The telling of a family’s story will vary depending on the storyteller. The black sheep might remember the family as always judgmental. The favored one might remember the family as always encouraging. To understand the truth about a family, you must hear stories from all members – those who gloss over its failings and those who never let them go.
Communities tell their stories, too. In Idaho’s Silver Valley, an effort is under way to do just that. The Coeur d’Alene Mining District National Heritage Area committee is working to become a National Heritage Area. To get the federal designation, a region’s history must shed light on the country’s history. The Silver Valley certainly qualifies.
In the late 1800s, its mines drew speculators and miners from throughout the country. For more than a century, Silver Valley mines produced the metals that paid workers, fed families and built proud towns, including Wallace, Kellogg and Mullan. Its mines produced the metals used in the equipment soldiers took to battle in World War II.
Its mines also polluted soil and air, killed with its fires, laid down toxic waste in waterways, deposited lead in the blood of its children. And dependence on fluctuating metals markets fostered boom-bust cycles much harsher than the region’s rugged winters. A story, indeed.
Its current chapter could foster hope for struggling communities. The Silver Valley is regenerating itself as a tourist and recreation destination. The National Heritage Area designation would attract even more visitors – historians, for instance, who would study the community and then take some extra time to ski, hike and mountain bike.
Kudos to the Coeur d’Alene Mining District National Heritage Area committee for listening to all concerns. Some residents still feel anger over the Superfund cleanup, for instance. They worry that the heritage area designation might infringe on private property rights, though it hasn’t in other heritage areas. The federal money given to these projects is not substantial, and local residents decide together how their area’s story is told. Some have done it through museums and interpretive signs. Silver Valley residents might brainstorm even more creative ways.
“The downside is that whenever you let the federal nose into the tent, you may get more of the camel than you want to,” explained Ron Roizen, a prime mover behind the effort. “This is a very individualistic culture. There is a healthy suspicion. Others see it as a blessing.”
The skeptics and the boosters need to listen to one another. Then they should work together for this important designation. Explain the Silver Valley’s history to the rest of the nation. It’s a fascinating story, from all sides.