A town like Wallace

A manhole marks Idaho's "centre of the universe".
A manhole marks Idaho's "centre of the universe". Photo: Alamy

Elspeth Callender sips a huckleberry shake and joins the Idaho townsfolk celebrating a tiny haven of eccentricity.

Wallace, Idaho, is the centre of the universe. Until someone can scientifically disprove it, the 784 residents will continue to annually celebrate the fact around the manhole at the main intersection of town. "We're all odd ducks here," the Prime Minister tells me on my first evening in town. "If we were normal, we'd be somewhere else."

It's September and mild enough to dine on the footpath near the smokehouse's southern-style barbecue. The forested valley walls rise steeply around us and, after a long slow dusk, downtown Wallace begins to glitter and glow.

Prime Minister Rick Shaffer is a tall, energetic blond in his mid-50s. We are joined by a wan young man fresh from the neighbouring state of Washington and a messy divorce who is obsessed with yoghurt-covered pretzels - another odd duck. Over a pulled-pork dish, Philadelphia-born Shaffer tells us everything he knows about this town he's called home for 20 years. In 1884, a Colonel Wallace, who wasn't actually a colonel, staked his claim and built a cabin in the swampy cedar forest and called it Placer Centre. His wife became the first postmistress in a town of 14, soon renamed Wallace. Coeur d'Alene was on its way to becoming the world's richest silver district. Before long the town of Wallace had a saloon, school, narrow-gauge railroad, plank footpaths, banditry, shoot-outs, bordellos and roving card sharps such Wyatt Earp.

In 1890 a fire started in the flue of the Central Hotel and the whole business district - all wooden buildings - and pretty much the rest of town burnt down.

Rebuilding was consciously done in brick and in 1910, when a huge forest fire swept through this narrow valley, only a third of the town was lost. Shaffer cites Lana Turner's birth in the local hospital in 1921, then jumps forward more than half a century to the building of the country's longest highway stretching 5000 kilometres, from Boston to Seattle. I wonder why he thinks we want to hear about some old road, then realise he's leading up to Wallace's second significant act of resistance, and one that has forged the town's collective consciousness.

Wallace fought construction of the Interstate 90 through its centre by placing the entire downtown on the National Register of Historic Places. After holding up completion of the I-90 for 17 years a compromise was finally reached, but in the meantime Wallace got on a roll. Now virtually the whole town is on that register and any new shop-front business must comply with a strict set of aesthetic rules. "There will never be a Starbucks or a McDonald's here," Shaffer says, waving to some locals chugging down the main street on quad bikes, which the council allows and even advertises on its list of 89-plus things to do here (in winter it's snowmobiles). I'm beginning to notice that Wallace makes delicious mincemeat of the numerous stereotypes we hold about modern America. There are no police here, just a county sheriff. This town is so darned sweet, even the port-a-loos are branded Honey Bucket. "It's so weird," the man from Washington says. "It's like everyone who lives here has found home." He looks like he can't wait for that to happen to him, too, as we get up to leave.

The following morning I've got time before meeting Shaffer for a walking tour of town and stop into Angie's Hub at Vintage Games. While Angie makes me a huckleberry shake, I ask if she was born here. "Nope," she tells me, looking happy, "I actively went in search of 'small town America' and just kept coming back to Wallace."

Shaffer meets me at the universe's midpoint and we go from there. Sitting in the town's spaceship, I ask how he became PM and he tells me it began as a joke to a tour group back in 1993. Introducing himself as the US's only prime minister got such a good response he just kept using it. Twelve years later the council made it official and awarded him the city charter. He grins at me across the capsule: "In Wallace, anyone can be anything."

FAST FACTS

Getting there United Airlines flies direct from Sydney to San Francisco with connections to Spokane, Washington. Hire a car from the airport to drive the final 126 kilometres on the I-90 East.

Staying there Stardust Motel is on the cheap and cheerful end from $US60 ($57.70) a night, 410 Pine Street, +1 208 752 1213, stardustmotelidaho.com. Alternatively, Beale House B&B is a charming historic home that isn't into children, from $US170/night, 107 Cedar Street, +1 208 752 7151, wallace-id.com/bealehouse.html.

Touring there Rick Shaffer leads walking tours, driving tours, biking, hiking, ziplining and will even collect you from the airport. Price to be negotiated on booking, +1 800 643 2386, rshaffer@cebridge.net.

While there

Oasis Bordello Museum is a now-disused brothel frozen in time, 605 Cedar Street, +1 208 753 0801, $US5.

Hire a bike and cycle the Idaho-Montana back-country Route of the Hiawatha. See ridethehiawatha.com.

Cheer the hero, boo the villain and throw popcorn at a Sixth Street Theatre melodrama, 212 Sixth Street. See sixthstreetmelodrama.com.

 

The writer was a guest of Idaho Tourism.

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