September 13, 2009 in Idaho Voices

At 100 years old, Athol sticks to a slower pace – and it works

By The Spokesman-Review
 

To some folks, Athol is known for its funny name and as a stoplight one must endure whilst traveling between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint.

Personally, it has a place in my heart for hosting the wonderful Country Boy Cafe, home of the most incredible chicken fried steak, and biscuits and gravy in the Idaho Panhandle.

In honor of Athol’s recent celebration of 100 years of official existence, I’ve put together some semi-fascinating history and trivia bits about the eighth-largest town in Kootenai County.

Athol has always had a bit of an identity crisis, at least name-wise. The town started as Colton, which was changed to Athol after a settler from the Massachusetts town with the same name decided it was somehow better.

In 1966, after the Girl and Boy Scouts both held events nearby at the old Naval base, the name Roundup City was suggested and rejected.

Later that year, when Farragut State Park opened its gates a few miles away, a town debate arose among its 300 residents whether they should change the town’s name to Farragut to sort of “cash in” on all the tourists that would be blazing through. Some residents thought it would be a good way to avoid confusion; others were vehemently opposed.

In a Spokane Daily Chronicle news article at the time, local grocery owner Mrs. A. A. Olston complained “It’s always been Athol and I want my children when they grow up to say they were born here.” Her mother, Mrs. W. R. Johnston, explained how the town of LaCrosse had changed to Gibbs at one point and was later incorporated into Coeur d’Alene, making it difficult for a person from LaCrosse to “prove they were ever even born.”

To this day, there are those who think Athol should change its name as to stop being the, ahem, butt of so many jokes. The first fluttering of modern life where Athol now sits was a Northern Pacific Railroad Station built in 1882. By 1909, when it became an official town, Athol was one of the hot spots of North Idaho with all the jack pine trees boosting the lumber and agriculture industry to a peak.

The town had many hotels, a drugstore, a blacksmith, a jewelry store, a throbbing discotheque, a mercantile company, a botox therapist and multiple restaurants. The Great Depression effectively ruined the fun, and the good times in Athol went pear-shaped. The population declined rapidly and things didn’t pick up until Farragut opened nearby.

Since Silverwood Theme Park has been booming just down the road, things have been looking even more upbeat for development in Athol, and it should finally have somewhere to buy underwear in about another 100 years or so. Things move kind of slow that way in Athol, but fortunately, that’s how most Atholites like it.

I read somewhere in my research that the name Athol means “pleasant place” which surprised me slightly as I’d always thought it meant “a place to stop for gas and some Ho Hos.” According to the 2000 U.S. Census, construction is the number one industry in Athol at 26 percent, and the 11th-largest industry is making doohickeys out of the branches that fall from the trees after a big storm.

The most common occupation for men is “vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, installers, and repairers” (8 percent), and for women it’s “food and beverage serving workers except waitresses” (9 percent). OK, where are they serving food and beverages then? At home when their husbands come home from a hard day at the garage?

In 1996, Athol resident Lynne MacKinzie employed her clever wit to create a line of Athol Gear products that pretty much said what everyone had been thinking all along. Things like “Prevent Colon Cancer, Get Your Athol Checked” or “I’m a real Athol without my coffee.” Even Mayor Lanny Spurlock dug the idea, saying, “Hey, why not have a little fun in life?”

Primarily unchanged for decades, Athol remains a peaceful place where you can still hear the freight trains rattle across the vast open prairie and the cattle groan at the moon and stars in the clear night sky. Lastly, a visit to one of the town’s handful of busy diners is a trip back to a slower, more charming time when the food really stuck to your ribs, everybody knew everything about everybody, and friendly faces made even strangers feel welcome.

Contact correspondent Patrick Jacobs by e-mail at orangetv@yahoo.com. Previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. For more restaurant and nightlife reviews, music commentary and random thoughts and photos, visit his blog at getoutnorthidaho.com.


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