ROGERSON — She remembers the red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the homemade sandwiches and the desks pushed to the edges of the room.
Anita Young’s face brightens as she describes the Saturday evening dances at the old Rogerson schoolhouse. While she was only about 5 years old when the building closed, the memories are strong enough to bring tears to her eyes.
“It was embedded in my mind,” she said. “It was so cool. Everyone would come in their best bib and tucker.”
The dilapidated schoolhouse has sat empty for about 50 years but it will soon undergo a major restoration to convert it into a community center. It’s one of several projects on the horizon for Julia Oxarango-Ingram, director of Southern Idaho Rural Development.
By helping to preserve history in some of the region’s most remote places, she hopes to not only bring joy to their residents, but to encourage Idaho’s visitors to step off the beaten path.
Southern Idaho Rural Development is working in collaboration with Southern Idaho Tourism and historic preservation groups to bring her dream to life. Their plan for rural development and tourism would mean restoring historical structures in small towns, mapping out paths for people to explore the area, and creating places that will meet visitors’ needs.
“Hopefully we can put some of these places back on the map again,” Oxarango-Ingram said.
Pooling together resources can take more time in rural communities, she said — but it’s still worth it.
Mapping out routes
As the executive director of Southern Idaho Tourism, Melissa Barry’s job is to provide resources to visitors throughout a seven-county region. But she’s seen little collaboration between various groups to highlight, in one place, all the area’s biking and hiking paths.
“We have so many things here, but to access them is difficult,” she said.
Her organization will begin mapping these routes out on a single platform this spring. The maps will show existing roads and trails that people can access and with what mode of transportation. Users will be able to find these maps online and download them onto their phones, Barry said. The maps will have filters on them so visitors can pinpoint their search to a specific location or interest.
From a tourism standpoint, Barry has noticed that there seems to be growing enthusiasm for rural history.
“Off the beaten path is definitely on the trend,” she said.
Other popular tourist destinations — such as Balanced Rock and Thousand Springs Park — can increase interest in small towns like Castleford or Hagerman.
Barry believes the first maps could be completed as early as this summer.
Oxarango-Ingram would like to see a historical route lead bicyclists through Hollister, Rogerson and Three Creek, using roads that already exist. She’d work with other groups to track down the history of these places and put up signage at points of interest.
Another route could lead people to different hot springs in Idaho and Nevada or show a rural visitor how to ride their bike from one trail to the next — with stops for food along the way.
“It’s kind of amazing the possibilities when you start thinking of all the things out here you could highlight,” Oxarango-Ingram said. “Suddenly, it’s not out in the middle of nowhere anymore.”
Once people come to rural areas, it’s important to have the amenities to keep them there longer, she said. Small towns are already suited to meet some of these needs, but one trend she’d like to tap into is glamping — a type of modern, more luxurious or glamorous, camping.
One of the simplest ways to do this would be to create themed campgrounds just outside of towns like Rogerson, Three Creek and Hollister. One of these places might reflect the area’s history with sheep by renting out more permanent tents.
But Southern Idaho Rural Development could also encourage town residents to lease out remodeled vintage trailers in a common location, she said. Oxarango-Ingram has already identified a couple of lots where this could work and the landowners might be amenable.
While ruins of historic buildings draw some interest, Oxarango-Ingram sees the best use as bringing a new purpose to these places. Southern Idaho Rural Development can assist small communities in the region by helping them find grant opportunities to fund these projects.
“These were community hubs at some point, and we’ve lost that,” she said.
The Rogerson schoolhouse already has a new roof, thanks in part to Southern Idaho Rural Development’s efforts and through fundraising in the community. Southern Idaho Rural Development is now collecting bids from contractors to complete the rest of the restoration.
Oxarango-Ingram also has her eye on projects in other cities. In Hollister, an old bank building has the potential to become apartments or a brewery. She is inspired by the work of the McMenamin brothers, who’ve remodeled historic buildings in Oregon and Washington into unique pubs.
“They’re saving historic buildings,” she said. But they’re making them destination places.”
Oxarango-Ingram has a natural talent for seeing beauty in the mundane. With the right resources, some old grain elevators in Hollister could become a historic attraction with a bike trail along the former railroad. The foundation of an old building in Rogerson could enclose a rose garden or a picnic area.
“Where the bulk of the town was, it’s kind of an empty lot right now,” she said, looking over some aging concrete in the middle of a field in Rogerson. “I’m really trying to get the story of what happened here.”
It took Oxarango-Ingram five years to pull together the resources for the Rogerson schoolhouse. In time, she thinks she can do a lot more.
The people of Rogerson have gotten more excited about the schoolhouse as time goes on. Volunteers pulled together to remove the pigeon poop that Young described as piled up to eyeball-level in the kitchen.
There’s still a lot of work to be done before the old building is fit for a community center, but Young recognizes the schoolhouse’s value. The Rogerson native owns and operates Rogerson Service and Helen’s Café, which hosted a Christmas fundraiser last year for 38 children in the area. The café serves as a hub in the community, but Young believes the schoolhouse could do much more.
Just as it used to, once upon a time, when children sat patiently in desks waiting for their turn on the dance floor. And while there was usually an alcohol-related brawl after the dance, she recalled, everyone would always make up the next day.
“So many things pull us apart,” Young said. “But when we have a community center, it pulls us together.”