rawls’ best man, according to Stoddart. Rawls and his wife lived in Idaho Falls for a short time before moving to Wisconsin.

Embarassed by his lack of education, Rawls had burned his manuscript days before the wedding and given up on his dream. When he confided in Sophie about it, she helped him rewrite it, edit it and get it published.

rawls red fern
Wilson Rawls, left, and the cover of “Where the Red Fern Grows” | Courtesy photo

Rawls’ second and last book, “Summer of the Monkeys,” was also written in Idaho Falls.

The Mud Lake Museum doesn’t currently have an exhibit about Rawls, which Petersen is hoping to remedy in the near future.

Despite Mud Lake’s remote location, Petersen is in awe of those who came before her to carve out a life and make something out of a “forsaken” sagebrush landscape.

She’s enjoyed being a volunteer at the museum for the last decade and says the historical knowledge she’s gained is “priceless.”

“Only the people who have experienced life in Mud Lake … understand (why we love it),” she says. “I’ve learned the community I once thought had nothing to offer is filled with the love and sacrifices of those who came before us.”

smith carts
Courtesy Mud Lake Museum


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