As K.C. got out and locked the car I grabbed my gear bag, slung it over my shoulder, lit a cigarette and looked around. Up the street was the local museum with the requisite wagon wheel and wheelbarrow propped up against the wall; across the street was a collection of figurines made by a chain saw sculptor and down the road was the River Grill where we had been told we could get fresh alligator steak. Except for the shiny Shell station and convenience store on the corner and the pavement which was Main Street, it was not hard to imagine this town a hundred years ago as it started changing from Idaho territory to Idaho State.
Putting the cigarette out, I walked up the steps into The Wilson Club and back in time. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could start to make out the inside of the bar. A dusty moose head on the wall, a pool table that had seen better days and calendars on the wall dating from 1904 – when this place first opened.
Settling onto a corner bar stool I spotted a guy behind the bar that must’ve been Bob. K.C. and I had been traveling all day and Bob — along with his wife Cindy – were to be our hosts for a night in Hagerman, Idaho.
As I watched Bob work I could tell he had been tending bar for awhile. Holding 4 long necks with one hand he deftly rang up some customers purchase and made change with the other, all at the same time holding up his side of some playful banter with some cowboy at the other end of the bar.
Looking at Bob closer I could almost see in him the original Marlboro man. Rough looking with the history of life written in lines across his face, Bob continued to serve up the beer, collect the money and never let a smile leave his face.
When he finally got a break in between serving up the suds, Bob came over and introduced himself and apologized for not having spoken to me sooner. Assuring him that it wasn’t a problem; I understood he was busy and he nodded and told me in about 15 minutes he’d have time to visit.
As I waited I noticed K.C. was busy chatting with someone at the bar, so I got up and wandered around. For a moment it seemed like I was back in the American History Museum of the Smithsonian in D.C. with an exception. These items on display were not in sterile display exhibits with glass on the front and signs reminding people “Do Not Touch”. These objects were real, used, living pieces of Americana. A saddle here. An old fashioned crank phone there. An early hand powered plow in the corner and a 1920s Coke machine along that wall. Everything was free to touch and examine.
Word apparently spread quickly that there was a photographer “from back east” in the building, because someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would take some photographs of Mae blowing out the candles on the birthday cake. Nodding I smiled and got the gear dialed in.
After getting the requisite photos of a typical birthday party – cake, candles, singing – I settled back into my bar stool. Mae came over, sat beside me and thanked me for the photos and then told me her story.
Mae turned 85 that day. She had worked as a bartender at The Wilson Club for almost fifty years. While Mae had never smoked, being in the bar for that many years her lungs had become like those of a two pack a day smoker. But she couldn’t retire.
Despite being 85 years old, she was still working part time because Social Security wasn’t enough to live on and she had never made enough money to contribute to a 401(k) plan. As she talked and told me her story I was struck by the fact that she didn’t share her story with a “woe-is-me” tone in her voice. She just told it straightforward and factually, not looking for sympathy. As she talked I listened and thought about the politician back in Boise that said everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. That ‘publican just isn’t in touch with reality.
While Mae and I were chatting, a tall slender man walked up to her. With manners that haven’t been around since the 1930s, he bowed deeply at the waist and asked her if he could have this dance.
As I smiled to myself thinking about this lady being “picked up” in a bar, Bob told me the guy was her husband and they had been married about 70 years. He was now 92 years old and still had a small garden patch at home where he grew watermelons and cantaloupe to sell because Social Security just wasn’t enough to live on.
To see more photos from my visit to Hagerman with K.C. Hunt, click here.