By Ray Boren, Staff Writer – Deseret News
Published Nov. 16 1997
Verl Smith, dropping by to pick up his mail at the tiny post office he helped renovate from an old cabin, sports a cap that plugs neither John Deere nor the Utah Jazz. It says “Grouse Creek Golf and Country Club.”
He chuckles. “If we’ve got a golf and country club, it’s a secret – maybe the only secret we have. “Smith bought the hat at the co-op down the street, where manager Carol Kimber has donned for the day a green embossed pullover that also touts “Grouse Creek.” The facade of the small white general store informs customers that they’ve arrived at the Grouse Creek Co-op, but a hand-lettered sign dangling out front is more likely to catch your eye.
“Grouse Creek Mall,” it says, “Has it all.”
Actually, the co-op has nowhere near the cornucopia of your average suburban Smith’s or Albertsons, let alone a mall. But as cap, sweatshirt and hanging sign indicate, those who live and work in and near pastoral Grouse Creek, Utah, love their Frederic Remington Shangri-La of a ranching valley and depend in many ways upon the co-op.
But the little general store has been losing money for quite a while, says Patti Kimber, one of the five directors as well as Grouse Creek’s contract postmistress. “If we don’t sell it, we’ll probably have to close it, unless business picks up miraculously,” she says.
The struggling co-op is symptomatic of larger problems.
Grouse Creek, nestled among mountains in the extreme northwestern corner of the state – isolated and reachable only by unpaved roads – is declining in population and concerned about the possibility of losing not only its store but also the small school.
So, taking a cue from ambitious local governments and global powers alike, Box Elder County officials and the community’s citizens put their heads together and took what they decided was the next necessary step:
They organized an “economic development summit.”
Boon and bane
Besides its other problems, Grouse Creek has an outdated telephone relay, according to Art Brothers, owner of the Beehive Telephone Co. Beehive serves much of rural western Utah, among other pockets, and in the mid-1960s brought telephones to the remote valley. But until the company can replace the relay – which he hopes to do within six months (fiber optics are coming, too) – most of Grouse Creek cannot access the Internet.
Still, outsiders can track down information about the area via a Web site created by Alan Smith and Delma Smith at (www.grousecreek.com). They invite browsers to “the Grouse Creek Golf and Country Club.”
“Well, actually it isn’t a true country club,” the home page admits, “but it is a small rural community way out in the country. In fact there is probably more `COUNTRY’ in this club than any other country club you have ever known!”
The introduction includes a bit of history.
Lured by the creek-fed meadows, the first settlers, including brothers Valison and Alma C. Tanner, brought Tooele area cattle to Grouse Creek in 1875. A positive letter sent in 1877 to the Deseret News by Isaac Kimball attracted yet more people, and they founded a settlement originally called Cookeville.
Eventually, the renamed community of Grouse Creek and nearby Etna boasted a farm-and-ranch population of 400. Today fewer than 100 – Patti Kimber at the post office puts the number at 77 – live in the vicinity. Diane Tanner and Rob Beuker teach 23 students in grades kindergarten through 10 in the compact stone schoolhouse. Eleventh- and 12th-graders must go away to attend high schools in larger Utah and Idaho communities such as Malta, Oakley and Tremonton. At its peak the school corralled about 100 scholars.
And one of the first things you’ll notice upon meeting folks in Grouse Creek is that a great many share two surnames.
“We’re practically all Kimbers and Tanners,” notes Diane Tanner; they are branches on the family trees of settlers Charles Kimber and Valison Tanner.
The point is driven home when David Kimber stops by the co-op to fill two barrels with diesel fuel for a tractor. Carol Kimber, who has been sweeping in front of the store, has to go inside to turn on the pumps. Meanwhile, JoAnn Kimber, who drives the school bus, stops by to chat with Carol. Everyone, another woman notes later in the day, is related to everyone else “five different ways.”
Carol Kimber manages the store for the co-op – a “co-operative” of farmers and ranchers (only members can “charge” their purchases) – and is interested in buying it outright, though the directors feel her offer is too low so far. Running the place will always be a chore: Getting necessities like gasoline and diesel fuel trucked in and stocking items that people want and need are only a few of the challenges.
Indeed, there are gaps on the shelves, but you’ll find two boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios, one bottle of Visine, a tube of Ben-Gay, a selection of canned soups, vegetables and fruit as well as bread, milk, Jell-O and Doritos. Maybe the 40 black-plastic quart containers of 10W-30 oil say something more about what is and what is not a necessity in Grouse Creek. As do the few dozen rental videos on a high front shelf, with titles ranging from “Babe” to “Kickboxer 3.”
For many items, the co-op must shell out as much as anyone else in a larger community has to pay – and then the store must tack on the costs of getting them to town. Potential customers can also use mail-order catalogs, or head to larger towns to buy in bulk quantities.
The village’s post office (zip code: 84313) is a popular stop where people can pick up their mail, buy money orders and stamps – and send and receive packages. Catalog shopping booms around Christmastime, Patti Kimber says.
For day-to-day necessities, “A lot of people go to the Burley area to shop,” she says. “I go twice a month and buy as much as I can,” including such products as canned soups and bricks of cheese. The trips are often combined with other errands: appointments at the doctor or orthodontist, a stop to get the oil changed in the car.
Grouse Creek’s relative isolation is its great boon and its great bane.
The village is 20 miles off U-30, up an improved gravel road. The closest towns of even equal commercial note are Park Valley, 55 miles away on that state highway, and Montello, Nev., 40 miles southwest. Their stores can’t provide much more than the co-op. Snowville, on I-84 near the Utah-Idaho line, is 70 miles away.
When the road over the mountain is passable, such Idaho communities as Malta (75 miles to the north) and Burley (85 miles) are the principal metropolitan targets of the Kimbers, Tanners, Smiths and other residents of Grouse Creek.
The county seat, Brigham City, is 165 highway miles to the east. Wendover is 140 miles south-by-southwest. Salt Lake City is about 225 miles away.
As the crow flies, though, the state capital is only 125 miles off – over the Grouse Creek and Hogup mountain ranges and the most substantial barrier of all, the Great Salt Lake.
A future for Grouse Creek
The people of Grouse Creek say there aren’t really any homes for sale in the mountain valley. Those who inherit houses and cabins keep them in the family – they like to return for vacations and during the hunting season, when the population is said to pretty much double.
And, says Len R. Wooley, executive director of Box Elder County Economic Development, many of these far-flung ex-patriots would like to live in Grouse Creek year round. They’ve told him so, in visits and via letters. Others have approached him, worried that there simply won’t be a Grouse Creek in the future.
The concerns seem to have come to a head in recent months. Hence, the call for an economic development summit. Wooley dispatched letters inviting everyone to what would be, in essence, an old-fashioned New England-style town meeting in the old schoolhouse.
“Those whose lives are directly linked to the area through family, economic activity and ownership need to identify and prioritize the problems, needs and possible solutions,” he wrote. “We can’t decide what is important. You need to decide!”
And so, on a brisk early winter evening, about four dozen people – they listed their occupations as “rancher” and “schoolteacher” and “retired” on the sign-in sheets – sit down together; dine on a light buffet of Swedish meatballs and Buffalo wings, then divide into three smaller groups to brainstorm.
When Wooley urges them to send forms to Utah Job Service about their employment status, Julie Tanner notes, “I don’t think employment is the concern so much as `under-employment.’ ”
When others around him start tossing around ideas for a prison or cattle feedlot near the Lucin railroad sidings, Allen Tanner obliquely refers to a recent proposal to establish a nuclear waste dump in the area. Grouse Creek needs some sort of industry that can provide part-time jobs to those who need to supplement incomes from ranching, he agrees, but “something we hopefully won’t glow in the dark from after 30 years.”
Gradually, the discussion leaders fill up large sheets of paper with ideas and observations. The purple-marker lettering in one room makes the words pop out.
“Needs” is the heading atop one list, followed by “Jobs. People (400-plus). Keep kids here. Water conservation. Roads paved. Housing. Recreational opportunities.”
“Job possibilities,” says another: “Value-added agriculture. Recreational ranching. Better beef (niche marketing). Prison. Landfill (support jobs). Housing. Medical care. Food. Entertainment. Marketing.”
Among their assets, the people of Grouse Creek put forth the clean air, the full moon and visible stars – and their neighbors and pioneering legacy.
The evening’s instant posters slowly decorate the schoolhouse’s “big room.” One created earlier, hanging high on the wall, seems to hold a message particularly applicable to the evening’s efforts and to the people of Grouse Creek, Utah.
“Triumph,” it says, “is a great word but . . . it’s the first syllable that counts!”