AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on the City of Declo
Friday, October 23, 2015
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
Declo lies on the fertile Snake River Plain 20 miles downriver from the Minidoka Dam. The dam diverts Snake River water to irrigate over 100,000 acres of farmland around Declo, Burley and several other Magic Valley communities. Fields of potatoes, beans, corn, grain, alfalfa and sugar beets—many irrigated from deep wells—surround the city with a patchwork of color and open space.
The Snake River flows near the city. The Albion Mountains, rising to over 7,000 feet, and the Sawtooth National Forest begin about eight miles south. Burley is eight miles west.
The community of Declo is a product of the agricultural development that followed construction of the Minidoka Hydroelectric Dam and the railroad.
The U.S. Reclamation Service—now the Bureau of Reclamation—built the Minidoka Dam under the 1902 Newlands Act. It constructed the dam on the Snake River 12 miles northeast of the city at a place called Little Rapids or Minidoka Rapids.
Construction of the dam started in 1904 and was completed in 1906. In 1905 the Minidoka and Southwestern Railroad Company, later acquired by the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL), built a line between the OSL main line at Minidoka and Buhl. Their line included building the bridge over the Snake River Canyon 10 miles west of Declo near Heyburn. Four years later, the dam began to produce electrical power for the area.
The Minidoka and Southwestern Railroad Company, formed in 1904, built branch lines from the main Oregon Short Line railroad to several Magic Valley communities. The railroad sought to serve the huge agriculture market created by the availability of irrigation water. The railroad reached Heyburn in 1907 and played a critical role in the development of that city.
The dam diverted water through a system of irrigation canals on both sides of the river. On the south side, which included the future town of Declo, the land was too high for the water to flow directly into the canals. Electrical pumping stations lifted the water into an elevated part of the south-side gravity flow canal system.
The dam provided the irrigation water that opened the arable land around Declo to development. The railroad came close enough to Declo to provide the transportation of freight, mail and passengers needed to support the growing community.
This almost magical transformation of the western Snake River Plain from a barren sagebrush-covered terrain to an agricultural oasis prompted R.S. Tofflemire, publisher of the Twin Falls News, to coin the term "Magic Valley" to describe the productive region.
The public demand for homestead land in the Minidoka Project area outstripped expectations. On April 23, 1904, the project was approved and homesteaders began filing on the land even though water and power would not be available for a few years.
The Twin Falls News reported on December 23, 1904, "Farm houses on the Minidoka tract...are still going up like mushrooms, upwards of 300 already having been erected." By the spring of 1905 homesteaders had filed on most of the project land on both sides of the river.
The Reclamation Service had set aside land for three town sites on the north side of the river but had not provided for a town site on the south side until, as part of the Minidoka Project in 1909 and 1910, they platted a town named Marshfield after nearby Marsh Creek.
The work of transforming the arid land into an agricultural oasis was arduous. In preparing for the life-giving irrigation water, the settlers cleared the sagebrush by dragging an iron railroad rail between two teams of horses. Then they had to level the land so it could be flood irrigated. They built and maintained irrigation ditches that moved the water from the canals to the fields which had to be plowed, harrowed, leveled, diked and planted. As soon as the plants emerged from the ground they had to shift their attention to protecting their crops from hoards of jackrabbits, grasshoppers, crickets and foraging wild game.
On January 12, 1920, Marshfield became an incorporated village. However, when the citizens applied for a post office, postal authorities denied their request. The Marshfield name was either too long or too common. If they wanted a post office, they would have to come up with a different name. Unable to reach agreement, the name-change committee decided to wait at the general store, take the first letter of the last name of the next five persons coming through the door and organize the letters into the town’s new name. The first five people were Dethlefs, Engstrom, Cooley, Lewis and Olsen. They constructed and approved the name of "DECLO." It was truly a community name.
From Humble Beginnings...an Entrepreneur Emerges
The parents of two-year-old J.R. "Jack" Simplot, the future Idaho agricultural magnate, traded their home in Burley for an 80-acre farm in Marshfield in 1911. At that time, the farm had a one-room, dirt-roof cabin and was only partially cleared of sagebrush.
The Simplots built a home on the farm and purchased an adjoining 40-acre parcel that bordered Marsh Creek and included marshland that teamed with wildlife. That 40 acres would become the property on which young, eighth-grade educated Jack Simplot would launch a hog-raising business—the first in a long list of entrepreneurial ventures that would grow into a multi-billion-dollar empire and have a profound positive effect on the economy of Idaho and the world.
Amenities and Attractions Today
Declo has two city parks primarily used for picnics and family gatherings.
The city’s most important attribute is a strong community spirit. When there is a need, the community pulls together to get the job done. After several years of needing a new fire station and better accommodations for the city hall and the city’s public library which was housed in the front of a local butcher shop, the community came together to make the dream a reality. The city now has a new fire station which also houses the city hall. The old city hall building is now the public library.
Each year on the second Saturday in July the town celebrates Declo Days. Activities include an alumni breakfast, a parade, a flag-raising program, games, a barbeque lunch provided by the Lions Club and a gymkhana. The high school homecoming day becomes a community event in September with a parade and tailgate party before the football game. In December, it is "Christmas in the Declo Skies" including a chili supper and fireworks.
The Snake River and the nearby Sawtooth National Forest offer boating, fishing, hunting, hiking and other activities.
Pomerelle Ski Resort is about 20 miles south of the city near Albion. Its 8,000-foot elevation has an average snowfall of 500 inches, one of the heaviest in Idaho. The resort has 24 groomed trails and three chairlifts.
The City of Rocks National Reserve, 45 miles south of the city, has unique rock formations, some reaching 60 stories. Mountain climbers and visitors from around the globe visit the reserve. These high massive granite rock pillars are eroded remnants of a large batholith that erupted millions of years ago.
Near the national reserve is Castle Rocks State Park—a 1,240-acre historic ranch that offers excellent rock climbing, horseback riding, bird watching and hiking. California Trail pioneers used the City of Rocks as a rest stop. Their markings are still visible among these huge granite outcroppings. Oregon Trail wagon ruts can still be seen 11 miles west.