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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Oakley

Friday, January 11, 2019  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Oakley's Historic Main Street

Oakley is located in a beautiful high-desert valley named Goose Creek. Irrigated farms with lush fields of potatoes, wheat, barley and alfalfa surround the city. The Sawtooth National Forest borders the valley on the east and west.

The Albion Mountain Range, which rises to over 10,000 feet, is on the east. To the southwest, mountains rise to over 8,000 feet. Fifteen miles to the southeast are the City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park. The city of Burley is 21 miles north.

Historic Tidbits

For centuries, American Indians—primarily of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes—migrated through what is now Oakley. In the early 1800s trappers/explorers traveled the land around the nearby Snake River and its tributaries in search of beaver pelts.

In 1834 the Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Hall, a trading post just north of what is now Pocatello.

In 1841 the first overland immigrant wagon train to Oregon passed through Fort Hall before turning northwest toward the original Fort Boise near what is now Parma. This was the beginning of the Oregon Trail.

In 1843 Joseph Walker led an immigrant wagon train to California. Walker’s wagon train turned off the Oregon Trail at Fort Hall and traveled southwest to the City of Rocks before proceeding on to California. The trail that the Walker party blazed became the California Trail.

During the period of the California gold rush, 1849 to 1860, an estimated 200,000 immigrants passed through the City of Rocks on the California Trail—five times as many as traveled the Oregon Trail.

In 1862 prospectors discovered gold in the Boise Basin. The next year 16,000 people converged on the Boise Basin gold fields. For several years, the Malad Valley—80 miles east of Oakley—became the principal corridor for freight and passenger wagons between Utah and Boise.

In 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad connected at Promontory Point at the north end of the Great Salt Lake. The town of Kelton, Utah—now a ghost town located about 40 miles southeast of Oakley—became a train depot for transferring freight and passengers between the railroad and the freight wagons and stagecoaches headed north.

In the same year, John Halley opened a stagecoach route from Kelton to Boise and beyond. The road, called Kelton Road, passed to the west of the City of Rocks, north through what is now Oakley, then northwest to Rock Springs near what is now Twin Falls and on to Boise.

In 1870 Halley opened a stagecoach station near what is now Oakley and employed a man named William Oakley as station manager.

At the time Halley opened his station, ranchers from Texas and Colorado began bringing herds of cattle into the valley to graze in the meadows and foothills.

In April 1879 William C. Martindale led a group of men from Grantsville and Tooele, Utah, into Goose Creek Valley to assess the valley’s suitability for homesteading. Settlers arriving the following year described the valley as covered with vegetation and teeming with wildlife. Antelope, deer, mountain sheep, moose, elk, bear and mountain cats were in abundance. The settlers filed their homestead and water right claims and immediately began building log homes and shelters as well as irrigation canals and ditches into which they diverted water from Goose Creek.

The settlers were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ or Church). They named their community Goose Creek Crossing and formed a branch of the church by the same name. They planted alfalfa, wheat and barley and ran herds of sheep and cattle. They held their first schools in private homes.

The freight wagon and stage line through the valley fueled the area’s economy. Local farmers and ranchers used freight wagons to ship their commodities to the prospectors and miners in the Boise Basin and, later, to the miners working the silver and lead ore discovered in the Wood River Valley.

In 1882 the citizens of Goose Creek Crossing platted a town site and applied to postal authorities for a post office housed in the stagecoach station office. However, they submitted the name of the stage station manager and proposed postmaster, Oakley, as the name of the Post Office. As a practical matter, with all mail delivered to Oakley, that also became the name of the town.

The next year, a group of citizens constructed the two-story Oakley Co-op building from stone.

In 1895 members of the Church began construction of the Oakley Tabernacle—completed in 1901. The tabernacle was the center of community activity. They not only used the building for church meetings, but musical programs, public meetings, funerals and graduations as well.

By the end of the 1890s, Oakley entrepreneurs had four brick kilns. George Bunn owned one of these brickyards. Bunn learned the brick making and brick mason trades before emigrating from England. However, in Oakley, Bunn did not have peat moss to fire his kiln. By experimenting, Bunn learned that quaking aspen wood burned at about the same temperature in the brick kilns as peat moss.

Joseph Beck, another early settler, was a mason’s apprentice in Germany. He came to America at age 14 as a stowaway on a ship. He rode trains cross-country to Minidoka, Idaho. There he met an Oakley family who invited him to live with them. Beck developed his talents to design and built many Oakley buildings.

Bunn, Beck and other talented builders designed buildings using late Victorian architectural design. Many of these homes and business buildings still stand, making Oakley a historically distinctive community.

In 1896 Oakley became an incorporated village with an appointed board. The first election for village officers took place April 19, 1897.

At the time of incorporation, Oakley was the trading center for the greater Goose Creek Valley area. The town had hotels, general stores, drugstores, a furniture store, implement houses, a bank and numerous other buildings. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had also built a normal school—the Cassia Stake Academy—as well as a hall used for church meetings. By the 1910 census, the city had grown to 911.

Cattle and Sheep Rancher Conflicts

In February 1886 one of the first of a few deadly conflicts in Idaho between cattle and sheep ranchers happened near Oakley. A young sheep man named Gobo Fango was the first victim. In 1861 Fango, a black orphan child from South Africa, came to America with Mormon converts who befriended and educated him. At age 23 in 1879, he traveled with friends from Utah to Oakley. There he became a partner in a small sheep-ranching enterprise.

Sheep ranching had become a major agricultural business in Southwestern Idaho. In those frontier days, federal and state grazing laws were largely non-existent. Grazing rights became a sharp point of contention between cattle and sheep ranchers. Cattle ranchers claimed that since they started grazing their animals first, they should receive preference to the public land. The sheep ranchers disagreed.

In the absence of federal law, the Idaho Territorial Legislature passed the "Two-mile Limit Law," that essentially supported the cattlemen’s claim. The Act made it a misdemeanor to graze sheep within two miles of a cattleman’s grazing claim. Federal law prohibited fencing public lands, making the Law impractical to interpret or enforce.

In early February 1886 Fango was with his sheep when two cattlemen approached and accused him of grazing his sheep within the two-mile limit. They pistol whipped Fango and shot him three times. They then rode to the sheriff in Albion to report the shooting, claiming self-defense.

Fango did not die immediately. He crawled four and a half miles to his former benefactor’s house in Oakley with a terrible stomach wound where a bullet entered his back and came out through his intestines. He lived about five days, enough time to give his dying testimony of the shooting and prepare a will leaving his money and possessions to several of his friends and the Church.

Fango’s murder trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial concluded with the same result. His grave marker in the Oakley Cemetery reads: "Gobo Fango, died February 10, 1886, 30 years old."

Also buried in the Oakley Cemetery are two other sheepherders—Daniel Cummins and Don Wilson. In 1896 they were herding sheep in the area when they were shot and killed. The trial of their accused murderer—Jackson Lee "Diamondfield Jack" Davis—was one of Idaho’s most famous murder trials. Davis, an employee of cattle ranching interests, had previous involvement in other hazing and shooting incidents involving sheepherders.

The jury found Davis guilty and sentenced him to hang. However, before authorities carried out the sentence, two men confessed to the crime and claimed self-defense—the story of one corroborating the other. Their trial ended in acquittal. Davis was eventually pardoned.

In 1905 Congress passed law establishing grazing permits as the means of allowing access to federal public lands for grazing. In 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act that further clarified federal grazing law.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The Oakley City Park lies near the center of town. This two-acre park has several old-growth trees, a children’s playground and a picnic area. A public swimming pool is adjacent to the park.

The city also has a public library, an RV park and a mineral Hot Springs resort located four miles outside of town. The Oakley Valley Historical Museum has exhibits and artifacts dating back to the time of the first settlers.

The Oakley Valley Arts Council sponsors theatrical productions and a Christmas concert at the historic Howells Opera House.

Each July, the city celebrates its pioneer heritage and the nation’s independence with a parade, followed by a "Pony Express Race;" the Goose Creek Run-off; a rodeo; and, at City Park, a Dutch oven cook-off, deep pit barbecue, "gymkhana" for the kids and a spectacular fireworks display.

The city has many historic privately owned late Victorian architecture homes made from brick and stone elaborately detailed with wood design and carvings. Some homes incorporate Queen Anne and Gothic styles. The oldest building is the two-story Oakley Co-op constructed in1883. The City commemorates its building heritage each June by sponsoring the Historic Oakley Home tour.

The first Sunday and Monday of December the city’s Arts Council sponsors an annual Christmas Concert.

The city has over 100 historic buildings, a number so great the entire city is a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 14,440-acre City of Rocks National Reserve is 15 miles southeast of Oakley. The 1,440-acre Castle Rocks State Park is adjacent to the Reserve. The entire 25-square-mile site is the remains of a prehistoric batholith that eroded leaving massive granite rock outcroppings that resemble cathedrals, towers, domes, walls and weird shapes that stimulate the imagination. Two of the highest rock formations, the "Twin Sisters," are 600 feet high.

Historically, the site was a campground for thousands of California Trail immigrants who began traveling through the area in 1843. Pioneer immigrants used axel grease to paint names and messages on the smooth rock. Many of these markings are still visible.

Today, thousands of tourists and both amateur and professional rock climbers from around the world come to climb the many technically difficult granite outcroppings.

In addition to rock climbing, the Reserve and Park amenities include hiking, picnicking, equestrian trails, wildlife viewing, Nordic skiing and photography. Wildlife includes mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, Sandhill crane, sage grouse and snipe.

Downhill skiing is available at the 8,700-foot Pomerelle Ski Area located 14 miles due east. The 7,200-foot-high Magic Mountain Ski Resort lies 20 miles due west. However, using hard surface roads, the two resorts are 44 and 63 miles distant, respectively.

The 814-acre Big Cottonwood Wildlife Management Area (WPA) is eight miles northwest of Oakley. The Big Cottonwood Creek intersects the property. The WPA provides habitat for over 95 species of upland birds.

Other outdoor amenities include camping, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, snowmobiling and ATV riding in the nearby forest and BLM lands as well as fishing and boating at Oakley Reservoir.

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