With all due respect to Thomas Wolfe, it appears you can go home again.
Consider the strange case of Col. William Ross Wallace, who has returned to the North Idaho town he founded – in the form of his tombstone.
“William R. Wallace,” reads the carved gray granite marker under a crest. “Died Nov. 16, 1901. Aged 67 years. A native of Kentucky.”
No doubt about it, observed Jamie Baker, “Wallace should be in Wallace. He was the very first to come and try to get rich up here. Wallace was the first to do it.”
The decorated Civil War veteran also left Wallace with some pretty hard feelings, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Baker is a longtime friend and fellow Ferris High School bandmate of mine. Go Saxons!
He also operates the Red Light Garage, a landmark Wallace restaurant, with his wife, Barbara. A lover of Silver Valley lore, Baker is one of the key players in today’s rather offbeat graveyard docu-drama.
Last month, Baker embarked on an odyssey to Southern California, where he retrieved the 1-ton slab from a collector who had saved it from an uncertain fate.
For the time being, the Wallace headstone was laid rather unceremoniously to rest under a rumpled tarpaulin, just across the street from the Red Light.
But save the date, June 24.
On that day, Wallace’s tombstone will be installed permanently near the entrance of the Northern Pacific Depot Railroad Museum as part of a major festival saluting the town’s namesake.
“Shine or rain, we plan to have the biggest parade since Teddy Roosevelt came here in 1903,” said Baker, who already has lined up Civil War re-enactors, a motorcycle club, high school bands, military and police escorts, civic groups, and even Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd impersonators. (Anyone wanting to join the fun should call Baker at (509) 435-3005 or the Wallace Chamber of Commerce at (208) 753-7151.)
This is sure to be a blowout. Even more so when you understand all the luck and circumstances that had to fit perfectly together in order to get the Wallace marker here.
The tale begins with Tony Bamonte, a Spokane writer of local history books and Wallace native.
In 2010, Bamonte and his wife, Suzanne, were researching material for a book on the “1883 gold rush to the Coeur d’Alenes” when they stumbled upon the unhappy story of what happened to Wallace’s final resting place.
After his death in 1901, Wallace was buried in Whittier, California, and there he should have remained in perpetuity.
That lasted until progress got in the way in 1967. According to Bamonte, the city of Whittier declared two aged cemeteries as nuisances “due to lack of upkeep and use.”
Wallace had been buried in one of these cemeteries, although there’s some debate over exactly which one.
The important point is that all the vintage headstones, some 2,300 of them, were removed and stacked “in vacant lots and on state and city property,” Bamonte said.
“Sadly, the gravestones were now separated from the people they were intended to honor and represent.”
Among the dead was you-know-who.
Flash forward to 2016. Bamonte relayed the story about Wallace to Chuck King, a friend and fellow history buff.
The Spokane man began to hatch an idea. Wouldn’t it be cool to try to track down the tombstone and get it to Wallace?
After some calls, King discovered that four semiloads of headstones had been hauled away by Dale Bybee, an antique collector from nearby Acton, California.
The electrical construction worker then arranged the tombstones on his property to look just like a real graveyard. Controversy erupted when Bybee was accused of building a “fake cemetery” as a ploy to stop a proposed high-speed rail project across his acreage.
Bybee doesn’t deny it. He added, however, that he did what he did to “draw attention to the state trying to take my property.”
He also pointed out that “most people who are collectors really like history.”
As luck would have it, King finally contacted Bybee and discovered that the Acton man did, indeed, have Wallace’s headstone.
It took a few more phone calls. But Bybee eventually saw the value in giving the marker to Wallace.
“You can’t put a price on that stone,” he said. “It’s cool to be part of history instead of being on the sidelines.”
And so the Bakers made their plans for a lengthy road trip. They drove to Mesa, Arizona, where Silver Valley businessman Forest Van Dorn spends his winters.
Barbara stayed behind while Baker and Van Dorn, who operates F&H Mine Supply, drove Van Dorn’s Dodge pickup to Acton.
The tombstone was loaded into the truck with a forklift. Back in Mesa, Van Dorn let Baker drive his rig to Wallace with Barbara following.
Baker said he carried a letter of explanation about the unusual cargo in case he got stopped.
Some 3,400 miles later, the Bakers arrived back home. “Perfect weather all the way down and back,” said Baker. “It was almost like Wallace was looking out for us.”
It was a much better return for the town patriarch than the way he left.
Wallace, explained Bamonte, had come into North Idaho’s “bustling 1883 gold rush area.” He founded Placer Center, which was named Wallace in his honor in 1885.
He worked hard developing his town until 1889, said Bamonte, when he was swindled out of his property.
“Land-claim jumping was a common occurrence at that time and was taking place on a regular basis throughout the Coeur d’Alenes,” he said.
About the same time Wallace’s marriage to his second wife, Lucy, blew up.
There’s no way to know, but it’s a good guess that Wallace exited his town with a lot of hard and bitter feelings.
“His life was just crap,” Bamonte said. “He was screwed over. He was maligned. But he was a hardworking and decent person.”
And now Wallace, who was wounded twice while fighting for the Union during the Civil War, is getting the hero’s welcome that he deserves.
“I think Wallace would be glad to be coming back in a different light,” added Bamonte.
“I think it’s great. There’s a different attitude for him now. Circumstances are different and the people want him back.”