Does the name conjure up a rich history, images of miners heroically wringing wealth from the land?
Or does it evoke images of stinking industrial pollution, of smoke-hazed skies and coughing citizens?
Those dueling images are at the center of a proposal by some residents to change the small town’s name to something a little less industrial.
It’s an emotional issue. A City Council hearing on the matter ended Monday night in shouting and insults. One name-change proponent was booted from the meeting.
“I was trying to take a vote and he was interrupting,” Smelterville Mayor David Olson said Tuesday. “He was escorted out by the deputy. He’d been out of line for quite a while.”
That person was J.C. Marshall, a 66-year-old Smelterville businessman who is helping lead the charge to rename Smelterville, population 464.
“They ambushed me with spitballs,” Marshall said Tuesday. “But there’s nine innings to a ballgame.”
Marshall believes the city is handicapped by its moniker. Businesses are reluctant to set up shop in a place named Smelterville, he said.
“Nice town, nice people, in the foothills of the Bitterroots - I could talk all day about the virtues of it,” he said. “But outside of our area, the name ‘Smelterville’ has a connotation of smokestacks, sooty buildings and a bad environment, like Birmingham or Pittsburgh.”
Smelterville is poised for growth - it has some of the largest areas of flat land in the narrow valley. It has an airport and land set aside for an industrial park. The area’s wide-spread contamination from a century of mining is being cleaned up or covered up.
Although there are two nearby zinc and lead smelter smokestacks - scheduled for demolition in six weeks - there is no smelter in Smelterville.
Still, the name remains.
“Where would you rather be: Sun Valley, Palm Springs, Coeur d’Alene - or Smelterville?” asked Marshall.
He says he thinks most residents agree with him that the name should be changed. His group, the Ad Hoc Committee for Name Change, recently sent surveys to 225 residents. Of the 78 people who responded, two-thirds said they want Smelterville renamed.
Proponents of changing the name have suggested half a dozen alternatives and are seeking more suggestions. So far, they’ve come up with Syringa (Idaho’s state flower), Mountain View, South Fork, Elk Ridge, Bitterroot and Silver Valley.
But longtime Smelterville residents such as Myrtle Gilman want no part of it. She likes the current name.
“It’s been that way for umpteen years,” she said. “It (changing the name) would take all the memories away from the valley.”
Retired mechanic John Westfall moved to Smelterville two years ago.
“No matter what name you put on it, there’s still the same contamination,” he said. “How can a new name change it?”
Smelterville got its name in 1929 when about a dozen citizens gathered to pick a name for the post office station there. According to former postmaster Vi Brown , there were three choices: Van Rena, Smelterville and Silver City. By voice vote, the people decided on Smelterville.
As far as stigma goes, residents point to nearby Pinehurst, population 1,722. A pleasant name, yes, but not yet a boom town.
“One of the citizens pointed out that Pinehurst does not have a regular, full-time, sit-down-and-eat restaurant,” said Smelterville Mayor Olson. “Right here in the Smelterville area, there are four.”
As mayor, he said, he has felt no stigma at meetings.
“I don’t get treated any differently. They don’t turn their backs on me and say, ‘He’s the mayor of Smelterville, ha, ha,”’ said Olson.
He also said there may be some problems with some of the proposed names. Fire officials have asked that the city not be renamed anything with “mountain” or “silver” in it because there already are so many nearby roads and businesses containing those words. Any more, Olson said, could add to confusion in an emergency.
He said the council will study the committee’s survey. If it appears most citizens support a name change, the mayor said, the city will put a referendum on the November ballot.
“If the people want it changed,” he said, “it will be changed.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Map of area
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