April 14, 2007 in Voices

Story of Mica

By The Spokesman-Review
 
J. BART RAYNIAK photos photo

Mica Postmaster Cecil Boyd shares a moment with his 4-year-old granddaughter, Keely, at the Mica post office Wednesday. Cecil and his wife, Lynn, live in the back of the post office, which has been in the same building since 1902.
(Full-size photo)

It was the deal that changed Cecil and Lynn Boyds’ lives forever.

Twenty-three years ago, living in rural North Idaho, the husband and wife were looking for a change when opportunity knocked. A couple in the tiny brick town of Mica, roughly 10 minutes south of Spokane Valley, offered to trade them straight up, their lives for the Boyds’.

Cecil and Lynn would swap their Tensed home for the odd institution that was the Mica store, post office and cafe, all rolled into one century-old building on the town’s main drag, Belmont Road. They never looked back.

“We like it here,” said Lynn Boyd. “Our family is here. Our daughter lives across the street.”

By the Western rural definition of what elevates a cluster of homes to place status – bar, post office, store – the Boyds’ post office is keeping Mica on the map. The cafe closed several years ago, the store before that. But on the west wall of the Boyds’ home, the posted 99023 ZIP code is proof positive that this is a place, sort of.

Not quite a Palouse town, not exactly part of Spokane Valley, Mica seems to have fallen through the cracks of history. The region’s most complete repositories of Inland Northwest information have only a small body of literature on Mica. The community’s story is vaguely told through newspaper clippings about the town brick plant and reminiscences by former students of Mica School, that burned down decades ago.

But piece together the single pages of information and a rich mosaic emerges, one that tells the story of a town that nearly a century ago played a key role in the building of Spokane and the mines of the Idaho Panhandle. Mica even had a role in the region’s preparations for the nukes that never came during the Cold War.

Even current Mica residents point to the town brick plant, now run by Bellevue-based Mutual Materials Co., when talking about the community’s origins. It’s an association easily made. The plant has fired the red clay soil of the Mica hillside into bricks for almost a century. It’s the last kiln standing out of six Spokane Valley or Palouse brick companies that fired everything from street pavers to sewer pipe for an emerging Inland Empire.

The historical Spokane Chronicle building was made from locking Mica bricks, as was the St. Ignatius Hospital in Colfax and the brick-lined fireboxes of the Bunker Hill and Sullivan smelters in Kellogg. Government buildings as far away as Fort Benton, Mont., were built of Mica brick.

However the greater Mica community predates the brick plant by at least two decades. Homesteaders first began filing deeds on land around Mica in the 1880s. The oldest grave in the Mica Cemetery was dug in 1883. Here is where the community’s traceable roots run deepest.

Pine-studded and heavily blanketed with native prairie grasses, the cemetery located a quarter-mile south of town and west of State Route 27 marks the former site of Mica School. Long gone, the school was the community’s original gathering place, a dance hall, church and funeral parlor all rolled into one.

“It was not unusual for school to be interrupted for an hour to permit use of one room of the school for a funeral,” wrote Maurice Tewinkel, in the home-published book, “Down Memory Lane with Mica Peak People.”

It was a small school with a sizable student body. In 1908 there were 20 boys and 22 girls in attendance, though Tewinkel notes that male students often stayed home to herd cattle or clear land. A cast-iron pot of stew usually simmered on the top of the school’s pot-bellied stove so there’d be hot lunch for the students at noon. And many of the school’s former students recalled burying potatoes in the stove ashes when they first arrived for class. The spuds were baked just right by lunchtime.

A half-mile north of the school on the same side of State Route 27, two men were baking Mica’s first bricks, with limited success. Charles Oudin and Martin Bergman started a small brick kiln in 1893 known as the Oudin and Bergman Fire Clay and Mfg. Co., but the partners split up after 14 years. Bergman took his expertise to Chester in Spokane Valley, launching a brick plant there.

Oudin partnered with Lucien Oudin, James Killbreth and Frank Watson and started American Fire Brick, the plant that is still cranking out bricks today. It was a 100-man endeavor, paid for in part by the reconstruction of downtown Spokane, which was ravaged by fire in 1889.

American Fire Brick employed woodcutters to chop kiln wood from the forests east of Mica toward Mica Peak. To keep its kilns burning at 2100 degrees Fahrenheit, the plant needed six large wagonloads of wood daily, according to Jenny Foss, a Spokane Valley historian. The kiln furnaces were switched over to coal in the 1920s.

The plant expansion prompted an area land baron, Max Muloine, to plat the town.

The post office the Boyds live in was already in place, though actually never part of the platted community. Belmont Road, the town’s main drag, which runs in front of the Boyd place, was the town’s northern city limit, which also places the iconic Mica Hotel on the town’s outskirts.

Newspaper accounts describe the 15-room hotel as more of a boardinghouse for unmarried brick plant workers. Today, massive holes in the building’s drab gray stucco reveal the large, hollow bricks with which it was built. Locals say the two-story hotel, its windows sealed off by bricks and plywood, went from boardinghouse to warehouse after the highway was paved and driving to work became easier.

News articles show the hotel was recruited for the civil defense during the Cold War, when the government leased the building, turning it into an emergency communications hub. Were a Russian nuke ever to explode in the Inland Northwest, civil defense officials would rush to phones and radios located in the Mica Hotel and coordinate emergency services. The operation was complete with remote radiation detectors to gauge the fallout across Spokane County, as well as detectors on its roof to determine whether it was safe to go outside. The community lives in the shadow of a large, armed forces radar site on Mica Peak.

Today, the town is in transition. Mica resident Dianne Peters sees what can only be described as “rural renewal” in Mica proper. Some homes are being spruced up. Peters and her husband Gary have been renovating their own Mica home for the better part of 20 years. Theirs is a two-story home built in the early 1900s right beside the Mica Hotel.

The Peterses bought the property in 1978 because at $20,000, it was what they could afford.

Hewlett Packard had just announced plans to locate a large facility in Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley home prices were skyrocketing, Dianne Peters said.

The bones of their house tell the story of Mica’s austere beginnings.

“It was built in 1906,” Peters said. “We know it was originally wired for electricity but had no indoor plumbing. We know at one time it was a two-family home. Somebody lived in the front half and somebody lived in the back half and maybe shared the bathroom.”

Mica has gone from an old company town to a Spokane bedroom community, Peters said. A bigger change is perhaps the construction outside Mica where large homes are being built on lots of 20 acres or more. Lumber trailers and concrete trucks rumble through town regularly for home jobsites in the hills east of Mica.

The housing boom has caused friction between new residents and Mica-area lifers like Joel Carr, who runs the multiacre Mica Gun Range. As recently as three years ago, the range was a staging point for law enforcement tactical assault practice.

Neighbor complaints about gun noise and allegations that tactical maneuvers spilled over onto newly platted home lots, have cost the range business, Carr said recently. He disputes the allegations that his business has trespassed upon his new neighbors.

A person could burn a quarter-tank of gas driving the hillsides of Mica looking for all the new growth or he could just do what Cecil Boyd does and count the postal boxes.

“I think we got 97 boxes now and about 85 homes on the route, which is driven for us by the Valleyford route driver,” Boyd said.

All that mail indicates to Boyd that Mica is growing. He served only 70 customers 18 years ago. But he’s still comfortable with the land swap he made more than 20 years ago.

“I like the people,” Boyd said. “It’s a pretty nice community. Really, I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere.”

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