KINGSTON, Idaho – Joe Peak remembers the first time he walked into the Snakepit.
“The bar was three deep with loggers and miners,” Peak said.
A jewel- bedecked, elaborately dressed woman tended the bar. Paintings and stuffed animals and Western memorabilia covered the walls and hung from the ceiling. Smoke thickened the air. It was January 1978.
“It was surreal, it really was,” he said. “A pretty rowdy bunch.”
Within weeks, he owned the place with a partner. Since then, Peak and his wife, Rose Mary, have kept the Snakepit, aka the Enaville Resort, open virtually every day but Thanksgiving and Christmas – a place for a meal, a drink (legal or otherwise), some gossip, a dish of complimentary huckleberry ice cream and a blast of wood-hewn “atmosphere.”
“It’s a Silver Valley institution – I know that sounds hackneyed,” said Dave Bond, a longtime journalist who met Peak in 1978 and who sometimes filed stories for The Spokesman-Review from the Snakepit. “It’s always been kind of a sacred place.”
But for the first time in forever, the future of the Snakepit – established 1880 – is in doubt. Buffeted by health problems and the lousy economy, the Peaks have closed the doors – with the exception of the bar on Thursdays, to maintain the “continuous operation” the resort needs to qualify for its liquor license. Both are suffering from cancer; Rose Mary is now in hospice care in her daughter’s Coeur d’Alene home. He’s 65; her 65th birthday is Friday.
Joe describes the decision as taking a step back, and he hopes someone might buy the place. Tuesday morning, over breakfast by the fire at the Snakepit, he talked about the burdens of running the place constantly, about the family’s commitment to the Silver Valley community, about the dream they kept deferring – the dream of selling the place, spending time with their grandchildren, living a “normal life.”
“Coulda, woulda, shoulda,” Joe said.
The Peaks themselves have been stalwarts in the community, from promoting the region to grand-marshaling parades to agitating for legislation in Boise. Joe writes a regular column in the Shoshone News-Press. Rose Mary played piano in the Sixth Street Melodrama in Wallace – in fact, she delayed her last round of chemotherapy to perform in the final show of the season, Joe said.
Joe and Rose Mary raised three kids – “Father Jimmy,“ an Army chaplain; Jacque, an insurance agent; and Andy, a truck driver. They have four grandkids, ages 10 months to 6. Though Joe was subdued and saddened Tuesday over the course of a long conversation, it was while talking about the grandchildren and his wife that his emotions overtook him.
“I think that’s the saddest part,” Joe said, pressing a hand over his eyes. “She won’t get to see the kids grow up.”
The Snakepit has been home to a lot of the Silver Valley’s fabled rough history, from prostitution to murder to fires of unknown origin. Perhaps the most frequent under-the-table activity was what Joe calls “bootlegging” – the selling of unlicensed hard liquor.
The woman who sold the bar to the Peaks, the colorful Josie Bates, had an annual tradition more or less worked out with the liquor agent, Joe said: She’d get caught selling liquor, take a month’s closure as punishment, and head off to Mexico for weeks of February sun, returning with velvet paintings of Elvis.
When Peak moved from Alaska and bought the place with a partner in 1978, Bates insisted that they keep the spirit of the Snakepit intact – requiring contractually that they not sell off the décor or change the menu.
“We’d keep Rocky Mountain oysters on the menu,” he said. “That was part of it.”
Those were the glory days of the old Silver Valley. Silver prices were high. Work in the mines and the woods was plentiful. They were boom times for a bar owner, but not for long. Metals prices dropped; mines closed. In 1981, Bunker Hill – “Uncle Bunker” – shut down, and not long afterward a big chunk of the valley was declared a Superfund site. The Silver Valley went through a crushing depression, and painful, slow evolution toward a tourist-based recreation economy.
Though the Snakepit remained essentially unchanged, the Peaks were ambassadors and missionaries for a new Silver Valley. Despite the gaudy outlaw history of the place, Joe always saw it as a family resort; with the arrival of new biking trails and a surge of fishermen, hikers and other outdoor recreationists, the crowds in the Snakepit changed.
Meanwhile, the iconic stature of the Snakepit grew. The filmmakers of “Dante’s Peak” shot scenes there. A Boston Globe reporter, in a 1995 series on America’s cultural diversity, wrote about the Snakepit in the wake of the Ruby Ridge standoff as emblematic of Idaho’s spirit: a combination of neighborliness and orneriness.
As for the off-the-books liquor, that was a tradition the Peaks carried over, as well – at least until Joe helped push through a change that allowed the Snakepit to finally get a liquor license in 1990.
Five years ago, Joe was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood disease similar to leukemia. He’s outlived the average, but the illness takes its toll in fatigue and other ways. In February, he had a stem-cell transplant – at the same time, Rose Mary was hospitalized for treatment of endometrial cancer.
Then, for a while, “we thought things were going pretty doggone good.”
But a PET scan this winter showed that Rose Mary’s cancer had spread throughout her body.
“It was all over,” he said.
The Peaks’ plans for the Snakepit are written in erasable ink on a whiteboard in front of the lodge. Closed for now. Little is known, nothing is certain. Except this: The history of this region lives in places like the Snakepit, in the spots where people have gathered for a hundred years, for whiskey or ice cream, a burger or a joke, a red light or a warm fire.
“You’re not a member of the Inland Northwest,” Joe Peak said, justifiably, “unless you’ve been to the Snakepit.”