Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dugout Dick: An update

I had a wholly unsatisfactory meeting with the folks at the Bureau of Land Management's Salmon Field Office on Monday, though I can't say the results of the meeting were unexpected.

To their credit, three BLM managers and one retired manager were at the meeting, all eager to explain why it was necessary to destroy the Dugout Dick site. My friend, Laurel Sayer, who is Congressman Mike Simpson's No. 1 Idaho staffer, also made the trip, which I thought was amazingly thoughtful.

The BLM folks were very polite, though it was clear my earlier posts and emails had agitated them. I completely understand why that would be so. They showed me a PowerPoint presentation about the process they followed before deciding to destroy the dugouts. As I have written before, I suspect they are right when they say that all proper procedures were followed. I also continue to believe that the destruction of the site represents a failure.

Of course, nothing can be done about it now. The BLM plans to do some kind of interpretive site adjacent to the one remaining structure -- a cabin Dick built below the road that leads to the site of his dugouts higher on the hill. It's a good site, with a view to Dick's orchard and plenty of space for parking. Sadly, words, pictures and diagrams will be all there is to tell the story.

As these things tend to go, I volunteered to help, starting with writing the text for the interpretive area (a draft follows) and looking for some money to help speed the process. I'm going to be contacting the Idaho Transportation Department, the Idaho Historical Society and the Idaho Community Foundation (I'm on the Eastern Idaho Advisory Council for the latter) about grants and other assistance.

It's not a satisfactory outcome. We have failed to adequately preserve an important piece of Idaho history, and the spirit, if not the letter, of the National Historic Preservation Act was violated. The best we can do now is to mitigate the damage. What a shame.
During his 63 years living "off the grid" in his hand-made cabins and caves above the Salmon River, Richard "Dugout Dick" Zimmerman (1916-2010) came to symbolize the Idaho hermit -- men (and a few women) who eked out lonely existences in the mountains and canyons of Idaho's wilderness.
Arriving in Idaho in 1937 from the Midwest, Dick did a variety of odd jobs before serving in World War II. He came permanently to the Salmon River in 1947 when he made himself a small “dugout” home in the side of the mountain, and here he was to stay for more than six decades. Over the years he continued to dig, building one dugout after another – some going more than 60 feet into the hillside. He made ingenious use of junk-yard doors and windows, sometimes using disposed car windshields in place of traditional windows.

His fame grew after he was featured in magazines like National Geographic and Smithsonian, and many television programs. With the emergence of the Internet, many of the stories and televisions segments done about Dick became more widely available to a worldwide audience.
Dick’s ingenuity extended beyond his dugouts. He grew an orchard on the flat between his dugouts and the Salmon River and attached a rope from his hillside home to bells on the trees, which he used to scare birds away from the fruit. He made his own yogurt from goat’s milk and stinging nettle, saying that his stomach couldn’t handle “boardinghouse food.”
As he became more famous, he earned money by giving tours of his complex and by renting some of his dugouts to others. He would often entertain visitors by playing his old guitar and singing his unique version of folk music, much of which he had picked up while riding the rails as a hobo in the 1930s. Recordings of some of these performances can still be found on the Internet.
Dick didn’t own the land where he built his dugouts – he began essentially as a squatter. Eventually, the Bureau of Land Management gave Dick a lifetime lease on the land, with the understanding that it would return to BLM oversight upon his death. By the 1980s, Dick’s dugouts had become a local landmark, easily visible from the highway across the Salmon River.
The dugouts had no electricity or plumbing to speak of. He received a small trickle of water from a spring through some small tubing, and he had a single light that was powered by a solar battery. The larger dugouts would maintain a fairly constant temperature through the year, though he would often use a woodstove on particularly cold nights. He used one of his dugouts adjacent to the county road as a “natural deep freeze,” where its naturally cold temperature would help preserve food. He accessed the dugouts on the hillside via a series of switchback trails he laboriously cut into the slope.
As he grew older and more infirm, he had to endure a number of stays in nursing homes, but he always agitated to get out and back to his dugouts. Toward the end of his life, he left a Salmon care center, walking and hitchhiking back to his home on the river, where he died some days later on April 22, 2010 at 94 years of age. By that time, many of the dugouts had become unsafe and the BLM decided to block access to the site while a decision was made about its future. It was ultimately decided the dugouts would be destroyed out of public safety concerns. One of Dick’s homes, the cabin below the county road at this site, would be preserved.
Even as he grew frail, he enjoyed giving tours of his homes, proudly pointing out clippings about him from newspapers and magazines, many dating back decades. He remained fiercely independent and proud of the life he had scratched out of a lonely Salmon River mountainside. A true iconoclast, he was in many ways the last of his breed. He was buried in Illinois, where members of his extended family still live.

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